Now that the first Grand Prix weekend of the year is over, it is a good time for analyzing what really happened. Some questions we had after testing (finally) got their first answers. However, it seems Australia gave us a couple of new questions on top of the ones we already had. Will this season give us a clash of the titans between the three giants that are Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull? Will it be close enough for a Mexican standoff? Will it go down as one of the best seasons ever?
The main question we had after the eight days of testing in Barcelona was: ‘Who has the fastest car of the field?’ . Many of us (including yours truly) thought that it was Ferrari this time round. But for every positive Ferrari fan there were (at least) two sceptical fans. Their argument was, rightly so, that Ferrari has a tendency to show off during tests (to please the boss), only to fail once the real season started. For a better understanding of the pecking order we had to wait until Melbourne. The result of the first (real) timed laps: Mercedes 0,268 seconds before Ferrari and 1,297 seconds before Red Bull. This was the perfect excuse for the, earlier mentioned, sceptical fans to scream bloody murder. Mercedes would dominate this season again and all the pundits were wrong! Little did they know what would happen on Sunday. After the race these results surfaced: Ferrari was 0.175 seconds per lap quicker than Mercedes and 0.505 seconds quicker than Red Bull. (Both times are averages.)
Conclusion? The duel ‘Mercedes vs Ferrari’ will be decided by the form of that day. This will include several things; the pit stop timing (under/over-cut strategy and the time spend in the pit) , the tire management, the drivers(!), the weather, track characteristics, the start, etc.
Melbourne has shown that Mercedes has lost its big lead, that they had last (couple of) year(s), over their main rival(s). A good start meant one (or two) Mercedes car(s) sailed away to the horizon, leaving the field behind. No-one can deny that Hamilton had some bad starts in the past, which made (the early stages of) the race a bit more interesting, but this time he was the one with a great start. The reasonable distance he put between him and, second placed, Vettel, in the first lap, made some of us fear we would get a repeat of last year. Luckily for us that didn’t happen!
Simulations for the race suggested a superiority for the German team. But these calculations didn’t leave room for possible errors or weaknesses. And it were those weaknesses that would define Mercedes’ race. Their problem would be that the ultra-soft tire wasn’t able of coping with (slightly) higher temperatures.
On top of that, Ferrari seemed to be able to challenge the silver arrows in a way that no simulations had suggested. Vettel drove fast laps throughout the race, no matter which compound he had on his car, and (perhaps the most important) whatever the asphalt temperature was! Strangely enough Räikkönen did ran in to the same troubles, on the ultra-soft tires, as the Mercedes drivers. Pirelli’s new tire generation are harder and thus more durable, but the tire’s optimal grip window seems to be easy to mis. –At least that’s the Mercedes engineers explanation.-
This will favor drivers who are known to drive around quick and still are able to save tires. In my humble opinion the names that would be on that list are; (on top) Vettel and Perez, who have both shown, on multiple occasions, that they can do this. –The odd tire blow-out in Austria is the exception that confirms the rule. I mean, the super-softs were 27(!) laps old and he was still running very quick on them. The fact that he had a blow out, instead of losing performance, says it all.- And Verstappen, who is getting (a lot) better at it, race after race.
Back to the pre- season test. According to the track-side pundits Ferrari was brilliant in the fast corners. The car seemed “painted” on the road. Mercedes on the other hand, seemed to be the best in the slow corners. Melbourne did nothing more (or less) than confirming this. The third sector with the section of flowing curves belonged to Ferrari.
So where does this all leave Red Bull? Ricciardo had one of his ‘nightmare at Albert Park‘ weekends, and Max could be considered ‘the best of the rest‘. For safety reasons Renault suddenly withdrew their earlier released ‘All is well signal‘, it gave to the teams that have their power plant in the back of their car. According to Red Bull’s Helmut Marko, this resulted in a loss of 0.5 seconds during qualification. During the race it would have had a little less influence, since they weren’t planning to use the full power mode anyway.
