How Ferrari got its strategy so wrong in Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary — On Sunday evening two different explanations for Ferrari’s poor result in Hungary were coming from the team. Race driver Charles Leclerc blamed the strategy, while team boss Mattia Binotto blamed the performance of the car.

Although the two statements weren’t unrelated, the difference in messaging between driver and team boss was notable. Leclerc — who finished sixth by the chequered flag, cutting him 80 points adrift of title rival Max Verstappen in the standings — believed the race was winnable. Binotto did not.

“In terms of pace we were strong, and probably had the pace,” Leclerc said in a post-race interview. “But yeah, eventually we didn’t and there are reasons for it.”

“What we were lacking today was really speed and pace,” Binotto said in his own press conference a couple of hours later. “I don’t think we could have won today.”

In the immediate aftermath of race, it’s not unusual for a driver to have a different perspective to their team. From the cockpit it’s much harder to see the bigger picture of a race unfolding, but for those observing impartially, Leclerc’s version of events seemed closer to how events unfolded on track.

That’s not to say Binotto was wrong. The performance of the car was clearly not as good as expected and that, in turn, magnified the strategy mistakes. But what has become abundantly clear is that Ferrari’s on-track execution is not good enough to challenge a driver and team combination as exceptional as Red Bull and Verstappen, and that point was made again by the performance on Sunday.

How Ferrari turns that around is the biggest question of all. It has a car and driver package that has shown flashes of title-winning performance this year, yet all too often mistakes — both from the pit wall and the cockpit — have derailed its chances of victory.

On Sunday evening, with any hope of a successful title campaign hanging by a thread, Ferrari looked divided and defeated.

What went wrong for Leclerc?

For the first half of the race, Leclerc appeared to be in a commanding position. After starting the race from third on the grid on the medium compound tyre, he had shuffled himself ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz at the first round of pit stops and then used the superior performance of his Ferrari to take the lead from Mercedes’ George Russell on lap 31.

But throughout the early part of the race there was a threat emerging from behind. Verstappen started tenth and was driving brilliantly and clinically to move his way up the order. His tyre strategy was at odds with Leclerc’s, having started the race on the soft tyre and switched to the medium at his first stop, while the Ferrari had started on mediums and fitted another set of mediums for Leclerc’s second stint.

F1 rules dictate that drivers must use at least two different tyre compounds during the race, meaning Leclerc had switch off the favourable medium tyre at his next pit stop while Verstappen could use it again to go to the chequered flag.

The third option — the hard tyre – was available to both drivers but had proved difficult to warm up, especially in the relatively cool temperatures on Sunday. Even during Friday practice, when the track temperature was 20 degrees Celsius higher, the teams that fitted the hard tyres found they were lacking performance. It’s telling, however, that Ferrari was not one of them, opting to complete all three hours of practice on either the medium or soft compound tyres.

Even without testing the tyre on Friday, there were warning signs that the hard compound wouldn’t work on race day. Red Bull’s strategists had initially planned to start the race on the hard tyre in pursuit of a one-stop strategy, but made a last-minute change when both drivers reported difficulties getting the softs up to temperature on the way to the grid, meaning the harder compound would be even trickier to get working.

Once the race started, Kevin Magnussen made an early pit stop for front wing repairs and took on hard tyres, but clearly struggled to extract performance from them. Alpine too, which had been running ahead of the Red Bulls at the start of the race, plummeted down the order when they fitted the hard compound on a one-stop strategy.

Analysis of either Friday practice or the relative performance of cars in the first half of the race made clear that the hard tyre was not a good option, unless you wanted to run a one-stop race. Yet when it came to Leclerc’s second pit stop, Ferrari chose the hard compound.

It wasn’t the original plan. Leclerc was supposed to switch to softs much later in the race, as Lewis Hamilton did with great success, but the Ferrari pit wall scrapped that plan when Verstappen pitted relatively early for his final stop. It looked like Red Bull was trying to lure Ferrari into an early pit stop, but even they were surprised when the Italian team took the bait.

“I felt Ferrari were on a very different strategy at that point,” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said after the race. “They obviously looked to bank track position, but as soon as they pitted Charles and brought out a set of hard tyres, it really felt like a victory was possible today.

“I think the temperature maybe affected them quite a bit, but they boxed themselves into a corner strategically and that opened things up for us.”

Within two laps of Leclerc’s pit stop, Verstappen had passed him for the lead. The Red Bull driver then spun, giving the position back to the Ferrari, but had no problem making the position back a few laps later.

Spin aside, a great deal of credit is due to Verstappen for making the strategy work. Horner listed the performance among the best of his driver’s career.

