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Why the French GP will be a key race in Ferrari’s season

Ferrari hopes the French Grand Prix will mark a turning point in the development of its 2019 car as it rolls out a number of updates aimed at shifting the fundamental design concept of the SF90.

After a promising pre-season, Ferrari has not won a single race in 2019 and its car has been comprehensively outdeveloped by rivals Mercedes. Its struggles have stemmed from difficulties keeping the SF90’s tyres in the right temperature window, which the team puts down to a lack of downforce.

In simple terms, the aerodynamic performance of an F1 car is always based on a trade-off between downforce and drag. Increasing downforce helps in the corners but often comes at the cost of extra drag on the straights, limiting straight-line performance. Ideally you want efficient downforce that smothers the car in the corners while labouring it with as little drag as possible on the straights.

Ferrari’s 2019 car is very aero efficient, meaning it creates its downforce with minimal drag, but in low-speed corners a lack of peak downforce has seen it struggle to generate the necessary load through its tyres to keep them in the right temperature window.

The problem — which has also been witnessed on other cars this season — has been exacerbated by a change to the tyres this year, which has seen the introduction of a thinner tread than 2018. The thinner tread tyres were developed to combat overheating and blistering — and were also used at three rounds last year in Spain, France and Great Britain — but do not retain as much heat as the thicker tread 2018 tyres.

Speaking at the end of May following two disappointing results in Spain and Monaco, team principal Mattia Binotto said Ferrari had already started revaluating its car concept in order to trade some of its straight-line speed for peak downforce in the hope of overcoming the issue. France will be the first race where that change of concept filters onto the car, but speaking ahead of the race weekend Binotto made clear it was only the first steps on a new development path.

“In France we will have a few small evolutions, elements that represent for us a useful step in defining the direction we will take in developing the car,” he said. “What we will be bringing won’t be the solution to our problems, but the technical feedback we get from these evolutions will be important for the next steps we take.”

The Paul Ricard circuit in Southern France has long straights, but shares more characteristics with the Circuit de Catalunya, where Ferrari struggled, than Montreal, where it finally looked competitive again. As a result, Binotto played down expectations two weeks on from the team’s strongest weekend of the year in Canada.

“Paul Ricard has been a tricky circuit for us last year and we know that this kind of track isn’t particularly favourable for our package,” he said. “but nothing is impossible so we will be ready to do our best.”

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