However, Red Bull has some catching up to do too. It isn’t Renault who has to take full responsibility for the gap to the German and Italian rival. Red Bull engineers seem to suggest it’s a fifty-fifty kind of deal: Half a second the car, half a second the engine. The chassis problems seem to be that their car, the RB13, only works in a tiny window. Small changes seem to have a fatal effect. Either it’s black or it’s white, there is no gray area. Did they tempt faith by suggesting 13 is only an unlucky number for some? Either way, Red Bull has given themselves a ‘three race time‘ window to resolve the chassis problem. Renault, on the other hand, thinks it will takes twice as long. From a ‘no go‘ to an ‘all clear‘ and back to a ‘no go‘ in one day and a (possible) solution weeks down the road? Seems like Honda isn’t the only one with troubles.
One thing all three engine brands did have in common (lucky for us), is that none of them seemed to be thirstier than the other. After the Barcelona test there was a lot of talk amongst many engineers, from different teams, that the new cars wouldn’t be able to finish. Unless the drivers would lift and coast, trying to save as much fuel as possible. The fact that Räikkönen was lapping very close to the fastest lap, just before the end, is a clear sign on the wall. The Ferrari engine does not only have power, it is also equal to the fuel consumption of the Mercedes power plant. Vettel and Räikkönen did not have to save more fuel than Hamilton and Bottas. Renault also seems to have done a good job with respect to fuel efficiency. The reason why Verstappen had to back off and stop attacking Räikkönen had nothing to do with fuel consumption, rather than his (front)brakes edging closer to a critical point. Something I have seen Red Bull have on more tacks, during the last couple of years.
One thing that does set the three teams apart is how their cars look. Mercedes looks like the engineers tried to occupy even the smallest space there is on the car. A multitude of aerodynamic elements gives it a complicated look. Plus there’s the wheelbase: 3.760 m! 26 cm more than last year, making it the longest car of the field. Red Bull does the complete opposite. Newey tried to make the car as smooth as possible. And he even gave the car more rake, when last year I already felt he pushed it to the limit. Clearly I was wrong. Red Bull’s wheelbase is, with a length of 3.557 m, shorter than the Mercedes. Ferrari is set right in the middle of those two. Radical side-pods, yet smoother lines as the Mercedes. Not as much rake as the Red Bull, but more as Mercedes (who have the smallest rake of the field). And they have a wheelbase of 3.594 m.
So the biggest question remains the same: ‘Did Ferrari gain so much because of the FIA’s clampdown on the trick suspension?’
Fact is that Ferrari had been busy during the winter, lobbying against the hydraulic linked suspension, of which it suspected that both Mercedes and Red Bull had it on their car. Mercedes and Red Bull both claim that they wouldn’t have used such a system in Melbourne anyway because of the additional weight. Mercedes even claims it used the system for only 5 races, in 2016. However, James Allison and chief designer Aldo Costa were sitting together with FIA technician Marcin Budkowski in Melbourne for over an hour, just to explain why Mercedes is using a system that should be legal, even with the tighter rules.
Red Bull seems to be the team with the biggest set back, since those newer rules. But, as always, Christian Horner says that their current lack of performance isn’t because of the legality of their system. Red Bull driver Verstappen said something similar: “During the Barcelona tests we drove a week with the system, and a week without it. But the car was slow with and without the system.” However, he felt that with the hydraulic system on board it was easier for the engineers to work with the roll and the ground clearance of the car, thus making it is easier for the engineers to find the right set up for the car.
The suspension system allows Red Bull to lower the rear of the car on the straights, and by doing this, it cuts off the air flow that should go to the diffuser. This allows Red Bull to drive the car with a maximum of down-force without losing top speed. Without the system, the rake must be reduced in order to get the same top speed. Effectively bringing down the down-force level that the car generates, meaning that Newey will have to compromise. Either changing the rake of the car or bringing a (major) aerodynamic upgrade.
So back to the question asked in the title. Was Vettel lucky that Verstappen and his, slower, Red Bull got caught up in his fight with Hamilton?
