If you had asked a cross section of F1 insiders and fans at the start of the season for a prediction of where the two Ferrari drivers would stand on competitiveness, few of them would have predicted 10-10 in qualifying at this stage.
Kimi Raikkonen’s astonishing third place in Brazil qualifying, ahead of Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel is the fourth race in a row that the Finn has out qualified his younger, four times world champion team mate. This time last year Vettel was solidly ahead on all metrics and had won three races.
Yet Raikkonen has been resurgent this season and in the F1 world drivers’ championship standings there are only 9 points between them, with Vettel having got ahead in Austin, where Raikkonen retired.
So what lies behind this turnaround for Raikkonen?
Typically the phlegmatic Finn is not giving anything away and will say only that the car suits him better. A large part of his problem before was in the front end of the car and the sensitivity on cornering.
Perhaps Raikkonen’s style is more dependent on the front end than some other drivers, but the word is that the key change that has brought this renaissance about is Ferrari’s switch from pull-rod from suspension to push-rod.
Ferrari had been an outlier in the previous seasons, as the sole team opting to use a system which lowers the centre of gravity of the car and which Ferrari perceived could help with aerodynamics – as it takes the strut away from some of the vortices off the front wing.
The push-rod suspension, which has a diagonal strut from the wheels to the rocker, has better geometry and has proved more confidence-inspiring for the drivers.
The weakness of this year’s Ferrari is in low speed corners, both in aerodynamics and mechanical traction. The strength is the engine and clearly the front end of the car is working well, which gives the team something to build on for next season, when the cars will have higher downforce and more mechanical grip from the tyres. The floor and diffuser of the cars will be much more important than today and it is from there that the majority of the extra downforce to make the cars four to five seconds a lap faster will come.
Today was a good example of Raikkonen’s 2016 form; he was fastest in Sectors 1 and 3 during the Saturday practice session, only losing ground to the other teams in the long middle sector where low speed aero is the key. Precision is the name of the game at Interlagos as the lap is short and the lines are defined so the added confidence from the front end of the car doing exactly what he wanted it to do, gave Raikkonen the edge and showed that at 37 he still has plenty to offer in F1.
“I think we’re lacking a bit of downforce overall there [Sector 2], comparing maybe to the guys in front of us – but you know the car’s been behaving today, pretty good and just been struggling on the tight corners to turn around the car and a bit of front-locking so obviously it’s been a bit guessing whether we can turn or not,” said the Finn.
Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene denied again this weekend that Vettel is in ‘crisis’ or that his fiery behaviour in Mexico showed his frustration at a season of broken dreams.
“Sebastian is quite emotional. Sometimes he looks a bit more Latino than German,” said Arrivabene. “He’s very passionate, especially when he’s driving and it’s in a racing battle.
“It’s not a question of frustration. Sometimes he can be unhappy as we are unhappy because our expectations are different. But he’s not a guy who is giving up; he’s a guy that is pushing like hell. Sometimes when the adrenalin is going up to the sky, maybe he’s choosing a word more than what is expected, but then my role, like in Mexico, is also to call him and to invite him to be focused on what he’s doing.”
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