Fernando Alonso has overcome Ferrari's terrible pre-season form to secure the outright top spot in the world championship — so how did he get there and what does Ferrari need to do to stay on top?
The F2012 was a disaster out the box and required hasty modifications to get it anywhere near the level expected of the Italian team before the season began. Much like McLaren last year, when they went down the wrong route with their 'octopus' exhaust, Ferrari's rear-end design was the biggest issue and since their initial amendment before the season began there has been regular changes and one significant upgrade, introduced in Barcelona. Another big step is due for the next race in Canada — and it could be the development to define their season.
Since the season began, the F2012 has had a lot of work done to the front-wing endplates, with complex CFD tweaks regularly offering small but important alterations. This year's aerodynamic focus is all about using this kind of precise detail in developing fins and winglets to steer the flow precisely around the car, enabling as much clean air to reach the rear and work the diffuser as possible to compensate for the loss of the blown diffuser technique used last year.
Ferrari introduced two new air-steering fins in front of the sidepod and made changes to the vertical outlets at the rear as part of an entire new engine cover and sidepod package introduced in Barcelona, which also included a significant change to the exhaust outlets, steering them more towards the centre of the beam wing rather than the gap between rear wheels and diffuser.
To capitalise on the accelerated exhaust flow at the centre of the beam wing, Ferrari also introduced a slotted wing section in that area, while to compensate for the loss of the flow between the wheel and diffuser, the end fences of the rear wing had major modifications with added vertical fins at the bottom and more gill openings at the top, both helping to steer and bleed the air to reduce turbulence and drag.
Overall, the car still lacks straight-line speed but it appears to now have much better traction from low speed corners — much of which is down to how it works its tyres.
This year's new tyres are very sensitive to operating temperature and they have made engineering a bit of a lottery. Teams had not planned for this issue and while gains can be made by understanding how they work and setting the car up to suit, how much can actually be achieved appears to be very much down to good fortune in the original design.
Ironically, the Ferrari was said to be highly unpredictable in testing and the early races but since then it appears to have settled down into a more understandable pattern.
While each race is different, it has typically shown a rare combination of quick warm-up with the ability to run long stints — which has helped Alonso leapfrog competitors through the pit stops on numerous occasions. The ability to find that zone could be down to the fact that Ferrari is the only team to have fully pullrod suspension front and rear this year — but is also down to the fact Alonso has found the right driving style to handle all different types of tyre.
Indeed, Alonso has shown great consistency this year, with him and Hamilton the only two drivers up front to score in every race so far. His record of 5, 1, 9, 7, 2, 3 may not look like the figures of a potential world champion — but right now that's where he is.
He has regularly admitted this is a time of damage limitation and in such a changeable field the team has focused on their job but cleverly set a target of beating those around Alonso in the points table at each race. Now, however, if they are to make their move, the big update coming for Canada must overcome their lack of pace on a single lap.
Alonso's qualifying has been woeful, with the last two races offering some marginal respite — Alonso's positions stand at 12, 9, 9, 9, 3, 6. Strange, considering the apparent ability for the car to warm its tyres quickly.
Typically, Alonso is generally good in Q2 - although he has often needed to use fresh tyres to set his time - but his time drops off dramatically once all the others are on their best qualifying tyres.
In Australia, it was disaster all round as Alonso missed the top-ten shoot-out entirely and was more than a second off the fastest time in Q2. In Malaysia he was 0.6s off the pace in Q2 but 1.3s off pole and in China that improved to just under 0.3s off the pace in Q2 but then a massive 1.5s off pole. In Bahrain, despite finishing Q2 just 0.2s off the pace, Alonso chose not to set a time in the top-ten shoot-out.
When the first big car upgrade came in Spain, things flipped around briefly. Despite being 0.7s slower in Q2, Alonso was just 0.02s off Pastor Maldonado's pole time to claim second, once Lewis Hamilton's times had been discounted. In Monaco it turned back around and having been within 0.2s of the top in Q2 (the fastest time set by team-mate Felipe Massa) he was 0.6s slower than pole in the final session.
All season in races, Alonso has finished higher than he started — which clearly suggests Ferrari has been better on race pace than qualifying — and they have definitely found a more settled race set-up since the big modifications to the car in Spain.
But such is the delicate balance of F1 cars, it is very hard to make a car good for both qualifying and the race — and that makes this next step of development crucial.
Ferrari needs to find a car that can be set up to offer good pace on a lighter fuel load with sticky tires while still coping once the fuel goes in for the race itself. If they can find the one-lap pace without damaging their race consistency, then Canada could be the turning point from focusing on damage limitation to truly targeting podiums and wins.