“I think it’s right up there,” he said. “At the start it was the first time I’ve seen him being cautious, because he got himself a little bit pinched in the middle of the pack there, but thereafter the pace and the way he managed it was phenomenal.”

Why did Ferrari choose the hard tyres?

The performance of the Ferrari on hard tyres was so bad that the team made a third pit stop 15 laps later to put Leclerc on the softs as per the original plan. The move, which was questionable in itself, left Leclerc sixth at the finish.

After the race, Leclerc was convinced the switch to hard tyres was to blame for the result.

“I think the pace was very good today, on the medium, on a tyre that was strong it was really good,” he said. “But then on the hard obviously we lost all the pace.

“So we did one stop more than everybody losing 20 seconds plus the laps on the hard where we were losing a second per lap. So this is a lot of race time.”

Binotto defended the strategy, saying the team’s modelling of how the hard tyre would perform suggested it would match or exceed the performance of the medium tyre after 11 laps of warming up. The fact that didn’t happen, he said, was due to an unexpected loss in car performance from Friday practice to Sunday’s race.

“Before we start with why we used the hard tyre, I think it is important to say that we believe that the car today was not working as expected and we didn’t have the speed we were hoping to looking back on Friday and the race today,” he said. “So today was certainly different conditions and they got cooler, but overall the speed today was not great enough and whatever tyres we were using, I don’t think we were as good as we were looking for.

“And certainly it was the same with the hard, so when we fitted the hard tyre, our simulation was that it would be a difficult couple of laps of warm up, they would have been slower than the mediums for 10 or 11 laps but then they would have come back by the end of the stint — and it was a 30-lap stint.

“So we fitted the hard tyres at the time because it was a 30-lap stint and we were trying to protect position on Max and it would have been too long certainly on the soft. Our choice and our analysis was, yes, it would be difficult at the start of the stint but it would come back by the end.

“Overall, the tyres didn’t work. I know they were not working well on other cars, but I think the analysis we made was based on the data we had and I think, as I said before, the main reason is not to look into the strategy but why the car was not as good as we were hoping today.”

Binotto backed up his argument by saying Sainz, who stuck to the original medium-medium-soft strategy, also struggled and finished fourth after starting second on the grid. Sainz himself agreed the performance of the car was to blame over strategy.

“If I guide myself by the pace of Friday, it should have been an easy 1-2,” Sainz said. “Today it was a fight every lap. No balance in the car.

“I think we were lacking pace, and I also don’t think we did that many mistakes. I think when you lack pace like Red Bull did in Austria, no-one said ‘can Red Bull keep doing these mistakes?’ No. We had a very bad pace today, I think.”

Binotto compared Sainz’s race to Hamilton’s, pointing out that the Mercedes started seventh and finished second while Sainz started second and finished fourth on a similar strategy.

“It was the first time this year that the car was not as competitive as we are normally looking for, and it was the case as well with Carlos because he was on exactly the same strategy as Lewis and started ahead but finished behind, and Lewis went on to finish second,” he said.

“So the car today was not performing well. And when the car is not performing, it doesn’t make the tyres work as they should and certainly not the hard tyres.”

That argument ignores the fact that Sainz made his final pit stop four laps earlier than Hamilton, something Mercedes believes made the difference in the two drivers’ differing fortunes towards the end of the race. Nevertheless, Binotto remained clear: the disastrous Hungarian Grand Prix result was down to a surprise lack of performance more than any other factor.

“What we were lacking today was really speed and pace,” he said. “I don’t think we could have won today.

“And the reason I don’t know, because it was the first time in the first 13 races where we didn’t have the speed somehow to be there for the victory.

“You need to first look into that performance wise to understand, and I’m pretty sure when we understand that we will understand why the tyres were not working properly.”

What happens next?

As with any defeat in F1, Ferrari will go away and analyse the fine detail of what went wrong. The lack of pace on the hard tyre was undoubtedly significant but the big question is how Ferrari got its modelling of the tyre’s performance so wrong, especially as other teams were clearly struggling in the race prior to the hards being fitted to Leclerc’s car.

Binotto insisted there will be no knee-jerk changes as a result of the Hungarian Grand Prix and remains confident his team can bounce back with a return to the top of the podium at the Belgian Grand Prix after the summer break.

“It is not a matter of bad luck and there is nothing to change as well,” he said. “I think it is always a matter of continuous learning and experience and building skills.

“Today there is certainly something into which we need to look so that we can understand why. But if I look again at the balance of the first half of the season there is no reason why we should change, I simply think we need to address what was wrong today, which means to understand and then address to be back as competitive as we have been at the 12 races so far. There is no reason why we should not be [competitive again] at the next [race].”

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