Last week's Mugello test marked a significant moment in Ferrari's 2012 campaign — but to save their season it appears that the Italian team have had to go backwards to go forwards.
Ferrari's F2012 machine was hailed as one of the most radical designs on the grid at its launch, but the concept soon proved to be unpredictable and after the opening races they were quickly forced to go back to the drawing board.
Despite some impressive damage limitation — including a victory in Malaysia - Fernando Alonso has complained of a car with a very small sweet spot, one that drives well on occasions but mostly fails to switch itself on. On average, it's eight or nine tenths of a second off the pace.
It was therefore crucial that Ferrari used the in-season test as a launching board for a re-think.
In recent years the team has struggled to turn theoretical pace found in their computer and wind tunnel simulations into actual on-track performance. Last season, only two in three new parts they tested actually produced the performance expected of them. This year, that lack of correlation was clearly demonstrated by the quick change from optimism to pessimism after early running.
The current problem appears to be not a complete lack of overall downforce, but rather a complete lack of predictability.
Unlike Mercedes, who struggled to set up their car to work the tyres in the first two races before getting it all right to win in China, Ferrari has been unable to understand the issues so well and still cannot switch the car on consistently in normal conditions.
With the ban on blown diffusers this year, teams have spent significant development time trying to find the best alternative. This now appears to be converging into one that maximises the potential in two separate flows — firstly steering the energised exhaust flow down from the upper sidepod area into the gap between the rear wheels and the diffuser and secondly allowing a clean route for the air flowing around the sidepod undercut and into the central rear diffuser.
Both aspects contribute to significant downforce gains — yet Ferrari's new developments take a different, simpler approach.
Their original design involved a radical outboard exhaust positioning but its performance was spoiled by the location of the radiator exits, which sit close by and inject low energy air into the flow. The design was also not precise enough and resulted in hot flow causing the tyres to overheat.
That forced Ferrari to move the exhaust more inboard, as an interim measure, but rather than going back to the preferred outboard approach, as most teams appeared to do in Mugello, Ferrari's new layout steers the flow more horizontally towards the rear beam wing — a solution that gives the beam wing improved downforce but does not give as big a gain as blowing between the wheel and diffuser.
It is, however, a more predictable solution — and that's exactly what Ferrari needs right now.
As Alonso pointed out, the variety of exhaust flow solutions that have had success on track this season suggests that there are only small benefits to be gained from a large number of different approaches.
Right now, Ferrari are looking for bigger gains, so they need to switch from radical to less risky again to get a stable platform that will help them find more performance.
In Mugello, those old correlation problems appeared to be been over too, as every part worked as expected. And that is also quite significant.
Their rear-end solution may not be as effective as that of their rivals, but this stable platform will allow them to bring in another set of improvements in Spain — including new front and rear wings and diffuser modifications — and if all they take away from the Mugello test is confirmation that they now have good correlation between the track and the simulations, then that is significant progress to build on.