Following Sebastian Vettel’s stunning victory in Formula 1’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, second placed Mercedes driver, Lewis Hamilton, believes Ferrari’s pace was “within a tenth” of his own.
Hamilton made these claims despite his early dominance of the race, where he was able to easily build a three second gap to the nearest Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen.
In the end, the Mercedes driver only lost the lead because of a virtual-safety-car period for Romain Grosjean’s parked Haas, which subsequently allowed Sebastian Vettel to pit-in and continue holding the effective lead of the Grand Prix.
Hamilton would stay close with Vettel for the remainder of the race, but the Ferrari was just too strong, eventually taking the race win by 5.036s. “Today has been our day,” an elated Vettel commented post-race.
It was clear that Ferrari’s victory was largely a result of the perfectly-timed virtual-safety-car period, as Hamilton’s initial pace after his pit stop was quicker than both Ferrari drivers. When he pitted on lap 18, his gap back to Vettel was pushing 8 seconds.
When Hamilton emerged from his stop, he was 13 seconds behind Vettel, who opted to stay out. In the seven laps – 19 through 25 – that would follow before Vettel’s stop, Hamilton closed the gap down to 11 seconds, proving that the Mercedes was indeed quicker.
This proves that without the virtual-safety-car, it would’ve been impossible for Sebastian Vettel to pit in and then still come out ahead of Lewis Hamilton.
Head of Mercedes-AMG Motorsport, Toto Wolff commented that with Hamilton’s early pace, the team “looked on course for a strong victory.”
“I’m still in a little bit of disbelief as I don’ t really understand what happened yet,” Hamilton commented after the crazy race.
“The Safety Car helped of course,” Vettel said to media, “but apart from that, I think we did everything we could do as a team.”
“Today they [Ferrari] were very, very quick,” Hamilton commented, rather surprisingly. As the Briton even said himself, “I put up a bit of a fight towards the end” – a stark difference to the efforts of Kimi Raikkonen during the first stint, where Hamilton was able to slowly a build a comfortable gap.
“Lewis was in control through the opening stint,” said Toto Wolff, Head of Mercedes-AMG Motorsport.
It remains unclear if Hamilton was driving as quick as possible during the opening stint, or if he was just nursing the tyres, but Sebastian Vettel believed Hamilton “was fast, but not as much as he needed.”
In reference to Mercedes’ performance, Technical Director, James Allison, believes “the pace we saw during the weekend was promising for the season.”
Vettel felt differently about his own car, commenting, “I need a little bit more of confidence with the car, which is not where we want it to be yet.” The German was clearly critical of his new SF71-H, later commenting, “there is a lot of work to do” and “we have some homework to do.”
Whether Ferrari’s performance is really within the one tenth threshold of Mercedes remains to be really be seen. Without the virtual-safety-car, it seems as if Hamilton would’ve won the race comfortably.
However, practice long run simulations during FP2 did show that Ferrari were, on average, within one tenth of Mercedes on the ultrasoft and actually quicker on the soft tyre, which Mercedes has historically struggled with.
The main thing is that it is undeniably impossible to put a number on the current gap between Mercedes and Ferrari. Fans, teams, and drivers will just have to wait until next fortnight’s Bahrain Grand Prix to get a better clue as to where everyone stands.
That race is set to take place on April 8th from the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.