Analysis: Ferrari focuses on tyre pressures in search for qualifying boost
Better management of tyre pressures over a Formula 1 race weekend has emerged as one of the keys to helping Ferrari find the breakthrough it needs to improve its qualifying form, sources have suggested.
The Maranello outfit's weaknesses in qualifying were highlighted at last weekend's Spanish Grand Prix, when Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were outqualified by both Mercedes and Red Bull after big struggles in the heat of Saturday afternoon.
The fact that its pace returned on race day – albeit could not be shown because both Vettel and Raikkonen got trapped behind the Red Bulls – confirmed that it is not a fundamental car design nor engine problem that it is facing.
Instead, on a weekend when paddock chatter was dominated by talk of tyre pressures and the advantages that some teams have got from clever management of them, Ferrari thinks it is an area that it needs to urgently improve.
In particular, Ferrari sources state their belief that rivals Mercedes and Red Bull have found clever (albeit still fully legal) ways to optimise the pressures that help lift the performance of their cars.
In the wake of the tyre failures at last year's Belgian Grand Prix, Pirelli and the FIA tightened up on the procedures for minimum tyre pressures.
Whereas before F1's tyre supplier had merely recommended a minimum pressure, from Monza last year an actual minimum starting pressure was enforced in the regulations by the FIA.
At Monza, Mercedes fell foul of this when the tyres on Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg's cars were found to be below that limit when checked on the starting grid.
While issues with the timing of the readings cleared the team of any wrongdoing, it was obvious that competitors would be trying to lower the pressures as much as possible once the measurements had been taken.
It was suspected that a growing trend among front-runners (Mercedes was spotted doing this from the Japanese Grand Prix) of heating up the brakes prior to qualifying and the race was about warming the air inside the tyres once the wheels were fitted – thereby temporarily increasing the pressure at the moment the checks were made.
If teams were then able to rapidly cool the inside area of the wheels after the checks were taken through clever ducting, then it would in theory lower the pressures much nearer the ideal levels for when the car was running.
The benefits for anyone able to legally pass the starting pressure checks and then run below it are clear.
At Barcelona, for example, the minimum starting pressure of the rears was 19.5Psi – whereas teams would ideally like to be in the region of 17Psi. The closer teams can get to the 17Psi figure, the better.
There is also a vicious circle for those who are not able to control the pressures. A higher pressure can result in overheating the tread, which raises the tyre temperature and subsequently increases the pressure even further.
With the contact patch being progressively made smaller, the tread temperature increases further and can spiral out of control unless a driver backs off.
The situation can be exacerbated with the kind of high track temperatures that we saw on Saturday afternoon in Spain – and in the medium and slow speed corners that are typical of the final sector in Spain where Ferrari especially lost out to rivals Mercedes and Red Bull.
Although there is no suggestion any teams are acting illegally, it is fairly widely accepted that some outfits are doing a better job in managing pressures than the others.
There have been suspicions of teams potentially using trick technology, like valves or rims that slowly leak air to lower the pressure over a set period of time.
At the Russian Grand Prix, McLaren asked for clarification from the FIA about the potential to develop certain devices that could help manage pressures.
For example, one of the ideas was to have a double-chambered wheel rim that had a small bleed hole in-between.
The proposal was that the outer chamber would be filled with higher pressure air to ensure the tyres were above the minimum pressure limit, while the inner chamber would have less pressure.
The hole would be small enough not to allow the higher pressure air to escape instantly – but over a short period of time the pressure in the two chambers would equalise, lowering the overall pressure the tyre was being run at.
The FIA made clear, however, that such ideas were a breach of the regulations, and, as is standard practice, its response to McLaren was circulated to all teams.
So in stating to McLaren its belief on the illegality of it, it de facto outlawed anyone who could have been employing such a device.
In further correspondence, McLaren suggested that to prevent the need for an all-out spending war by teams having to find ways to better manage tyre pressure, that a rule change be made to switch F1 from a 'starting' pressure to a 'running pressure'.
The problem for some teams is that, with Pirelli suspecting some are able to have a lower running pressure than a starting pressure, it has to raise the starting pressure higher than is ideal to take this drop into account.
For those teams that are not so well-equipped to manage the pressure, it hands them at instant disadvantage because the tyres are operating well outside their ideal operating window.
A 'running' pressure limit would alleviate such a problem, as all teams would then be faced with a more level playing field when cars are actually running.
But introducing and enforcing a minimum 'running' pressure is not so straightforward, because there is no standard way of monitoring pressures right now – and especially no way of doing it live. Teams are using a variety of sensors to measure pressures – with no strict calibration.
Furthermore, a lot of the electronics used for the sensors are being operated in temperatures well beyond what they are designed for – which leaves them exposed to failures.
It was interesting to note that in Spain last weekend Renault appeared to have suffered such a failure when the pressure sensor on Palmer's left rear tyre that failed in practice continued to register a 19.6Psi reading even after it had deflated.
One idea that has surfaced is for there to be a tender opened for F1 to appoint a control tyre pressure sensor which all teams would then use.
For now, it is a long-term project and will only go ahead if the FIA concludes that teams are acting in a way that is against the spirit of the rules.
For Monaco, teams have been asked to log their tyre pressure readings through the FIA's Standard Data Recorder – which will provide a decent database for the governing to try to understand what is happening with cars out on track and pick out if anything nefarious is going on.
Ferrari knows it cannot wait for the rules to change to be sure that it is not losing out to any rivals, so has to play catch-up in being better able to use the pressures to its advantage.
That was why this week's test at Barcelona was so crucial for helping it to better evaluate the impact of pressures on the performance of its tyres throughout qualifying simulations.
Sebastian Vettel's test-topping time during one of those runs – which was quicker than he had managed on Saturday afternoon when his pace faded – suggested some answers had been found.
Those lessons will now have to be applied to an actual session in the hope that it will be able to lift its single lap pace.
And there is no bigger test for it than the streets of Monte Carlo, where next week's qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix is so critical to the result on Sunday.
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