Aerodynamic performance has been a huge talking point in Formula One circles, among the teams, the media and the fans in recent years since the reformulation of the rules for the 2009 season. 2009 was the year of the double diffuser and the teams that were able to implement early in their campaign were very successful in the championship, as the Jenson Button's and Brawn GP's championships illustrate.
The developments in 2010 were also developed by the top two teams in Constructor's Championship. McLaren introduced the F-duct system, to remove downforce on their car and to give them higher speeds in low downforce stretches of circuits. Utilizing the system on both straights and even some corners where high amounts of downforce isn't necessary.
Red Bull Racing's contribution to aerodynamic developments in Formula One were exhaust blown diffusers, which works by funneling the exhaust gases out of the engine into the diffuser in order to creating low pressure in the diffuser and this creating downforce. The concept is similar to the ground effect aerodynamics cars from 1978-1982, which also used the underside of the car to create downforce.
Double diffusers have been banned for the 2011 Formula One season while exhaust blown diffusers are still allowed. Teams have further tweaked the concept, this time led by Renault. Renault's development of exhaust blown diffusers is to run the car at part throttle at all times. Letting exhaust escape through the front facing exhausts even when there is no throttle being applied.
But with all of this obsession with the aerodynamics in Formula One engineering and competition, something important has been lost: the importance of mechanical grip. That is the answer to the puzzling question of the Ferrari's lackluster qualifying and race pace so far in 2011. Tires and mechanical grip.
A major change for 2011 was the switch of tire supplier from Bridgestone to Pirelli, which granted is a dependent variable for all the teams and drivers, but Ferrari have somehow fared worse with Pirelli rubber than they did with Bridgestones. The 150 Italia has scored two podiums and one fifth place in the last three races. All of those results are a story of how the 150 Italia is dependent on mechanical grip and the right tire to perform well.
At Istanbul, Fernando Alonso started fifth on the grid and finished the race in third place only 10 seconds behind the time of Sebastian Vettel. The Ferrari as mandated by the rules started on the option soft tires and moved up to P3 by the first pit stop on Lap 10 of the Grand Prix. As a result of running the first three tire stints on the option tire the 150 Ferrari moved from fifth to third.
While on his third and fourth pit stops Ferrari ran the prime hard tire, according to their allotment and to the sporting regulations. Alonso and Ferrari also adopted a strategy of covering whatever move as Webber. As a result of this strategy and the slow pace on the prime tires, Alonso lost his second place to Webber's RB7.
According to the charts on gpupdate.net and provided by the FIA, Alonso ran 36 of 58 laps on option tires, 62 percent of the race, and it netted him a third place and only a deficit of 10 seconds on Vettel.
Pirelli had brought a harder version of the prime tire for the Spanish Grand Prix which was supposed to be more durable but had much less grip. That turned out be Alonso's and the Ferrari's undoing in Spain. At the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, Alonso qualified fourth and would the the race in fifth position finishing one lap behind the winner Vettel.
Alonso had a perfect start coming from fourth and overtaking both of the Red Bulls and Lewis Hamilton's McLaren to be in first position at the end of the first lap. Alonso's first pit stop on Lap 10 was uneventful and he quickly reclaimed the top stop. For his second stop on Lap 19, Alonso took his last set of options while Vettel who had come in one lap before Alonso was able to make up ground on the Spaniard. Both McLarens wouldn't come in for their respective pit stops until Lap 24 for Hamilton and Lap 30 for the notoriously smooth and controlled Jenson Button.
After all of the top five cars had changed their tires twice, Hamilton sat first with Vettel behind him, Alonso third in line, Button in fourth place with Mark Webber in fifth. Fernando Alonso's Ferrari 150 Italia and his main rival Webber's RB7 the only cars on prime tires on Lap 30.
Vettel, Hamilton and Button would run for much longer on their option tires and built a large lead on both Webber and Alonso. Alonso's fourth and fifth tire stints were both on what Hamilton termed "disastrous" Pirelli extreme hard tires. Alonso ran 37 of his 66 laps on the prime tires, 56 percent of the race. He was fifth and one lap behind the leader Vettel.
In the famous streets of the principality of Monaco, Alonso put his Ferrari on fourth on the grid. Although Hamilton wasn't able to post a quick time because of Sergio Perez scary crash and the resulting red flag. Pirelli had brought the soft tires as the primes and the brand new super soft rubber as the option. Monaco is the highest downforce and the least aero dependent of all the circuits of the world championship. Meaning that tire usage and mechanical grip proves to be more important than normally.
The low stress, speeds and lateral side loads proved to be a recipe for keeping the fragile Pirelli rubber intact and there were relatively few pit stops compared to other races so far in 2011
Alonso only pit twice, starting the race on the options and staying on them for the second stint running the first 35 laps on super soft Pirelli tires reaching first position and running mostly in third. Meaning Alonso had to run more than half of the 78 laps on prime rubber, which was very easily achievable because of the relatively low wear rate around Monaco and his superb car control skills.What's more since the prime tires were the soft compound, Ferrari didn't lose the mechanical grip that is usually connected to having to run primes for the majority of the race.
Button had to pit to change to prime rubber on Lap 48, which gave the double world champion second place behind Vettel, Button would come out third and stay there for the rest of the race. If not for the red flag and the fact that all of the cars were able to change tires, Alonso might have taken first from Vettel.
The lesson of the past three Grand Prix is that Ferrari isn't missing downforce or aerodynamic performance compared to the Red Bulls and McLarens the Ferrari major issues involve how they use their tires and the lack of mechanical grip on hard and the revised "extreme hard" tire.
Lucky for them they'll be able to run the super soft compound in both Montreal and Valencia. While the medium tire will be introduced for the latter race, these tire allocations may result in Ferrari being able to stay in the championship, or what's left of it to gain, until a major proposed upgrade at Silverstone that will hopefully fix the issues with mechanical grip.