Red Bull has been the dominant force in Formula 1 this year, by miles. The team is closing in on their second straight Constructors’ Championship — and can technically clinch the title this weekend in the Singapore Grand Prix — and Max Verstappen has won ten straight races, having set a new F1 record at the Italian Grand Prix.
But if Friday’s dual practice sessions at Marina Bay are any indication, the Bulls are up against it this weekend.
And Ferrari may be the team to finally beat them.
The Scuderia finished 1-2 in both practice sessions on Friday, with Charles Leclerc topping the time sheets in FP1, and Carlos Sainz Jr. leading the pack in FP2.
With regard to Red Bull, Verstappen finished in P3 during FP1, with teammate Sergio Pérez in P7:
The two Red Bull drivers slid down the pecking order in PF2, with Pérez running in seventh, just ahead of Verstappen:
As you can see in this chart, Ferrari was dominant over every sector of the track on Friday:
Ferrari was quickest in every sector!
-LEC was fastest in Sectors 1 and 2
-SAI in Sector 3
As the two drivers made ‘complementary’ purple sectors, the car’s potential lap in FP2 (3 purple sectors) would be 1.31.965: 0.155s faster than SAI’s laptime#F1 #SingaporeGP pic.twitter.com/PPNwTVJHXR
— Formula Data Analysis (@FDataAnalysis) September 15, 2023
“A positive Friday,” said Sainz in the team’s post-practice report. “The car seemed to be in the right window from the very first lap in FP1 so we kept focused on fine tuning the set-up during the second session. I expect the track to improve for tomorrow, so we should have higher grip and then we’ll see how much our competitors and ourselves can improve for qualifying.”
“It was quite a good day. The car looks a bit more competitive than we had expected on a track like this, but we shouldn’t get carried away because I think that our competitors are not showing their true pace yet,” added Leclerc. “We will work on optimising the balance on my side overnight and I’m sure we will see some further improvements for tomorrow.”
As for Red Bull both Verstappen and Pérez expressed some frustration following the dual practice sessions, and warned that Ferrari could be the team to watch.
“Ferrari is very fast,” said Verstappen to media members on Friday. “I think we’re just way worse than we expected.
“We tried quite a few things in FP2 – some worked, some didn’t. Never really got the car together. So there’s quite a few things to figure out tonight.”
Verstappen added that the team would need to examine “a few things that we don’t understand” regarding their pace on Friday.
As for Pérez, he too discussed some weaknesses with the car, particularly with the rear.
“I think there are some interesting bits going on that we need to figure out overnight, hopefully,” he said. “We seem to be struggling quite a bit with the rear end of the car, especially in FP2. So there’s plenty of things to look at and hopefully we can come up with the best possible set-up because we know qualifying is very, very important.”
“We didn’t expect the Ferrari to be very strong around here,” he added. “We’re just too far away. Hopefully tomorrow we are able to close the gap a bit more but I do expect quite a challenge.”
As for why Red Bull might be running behind at the moment, there are a few possibilities. One is the fact that Singapore is a street circuit, and as Verstappen alluded to earlier in the week, the RB19 has not been as dominant on such tracks this season as it has been other layouts where speed and power are the priorities.
“I think we just are not as competitive as at other tracks,” said Verstappen during Thursday’s FIA Press Conferences. “I think the street circuits are a little bit tougher for our car. I still think that we can do a good job but it will be very tight.”
There is also another potential culprit lurking, in a Technical Directive issued by FIA ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix. The directive in question, TD018, seeks to clarify guidance surrounding how components on the car are joined together. FIA found that teams could push the envelope under the current regulations and use rubber to create more flexibility in the front- and rear-wings of the cars.
The directive looks to outline how that practice may run afoul of certain regulations.
“It’s not that we’ve seen any one particular car or feature that we’ve targeted, or an element that’s been common across the whole grid,” said FIA Single Seater Technical Director Tim Goss. “This is about where front and rear wing elements join the nose, join the rear impact structure, join the rear wing endplates. And there have been several instances where teams have tried to make the most of the deflection allowance by permitting some bits and pieces to start moving relative to each other.
“And if you’ve allowed one piece to be decoupled relative to another, the bodywork might have to have some degree of local flexibility at that location. And if there is local flexibility, we’re saying, clearly, that’s not compliant with being uniform, solid, hard and continuous. Under the TD, we have included various examples, designs which we consider are not permitted and exceptions which we consider are permitted.”
Goss outlined why this directive was needed.
“There are a lot of clever engineers out there looking to get the most out of the regulations and we have to make sure that everyone has a common understanding of where the boundaries are and we have to be fair and balanced across the whole group in how we apply them,” he says. “And in recent times we have seen a little bit too much freedom being applied to the design details of aerodynamic components.”
However, Verstappen pushed back on the notion that TD018 would have any impact on Red Bull this weekend.
“I don’t think it will. We never really had any flexible front wing or whatever. So I don’t think it will hurt us,” he said during Thursday’s press conferences.
Whatever the reason, Red Bull has some work to do ahead of qualifying on Saturday. Even with the changes in layout for this year’s Singapore Grand Prix, overtaking may come at a premium on Sunday.
So if the Bulls want to keep their streak alive, they’ll need to find some answers for Ferrari, and quickly.