What is going wrong at Ferrari?

Ferrari are "deeply upset" with the performance of their car, according to technical director Aldo Costa, and were honest enough to admit in Malaysia that they simply do not understand what has gone wrong since the highly promising winter test programme.

At the opening race in Melbourne, the team blamed the conditions for a poor showing, suggesting a combination of track layout and cool temperatures had prevented the F150° Italia from being able to generate the necessary tyre temperatures.

It was assumed the long fast corners and very high track temperatures of Sepang would result in a different outcome. Yet for the second race running, there was no podium finish. Felipe Massa finished fifth, with team-mate and former world champion Fernando Alonso in sixth.

Alonso played down the view that the team had looked in great shape during the winter. "That was only the media," he said on Saturday. "We could see the Red Bull was faster."

Those comments were a little disingenuous. Most media analysts made the point that it appeared as if Red Bull had not revealed its full hand during the winter. However, on the basis of the runs completed, Ferrari and Red Bull led the field. That was indisputably the case.

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With a massive internal inquiry going on at Maranello about these confusing signals, and the promise of significant upgrades to come, one suspects Alonso may well be a major contender again.

Since then, Red Bull have revealed their true pace, while McLaren reconfigured their car on the eve of the season so that it was delivering a potential that it never came close to achieving during the winter.

Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button headed to Australia convinced they had a car that was as much as two seconds off the pace and were stunned but delighted that the last-minute copy of Red Bull's exhaust had transformed it.

The net result is that Ferrari have been bumped down to third-fastest on the grid.

But that is not the full picture. There are two things currently confusing Ferrari about their car's performance.

Teams measure the aerodynamic loadings on their cars during testing in order to confirm the figures their simulation tools suggest they should have.

While figures from the initial version of the car tallied well, a subsequent aero upgrade package did not deliver as much additional downforce as the wind tunnel and other analysis said it should - although it was still better.

The second troubling factor is that aero tests conducted during first practice in Sepang revealed that those figures seen in Barcelona testing were not being attained, even after allowance was made for the lower density of the muggy Malaysian air.

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Some small changes made in the car's constant evolution are evidently having an adverse effect.

"It's a very difficult thing to understand," said Costa. "Some aspect of the car is underperforming aerodynamically, some component is not working as we believe and now we have to find out what it is before we go forward with further development.

"We will conduct further aero tests in China on the Friday and then we will be doing a straight-line test when we get back to Europe.

"But this will just be the first step to understand what has gone wrong. Even after we have resolved that, we need to look at ourselves.

"When we look at the development rate of the cars ahead of us, I think we have to accept that our development has not been enough. We need to be pursuing more aggressive development programmes."

It is worth pointing out that Alonso could have finished on the podium in Malaysia had he not collided with Hamilton in the latter stages of the race.

And that collision would probably not have happened had the car's moveable wing - and thus the drag reduction system (DRS) - been working. Alonso would surely have been able to pass the McLaren in the DRS zone down to turn one rather than trying for a more ambitious move between turns three and four.

But for a compromised first corner in Melbourne, Alonso would probably have been a podium contender there, too. Instead, he finished fourth, with Massa in seventh.

The Ferrari is easier on its tyres than most, making it more competitive in the race than in qualifying. But even allowing for that, the car is not as competitive as a fully healthy Red Bull or McLaren.

Alonso was able to set the second fastest race lap in Malaysia but only because he rejoined on fresh tyres after pitting for a new wing.

As one of only two cars on the combination of low fuel and fresh tyres, his best lap of one minute 40.7 seconds was not really representative. His best lap prior to that was a 1mins 41.8secs, while Massa's best in the sister car was 1min 42.0secs.

We can discount Sebastian Vettel's laps as he was simply controlling his margin at the front and at no stage needed to fully extend the Red Bull as he came home first.

A better yardstick is Button's McLaren, which, on a similar strategy to the Ferraris, was chasing Vettel hard in the final stint, trying in vain to put pressure on him. Button recorded a best of 1min 41.2secs.

We can say, approximately, that the Ferrari was 0.6secs off in race conditions, 1.0secs off in qualifying. So, yes, the car is relatively better in the race - and the stiff construction of the Pirelli tyre accentuates any difficulty a car has in bringing up its tyres to temperature for one-lap performance - but it is still not good enough.

Asked whether Ferrari would be following the Red Bull philosophy of getting the front wing close to the ground, having initially followed a similar path last year, Costa replied: "We believed it was not possible to follow this direction with the tougher flexibility tests introduced for this year.

"But it is clear that there is some ingenuity in achieving this in the Red Bull, which still passes the tests. The test is the only thing you must pass, therefore their car is legal. It is something we are now going deeper into investigation with and we will have a flexi-wing soon."

Another member of the team said: "It is not like we can hide behind claiming the Red Bull is not legal. In 2009, we were beaten by a design that we firmly believed was not legal - the twin diffuser.

"But it is not like that this time. Their car is legal and we must look to ourselves to improve."