Yes and no. First of all, the German in the Ferrari put the pressure on Hamilton early on. The gap between them (when Hamilton was leading Vettel) never became bigger as 1.892 seconds (lap 10). Mercedes were telling Hamilton he needed to build a gap before his pit stop. The lap before Hamilton went in to the pits the gap was only 1.322 seconds (lap 16).
From a strategic point of view, you have to ask whether it was really necessary to bring Hamilton in to the pits as early as lap 17. Mercedes engineers now claim that if they had only trusted on the data, instead of the driver, they would have left the Englishman out on the track. They did detect that the surface temperatures of his tires were on the high side, but not critical. But it seems that Hamilton was nervous and wanted to come in earlier than planned. Reminiscing Monaco 2015?
According to the Mercedes strategists Hamilton had complained several times on the radio, before lap 17, that his tires were at the end of their lifespan. In the 17th lap, he was 3 tenths slower in the first sector, and a half second in the second sector. He then told them that he HAD to come in. Telling them that the tires would not hold any longer. “There’s nothing left in these tyres, guys.” Mercedes, of course, did not want to take the risk that Lewis would crash and gave in to his demand.
However, the tire inspection after the pit stop revealed that the set was not near the end of its life. Mercedes engineers told The Germans of AMuS: “We could have continued. We acted on the driver’s information, and that might have been wrong.” To them it did not matter that Hamilton, who was in the lead, would fall behind Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen. “That was always going to be the case. But we saw that he would not rejoin directly behind them. He would have been four seconds behind them. This should allow him to drive in clean air for four laps. We expected the Ferrari and Red Bull tires to go off soon. Max and Kimi would have moved out of the way for us, once they pitted. But then it seemed we were the only ones who had tire problems. For all others the tires were consistent, and did not fall off their cliff.”
Hamilton would rejoin on track 1.7 seconds behind Verstappen. He soon caught up to him and was told by his engineer Peter Bonnington: “This is race-critical – you need to pass Verstappen.” To which Hamilton replied: “I don’t know how you expect me to do that.” The next four laps would be the point where Mercedes saw their win vanish in to thin air. Hamilton would not find a way past Verstappen. Losing 3.4 seconds on Vettel. Enough for Vettel, who would pit at the end of lap 23, to come out ahead of Verstappen. Once he fended of the (little) attack of Verstappen he drove off, building a lead of 5.8 seconds. By that time Verstappen would dive in to the pits, leaving Hamilton to trail Vettel.
Hamilton could keep up a decent pace but would never get the gap (to Vettel) smaller than 5.5 sec, and found himself being caught by team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who had struggled in the first stint, dropping back 10 seconds in 17 laps, but was closing in on the former world champion in the second stint to finish just 1.2 seconds behind. This was because Mercedes had turned down Hamilton’s engine once they realised he was not going to catch Vettel. Seeing that they want the engine to be in the car for 6(!) races.
So my conclusion is that Vettel did get some help from Verstappen fighting Hamilton (there’s no denying that!), but in the end I don’t think it would have mattered that much. Mercedes had troubles with their tires, especially with the ultra-softs. A problem they did not have during their race simulations on Friday, which made them vulnerable. And on top of that, the Ferrari did not seem to mind the dirty air at all. All this boils down to one thing: Vettel would have gotten the chance to pass Hamilton on track, had the latter not decided to pit early. The fact that Vettel stayed out for that much longer, to try an over-cut, only highlights that. When Ferrari checked his tires, after the pit stop, they felt (if it would have been necessary) that he could have stayed out even longer. Something that should trouble Mercedes even more!
Perhaps giving the last word to Mercedes would be a fitting end to this article. I hope you enjoyed it! “Our car did not work today like it did on Friday. The tires seemed to behave very different, had less grip, and our balance was no longer correct. The funny thing is that the conditions were not so dramatically different. There was only a slight temperature rise. Other reasons must have played a role. But we don’t know which they were. We hope the numbers will show us in the coming week. Vettel had no trouble to follow us, and he also drove the same pace once he was in front of us. The bottom line is that Ferrari was faster.”