Ferrari's pace keeps F1 guessing

Ferrari appears to have made gains in corners, but it is not clear how quick the overall package is. Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images

BARCELONA, Spain -- With just two days of preseason testing left to run, Ferrari is convinced that it is lagging behind its rivals. It's not yet clear by how much, but the message from Maranello is clear: Mercedes is still the team to beat.

A quick glance at the lap times from testing tends to back that up -- the Ferrari has yet to lap the Circuit de Catalunya in less than 1:18, and Mercedes set a 1:15.732 last week -- but it's well known that timesheets offer as many questions as answers during testing.

Teams can quite easily hide their true pace by running heavy fuel or lower engine modes, although ultimately they tend to push the limit at some point in the second week. It's safe to say Ferrari has not reached that stage of its test programme just yet, but with two days remaining, the wait for a promising lap time is starting to raise questions.

No team can say with absolute certainty where they will line up on the grid at the first race, but they have a much better idea than the rest of us. As well as logging lap times, each team's engineers track the GPS traces of the cars to monitor the rates at which their rivals accelerate and brake. Those GPS traces open up a whole new level of understanding of the lap times, allowing teams to guesstimate the engine settings and fuel loads other cars are running.

In its post-session news release at the end of the first week of testing, Mercedes made clear that its GPS data showed Ferrari had been holding back engine power compared with its customer teams, Alfa Romeo and Haas.

Towards the end of an explanation of how it analyses testing and the understanding it gains, Mercedes posed the question: "Why have Ferrari spent this test running their PU [power unit] consistently at much lower levels than their partner teams?"

The suggestion was that Ferrari was giving away a second per lap by running its engine in a lower power setting than its customers. But when that suggestion was put to Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto on Wednesday, he shot down Mercedes' theory.

"[Mercedes] seem to be very much aware of what we are doing, but it is not correct," he said.

With one team telling us one thing and the other issuing a denial, we are back to square one with our understanding. It's not unusual for teams to play up the performance of their rivals as a method of shifting pressure away from their own garage, but the truth must lie somewhere in between.

The difficulty in picking the two stories apart is that Ferrari's performance had been flipped on its head from last year. In 2019, the red cars had a solid straight-line speed advantage but lost time to Mercedes in the corners, resulting in a lap time that was slower at the majority circuits.

The aim with this year's car was to trade some of the Ferrari's top speed for cornering performance by maximising downforce at the cost of extra drag. So far, Ferrari appears to have succeeded in its goal of upping cornering speeds, but the mystery over engine modes means we are not yet sure whether we have seen the true pace on the straights. Without that crucial bit of information -- and no sign of a true performance run -- it's hard to judge the overall performance of the car.

The one thing Ferrari has been clear about is that it has changed its approach to testing this year. Twelve months ago, it appeared to have the fastest car throughout preseason but arrived at the first race in Australia with a package that was 0.7s off the pace of Mercedes.

This year, Ferrari didn't set any quick times in the first week of testing and instead used it to ensure it does not end up with the same gaps in its knowledge as it unwittingly had at the start of 2019. Binotto insists that his team's focus has been directed inwards and that he has no intention of "playing games" with his rivals.

"We always try to improve ourselves, and we did some mistakes last year in the way we approached testing, especially for reliability, functionality and understanding of the car. I think, as I say often, we are still a young team and it is important for us that as a group we are improving, and that means learning from our past experience.

"That means adapting ourselves to be better but not to play any games or whatever."

Binotto has consistently said Ferrari is behind Mercedes this preseason, and he stuck to the same tune on Wednesday. He openly admits that he expects Ferrari to start the season behind Mercedes but is confident it will do so with a platform to catch up later in the year.

"We believe that we are not the fastest car at the moment," Binotto said. "I think overall on lap time we will be behind at the start of the season.

"Where are we lacking? The car of this season compared to the one of last season is overall faster, but we are faster in the corners, slower on the straights.

"This was as well an objective when designing that car. We knew last year that we were too slow in the corners, so we tried to put as much downforce as we could on the car to [make it] as fast as possible in the corners. But now we are paying for it on the straights.

"I think still in terms of overall balance, set-up, slow-speed corners, it's something where we need to improve. But that's part of the job and the task for this week."

The coming days of testing might offer more insight into where Ferrari really is, but after last year's car flattered to deceive, there are very few in the paddock willing to read too much into the times.