The first half of the 2018 Formula 1 season, up to the summer break which started after the Hungarian GP, saw a ding-dong battle between Ferrari and Mercedes.
Both protagonists started the season with great cars, but Ferrari’s relentlessly aggressive development out-stripped the opposition’s, including Red Bulls.
Maranello’s first major push came in Montreal, where a spec-2 engine and a new floor plus heavily revised barge boards were introduced.
In the very next race, in France, Ferrari brought a new front wing as well. Silverstone saw further important developments to the floor plus the car’s rear bodywork.
In Hockenheim, Maranello also experimented with a revised arrangement of the turbo’s two wastegate pipes, positioning them above the exhaust (instead of one on either side), presumably to blow the rear wing for even greater V-max.
What did impress, though – and massively so – was the jump in straight-line speed of all six Ferrari-powered cars, including Haas and Sauber, after the installation of brand new MGU-K’s in Germany.
The power gain certainly established the SF71H as the star car of the 2018 season thus far, unless there is something illegal regarding Ferrari’s twin-battery set-up and the transfer of energy between MGU-K and MGU-H, all of it cleared, for the moment at least, by the FIA.
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The second half of the year will hopefully give definitive answers to those concerned, also regarding suspicions about Ferrari tyre vulnerability, especially on the SF71H’s outside front on hot, fast circuits; the pace car at Silverstone deprived us of an answer to this little unknown.
Mercedes, in the meantime, has done their utmost to keep up and succeeded briefly in pulling a gap via the introduction of their spec-2 engine in France, plus a big aero update in Austria.
Ferrari’s response in terms of sheer performance has, however, been devastating, the car now is a favourite at virtually every single F1 track, no matter whether it’s fast, medium or slow.
So, as we say goodbye to the first half of a thrilling and engrossing 2018 F1 season, Merc’s power advantage has been well and truly wiped out for the first time since the dawn of F1’s hybrid era.
In fact, they’re lagging, whilst Ferrari is soaring. But for how long? Tune in to the Belgium GP, when racing starts again at Spa, on 26 August. In the meantime, we look back at the technical highlights that have been rolled out, thus far, in 2018.
1. Ferrari philosophy
The biggest impact on the 2018 season has been exercised by a decision taken in early 2017 already when Maranello adopted Red Bull’s philosophy of a steeper rake for their as-yet-to-be-born 2018 challenger, the SF71H, whilst simultaneously stretching the car’s wheelbase a la Merc’s championship-winning mounts of the last couple of years.
Image: AFP / Andrej Isakovic
Apart from establishing an inherently more stable (if less agile) platform, the longer wheelbase creates more space for improved airflow, especially around the car’s bargeboard area, resulting in cleaner delivery to the rear wing plus accelerated air flow in the gap between the rear tyres and the diffuser.
For its part, the steeper rake creates a bigger underfloor pocket for the car to be sucked to the ground. Call it ground effects without skirts – although modern aero aggressively targets the creation of vortices, acting as skirts (see Section 3, “The Genius of Vortices”, in the soon-to-be-published Part 2 of this three-part series.)
2. Ferrari engine
The second most important development of the 2018 season has been Ferrari’s new V6 and, more specifically, the interplay between the ICU (internal combustion unit) and its hybrid system.
In developing SF71H, technical chief Corrado Iotti directed a special effort towards lifting the power train’s game in slow to medium speed corners, starting with a lighter turbo producing a greater boost in a shorter response time.
Yet, in Melbourne’s season opener the Ferraris were also quickest of all in a straight line. Terminal speed is not only a function of engine power; aero efficiency and wing set-up are of enormous importance, too.
In Baku, Ferrari’s V-max was 9km/h down on Merc and Red Bull’s, simply because of a heavily spoon-shaped rear wing to create more downforce around the track’s long twisty section.
In general, though, the SF71H has been the quickest car in a straight line, even before the first in-season engine update in Canada, where Vettel streaked away.
By the time Hockenheim rolled by, Ferrari’s gain on the straights – according to Mercedes – was 0.5 seconds per lap. That’s massive, and the question is: How does Ferrari do it?
Is it an ICU gain as such? And why the billows of smoke at start-up? Is Maranello seeping oil through the turbo, to be burned in the combustion chambers? What is the third (mini) paddle on Vettel’s steering wheel for?
Does the new-found power – with a clear jump since the installation of new MGU-K’s at Hockenheim – have anything to do with Ferrari’s twin-battery set-up? Is the MGU-K, for instance, powered off the MGU-H whilst excess energy is simultaneously being sent to the battery store?
Is Ferrari thus exploiting a loophole in terms of what Nico Rosberg calls ‘free energy’, so that battery energy is derating at a slow enough rate to have electrical boost left at the end of straights?
At Silverstone, for instance, Hamilton was quickest exiting Chapel onto the Hanger straight, but through the speed trap at the end of the straight, Raikkonen had The Hammer’s measure by 4 to 5km/h.
Even the FIA – with full access to the technology behind the Ferrari system – found it difficult to understand. “We kept on going through it, with Ferrari, because it’s very complex and a totally different system to anybody else’s,” says F1 race director, Charlie Whiting.
“The fundamental difference is that other people’s systems treat the battery as one; Ferrari’s system treats a single battery as two.” So, there you have it. All understood. A single battery can be treated as two batteries. Is it not then, two batteries?
The debate continues.