Cheating is a choice; it is never a mistake.
The world was a much brighter place for Ferrari 12 months ago at Spa where both Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel crushed their rivals to a front row lockout in qualifying before the Monegasque went on to claim his maiden Grand Prix win which kickstarted a string of victories.
But fast forward to today and the most celebrated team in F1 history is battling to come within a second of their 2019 pace, let alone narrow the margin to the dominant Mercedes outfit. That is all before considering that Mercedes and Red Bull both found gains of over 1.4s each on their 2019 performance, rubbing salt into the gashing wounds of Italian hearts.
Analytic comparisons between Ferrari’s performance at Spa between 2019 and now has led to the astounding finding that the team’s 2020 car is as much as 58hp down on last season, leaving team management unsurprisingly baffled.
“We are disappointed and angry, as indeed are our fans and with good reason,” conceded Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto.
“It’s a difficult moment in a season that we knew from the start would be a tough one, but it’s at times like this that we need to stand firm and look ahead in order to get over this difficult period. It’s the only way we will get out of this situation.”
The team battled the heavy fire from rival teams across last season who suspected foul play was involved in Ferrari’s demonstrably quicker engine and subsquent straight-line power advantage. But those claims were reignited over pre-season testing this year when Ferrari rolled-out with an all-new engine that was significantly slower than its predecessor.
Then less than a fortnight out from the later-cancelled Australian Grand Prix, the sport’s governing body, the FIA, announced they had concluded an investigation into the Ferrari’s 2019 power unit. Those findings have since remained private with Ferrari and the FIA entering a peculiarly secretive agreement.
The statement issued by the FIA read
“The FIA announces that, after thorough technical investigations, it has concluded its analysis of the operation of the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 Power Unit and reached a settlement with the team. The specifics of the agreement will remain between the parties.
“The FIA and Scuderia Ferrari have agreed to a number of technical commitments that will improve the monitoring of all Formula 1 Power Units for forthcoming championship seasons as well as assist the FIA in other regulatory duties in Formula 1 and in its research activities on carbon emissions and sustainable fuels.”
Now it is incredibly difficult to fathom how the team’s sudden drop in over 50hp in one season is not a direct consequence from the private findings of the FIA. For while the statement clearly waives any indication Ferrari were caught cheating, it also avoids any definitive answer that their 2019 power unit complied with the regulations.
Allegations ran rampant on the eve of the US Grand Prix last year when GPS data tracking highlighted a dramatic drop in Ferrari’s straight-line performance. Earlier that weekend the FIA had released a new technical directive aimed at minimising loopholes in the power unit regulations.
The drop in performance was substantial enough it warranted a cheeky jibe by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen that alluded to claims Ferrari were indeed cheating.
“Oh that’s not strange. Well why do you think [Ferrari have dropped performance] You can fill it in yourself. That’s what you get when you stop cheating. This has been looked at very carefully, so of course we have to keep an eye on that.”
Since the departure of F1 guru Ross Brawn, the mastermind behind Ferrari’s early 2000s dominance with Michael Schumacher, the team have failed to design a competitive power unit. Fernando Alonso dragged a dogged engine to a miraculous near-miss in 2012 while the competitive 2017/18 cars exploited Mercedes aerodynamic woes.
Thus, the one-hit-wonder 2019 power unit stands as the anomaly in Ferrari’s engine development, especially since the introduction of the turbo hybrid era in 2014.
The F1 hybrid systems have only in recent seasons matured into a reliable package. Importantly, the MGU-K system (Motor Generator Unit Kinetic), the most influential mechanism of the system, is restrained by a cap of 160hp. That boost is the output of power a driver receives once the acceleration of the car is no longer traction limited. The most obvious example being on a straight when the throttle is wide open.
The cap means there is an incentive for designers to develop methods to try and extract the maximum from the 1.6-litre V6 combustion engine. However, increasing the performance of a combustion engine can only be achieved in two true ways: by increasing the revs (which is also capped at 15,000 rpm) of the engine or increasing the rate of fuel flow.
The F1 fuel flow restriction is currently governed at 100kg/hour which the FIA monitors via a Fuel Flow Meter located between the low-pressure pump inside the fuel cell and the high-pressure pump on the engine.
The fuel flow rate fluctuates constantly across the race and is dependent on factors such as engine speed and throttle. But what must be noted is that at its peak (i.e. on a straight), the flow cannot exceed 100kg/h.
However, teams have the potential to manipulate the data on the Fuel Flow Meter by disguising peaks in the fuel flow signal and making them read lower than what is actually passing through the meter. This is an illicit concept know as aliasing and is what is believed to be how Ferrari were improving the performance of their car.
There is a second Fuel Flow Meter in each car but these operate at irregular times, and while aimed at ensuring aliasing is not possible there is no way of comparing the readings of both meters.
Intriguingly, Ferrari were also hurled into the unwanted spotlight in 2018 following the revelation the team were operating an ingenious dual-battery system. By running two batteries in parallel, it is possible to redirect more power to the MGU-K system and exceed the 160hp boost of power which makes the system illegal because that 160hp boost is a hard cap.
So, has Ferrari’s duff 2020 season demonstrated that whatever was enclosed in the private agreement suggested illicit activity and the team were caught red handed? Red Bull’s team boss Christian Horner admitted after the Belgian Grand Prix last weekend that that very thought has left a bitter taste in his mouth, feeling Ferrari should not have been winning last year with their contentious engine.
“It’s obviously very tough for them, but I think their focus has obviously been in the wrong areas in previous years, which is why they’re obviously seem to be struggling a little with whatever was in that agreement,” Horner said.
“The whole thing has left quite a sour taste. I mean, obviously you can draw your own conclusions from Ferrari’s current performance but, yeah there are races that we should have won last year arguably if they had run with an engine that seems to be quite different to what performance they had last year.”
Perhaps this is why the FIA refused to publicly announce their findings into the Ferrari power unit investigation. If indeed something was amiss and the team were cheating, how can every team that finished behind Ferrari be compensated? They just can’t.
So, as Ferrari continue their unguided amble at the rear of the mid-pack, languishing behind those rivals who only 12 months ago were easily conquerable, it is fair to suggest that they have been caught out by something outside their control. In layman’s terms, they had cheated.
Whether they can redevelop an effective package ahead of the 2021 season remains doubtful given the freezing of development between this and next season to curtail the economic effects of the global pandemic.
But what does seem certain is there will be a difficult homecoming for Ferrari ahead of this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza and the following race – the team’s 1000th – at Mugello.
But then again, who knows what can happen between now and then. Especially with Ferrari.