Throughout the entire 2017 season, Mercedes and Ferrari have generally been separated by the most finite margins. In Russia, Spain, Austria and Belgium, the Silver Arrows just snuck home for victory, winning all of those races by less than five seconds.
The gaps have been so small for one reason – strategies. Pitting a lap earlier or later can majorly compromise performance, and simple tyre choices can have significant consequences and benefits, as epitomized by the final stint in Belgium.
Strategy has played such a major role in 2017 that fans were still yet to see a scrap between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel that wasn’t biased one way because of tyre choices, like their infamous duel back in May’s Spanish Grand Prix.
That was until Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, when Lewis Hamilton suddenly slipped past Sebastian Vettel and his Ferrari on lap 5 of the Grand Prix – both drivers were on similarly aged ultrasoft tyres.
Unfortunately, the much-anticipated scrap wasn’t all that exciting; Hamilton seemed to breeze past Vettel as if the Ferrari was already a lap down – once the move was done, Hamilton pulled out a comfortable six second gap over the rest of the stint.
As mentioned above, before the US Grand Prix, Hamilton and Vettel had been separated by the tiniest details, but during the race in Austin, Hamilton and his Mercedes seemed to be back to their dominant days gone by – so, was this proof that Mercedes have now definitively out-developed Ferrari?
Well, the answer isn’t going to be a simple yes or no, unfortunately. After the Japanese Grand Prix earlier in October, it remained murky as to whether Mercedes had fixed the problems which had first hampered them so heavily in Malaysia.
It’s a similar situation with Ferrari and their United States Grand Prix at the moment; the big question unfortunately won’t be answered until this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.
But, data collected during the race can certainly help us lean to a particular side. Considering Hamilton completed a successful one-stop whilst Vettel had to pit twice, the fateful opening stint is the only portion of the race where the two drivers can be accurately compared.
Of the two drivers, Vettel was the first to pit on lap 14. Throughout this opening stint of 13 laps, Vettel set an average lap time of 1:41.290. Comparing Hamilton’s times during the exact same period, on average, the eventual race winner was a whole 0.412s quicker than Vettel.
To understand how significant this gap is, during this year’s Belgium Grand Prix, the last time that both drivers occupied the top two positions in the opening stint, Hamilton’s average lap time was only a mere 0.082s quicker – a stark difference to the United States.
And, considering the underlying question of this article is about whether Mercedes is genuinely faster than Ferrari – last year’s United States Grand Prix certainly suggests the news is bad for the Scuderia. That’s because during the opening stint, Lewis Hamilton’s nearest rival, Daniel Ricciardo, was, on average, only 0.245s slower – and it was evident the RB12 wasn’t a championship winning car.
The below graph shows a comparison of the gaps between the average lap times – and the most concerning aspect is that 2017’s United States Grand Prix is clearly the largest mean gap to Mercedes.
So then, was this clearly significant lack of pace Ferrari’s own error, or a calculated performance on Mercedes behalf?
At the Japanese Grand Prix, Mercedes Technical Director, James Allison, claimed that the team has “not exorcised all of our Sepang demons” – in reference to the race where Mercedes were genuinely passed by Red Bull.
But, no such comments were made in the US. Instead Allison assured fans that those Sepang issues have been sorted by describing Hamilton’s US victory as “very welcome tonic to some of the narrative that had built in recent weeks suggesting that the momentum of the development race had shifted towards our competitors.”
Allison was clearly confident that the Mercedes W08-Hybrid was back to peak performance, calling the chassis “worthy” of winning the 2017 Constructors World Championship.
But, the United States Grand Prix was also significant because it was the first time that Mercedes had been able to use their updated aero kit with a completely cleansed car. The upgrades, which included a revised ‘nose cape’ alongside bargeboard, front wing and cooling improvements, were problematic in Malaysia and weren’t shown their full potential with the tyre temperature issues in Japan.
But no such problems occurred in the United States Grand Prix, Hamilton described the car that took him to victory as “amazing” – and it was clearly back to its ways of dominance.
But, to say Ferrari were caught off guard by these improvements would be wrong. Although it wouldn’t be unrealistic to suspect that Mercedes’ upgrade package likely gave the Silver Arrows a competitive advantage, the lack of pace from Ferrari was in part due to setup issues.
Vettel commented after the Grand Prix that “after a couple of laps I was really struggling with the tires that were getting too hot.” He admitted this unfortunate temperature spike left him feeling “disappointed.”
Crucially, when talking about why the tyres were too hot, Vettel said this, “all the things that happened to us came out not because of bad luck.” The German wasn’t hit by an inexplicable issue, he instead felt the problems were caused “all on our side.”
Although it’s not known why Ferrari suddenly experienced setup issues, it could have something to do with Vettel’s chassis change, which left him with an entirely new car ahead of qualifying and the race.
The change was prompted after a nervous Friday practice session, where Vettel felt, “that something was not right with the car.” This left Vettel unable to complete crucial long runs, which meant he did not get a significant understanding of the car in race conditions.
It’s also been reported that the core chassis Vettel changed to was the same one involved in the first lap crash at the Singapore Grand Prix. There’s every chance that this particular chassis was damaged in the crash, given it had two major impacts, which could’ve left it with an uncomfortable feeling for Sebastian Vettel.
Either way, this chassis change and subsequent problems does throw major shade on the theory that Mercedes have genuinely out-developed Ferrari. Instead, it looks to be a weekend of disaster for Scuderia and complete success for the Silver Arrows – painting an unrealistic picture of the pace difference.
But, there’s still no definitive answer to what’ll occur when both teams are at their peak performance – and only this week’s Mexican Grand Prix will give us that accurate insight into the ever present ‘development war’ between the two titanic’s of Formula 1.