For the first time ever in 2017, Sebastian Vettel is no longer the leader of Formula 1’s Drivers World Championship.
By taking a dominant victory in Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton has now moved three points ahead of the German after he could only conjure up a meager third place.
On paper the result may not be so concerning, but Vettel did eventually finish a whopping 36.317s behind Hamilton’s Mercedes.
This gap is the largest it’s ever been between the two championship contenders and on average Vettel was losing a whole 0.685s per lap to Hamilton, who admittedly wouldn’t have been running at full pace for the entire distance.
So, firstly, what ultimately caused this significant drop in pace between the two heavyweights?
Monza was always supposed to suit Mercedes. The four flat out stretches of the track was where the works Mercedes power unit could really begin stretching its legs.
Power unit efficiency and sensitivity was the key factor for Mercedes, they were able to run higher loads and stresses on their unit than those around them. Funnily enough, Mercedes provided exact statistics on the benefits of a strong power unit with a press release ahead of the Italian Grand Prix.
“At Monza, power sensitivity works out at around 0.2s improvement for each additional 10 HP,” read the official Mercedes statement. They later wrote that lacking power will have “direct repercussions on performance” – which is eerily similar to what happened to Ferrari during the race.
If Ferrari’s lack of pace in Monza was in fact caused solely by an inefficient power unit – then Vettel’s power unit would have only needed to leak just 34HP less than Hamilton for him to have a gap of 0.685s a lap slower – presuming the power units had equal power outputs to start with.
Formula 1’s official website states today’s generation of Formula 1 cars produce around 760HP from their ERS system and internal combustion engine (ICE). This means, if Vettel’s power unit really was already roughly 34HP down on that Hamilton, it would’ve only needed just 4.47% of wear to reduce it to that HP number – and that’s a maximum number which doesn’t take into account other factors.
Subsequently, it’s quite plausible that Ferrari’s power unit was simply worn down in comparison to that of Mercedes. Remember, Monza was the fourth race for the current ICE of Ferrari, whereas Mercedes introduced their new and upgraded ICE in the recent Belgian Grand Prix.
So, if this was the cause of Ferrari’s dismal performance in Monza – will there be repercussions and consequences in the following races?
In theory, the answer is no. The aforementioned Mercedes statement agreed that Monza is a track “where the impact of engine power can be most firmly felt.” With just seven races left in the season, most of the upcoming tracks will not be as impacting as Monza – but some mustn’t be taken lightly.
Brazil and Suzuka are two of the main tracks which still depend on an efficient power unit – but not quite to the extent of Monza.
However, Ferrari will not be at such a disadvantage here because they still have their fourth ICE to introduce, which is thought to be heavily upgraded.
According to Sky Sports F1 Reporter Ted Kravitz, Ferrari’s fourth ICE will see the introduction of 3D printed pistons – which gives an incredible performance advantage because the new material can reduce weight without compromising strength or reliability.
Ferrari have been evaluating this concept as early as February, as reported by Autosport. 3D printing provides such an advantage because designers can build the pistons layer by layer, consequently allowing honeycomb designs which “bring the advantage of strength without the drawback of weight.”
It almost goes without saying that this “innovation” is dearly needed by the Scuderia, especially considering Italy showcased a potentially concerning disparity between power unit performance of Mercedes and Ferrari.
Ferrari’s recent pioneering of this technology is currently pure speculation through Ted Kravtiz’s pit lane reporting.
Either way – Ferrari’s fourth ICE arguably has to be one of the biggest keys for their 2017 Championship bid. Even though Suzuka and Brazil demand efficient power – both circuits equally demand a strong downforce package, something which Ferrari have especially excelled with in 2017.
If they solve the power unit disparity to Mercedes with the introduction of the fourth ICE – then the remaining tracks will almost entirely all suit Ferrari on paper – arguably with varying degrees.
The only real consequence coming out of such a poor showing by Ferrari in Monza is a mental and physiological one. At the historic home race of Ferrari – Vettel lost the lead of the championship, making Ferrari the official underdog now. Despite this, Sebastian Vettel doesn’t seem to care…
“Leading the Championship is not important as much as winning the Championship,” he told media after the Italian Grand Prix, “it’s where you are at the last race that counts.”