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Ferrari: race ruined at the start?

Did the two Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz rob each other of a better result in the 2024 Formula 1 China Grand Prix?

"What we did at the start cost Charles and me a lot," says Carlos Sainz, reflecting on the events at the 2024 China Grand Prix in Shanghai. This sentiment might resonate with those considering taking a gamble without upfront investment, much like exploring options such as the Wanted Win no deposit bonus. Sainz laments the "loss of one or two positions" in the snail curve right after the start, believing he was sidelined by his teammate Leclerc. Indeed, Leclerc drifted to the outer left, where Sainz was nudged slightly off track, paving the way for Mercedes' George Russell and Haas' Nico Hülkenberg to overtake. Despite starting from promising positions, the Ferrari drivers found themselves pushed back to seventh and ninth within the initial corners.

"That obviously didn't help," says Team Principal Frederic Vasseur. On the other hand, Ferrari probably made the best of their opportunities with fourth and fifth place. This is also how Sainz sees it, who speaks of the "maximum" that Ferrari was able to achieve in China.

Vasseur takes a pragmatic view: "We are behind Perez and Norris after the start and we are also behind Perez and Norris at the end of the race. If anything was missing, it was that we were too far back on the grid."

What went wrong according to Vasseur

However, this analysis fell short when Leclerc finished fourth, just 4.463 seconds behind Perez. That was almost exactly the gap after the third lap of the race. So if Leclerc had been closer at the start of the race, Ferrari could theoretically have had their sights set on a podium finish.

But Vasseur stands by his position and explains to Sky: "We started from too far back and need to improve our qualifying. Every detail makes a big difference. And we have to do a better job," said the Ferrari team boss.

"But if you want to do the maths, then we also have to say that we scored more points over the weekend than McLaren and Mercedes."

That is true: With 31-27-18 points, Ferrari was second in China behind Red Bull, which continued to pull away in the Formula 1 constructors' championship with 54 points. Ferrari, on the other hand, is similarly unchallenged in second place ahead of McLaren.

Ferrari recognises need for action

However, the China Grand Prix has revealed a need for action at Ferrari, and not just in qualifying: according to Sainz, the Shanghai International Circuit is "clearly the track [in the 2024 season] where we have suffered the most".

"We have to check whether we've done everything we can with the set-up. And if not, it's time to work on the car, because this type of track didn't go well for us."

For Leclerc, this is "a bit strange", after all, Ferrari has been notable for good tyre wear with the SF-24 so far. "Sunday in China was a bit of an outlier," says Leclerc. "As soon as we put the hard tyres on, we were half a second too slow. We need to look at that."

The stint on hard tyres is particularly interesting: after the pit stop on lap 21, Leclerc is initially on a par with Red Bull driver Perez, who overtakes him on lap 39. Leclerc then immediately loses touch: Perez subsequently pulls away by a few tenths of a second per lap.

Did Shanghai influence Ferrari's performance?

Leclerc is asked whether this is due to the special requirements of the race track in China or even the treated tarmac. Answer: "No, it can't be down to the layout [of the track]. But we were simply slow with the hard compound. We have to look at that, because we expected something else and then had to struggle more than we thought."

And for the first time this year, as Leclerc emphasises: Ferrari had previously found tyre management much easier with the SF-24 than in previous years. China was the first setback.

Or as team boss Vasseur put it on Sky: "We didn't really understand tyre wear very well. Whether we can push harder or not." It is now a matter of discussing the reasons for this and finding a "better approach to such situations", says Vasseur.

What role the race strategy played

According to Sainz, one factor in the discussion must be the special circumstances of the race: "I actually wanted to make two stops, but the safety car phase lasted so long that I had to make one. So I practically drove the whole race on very old tyres and just concentrated on getting through to the end."

That was "bad luck", says Vasseur: "Carlos had come into the pits a few laps before the safety car phase and was then worried about doing a very long stint. That's why his stint was a bit conservative at the beginning. But he managed the stint itself well. We as a team simply lost a bit of ground on the hard tyres. We were less good there than with the medium compound."

Leclerc questions Ferrari strategy

The Ferrari strategy was also an issue for Leclerc. He even expressed doubts about his team's tactics. "But that was before the safety car phase," says Vasseur, playing down the situation: "We were wavering between one and two stops because we only had low wear with medium."

"We were poised for one stop, but then the safety car came out and completely changed the race. It almost became a sprint race."

That was also Leclerc's perception. Ferrari had relied on the "right strategy", "until the safety car ruined everything," he says.

He sees his questioning of the tactics as normal: "Sometimes the team has more information and has to make the right decision. Sometimes it's the other way round, as a driver you have a strong feeling and the team has to believe it, even if the data says otherwise."

Is the balance of power tipping behind Red Bull?

Especially as the headwind on the race track is increasing: McLaren was "stronger than expected" in China and "particularly strong" compared to previous weekends, says Leclerc. Ferrari, on the other hand, experienced "the most difficult weekend" of the year so far, according to Sainz.

Ferrari team boss Vasseur blames this primarily on the right midfield behind Red Bull: "Details are enough and you are zero instead of hero. And if you start from the back, you have a much more difficult race ahead of you, even if you are actually faster. Because then you destroy your tyres in the first ten laps. You don't recover from that."

That's what happened to Ferrari in Shanghai. "We simply didn't have a clean weekend," says Vasseur. "Too many mistakes" were made collectively. "And we know that: You can't be at the front in this group if you don't do a perfect job. We'll try again next time."