Ferrari may be two-from-two in the 2018 Formula 1 season, but their driver and current World Championship Leader, Sebastian Vettel, believes the Scuderia must still “improve” to be the best team in this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix.
Mercedes driver and defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton didn’t feel the same way, revealing post-race in Bahrain that he believes Ferrari “have the edge at the moment.” The Mercedes Team Principal, Toto Wolff, echoed the thoughts of his driver, stating Ferrari “earned the win” in Bahrain.
Data from the first two races suggest that Sebastian Vettel’s ‘need-to-improve’ approach may actually be more appropriate than Mercedes’ constant critiques of their own performance, which may be a little pre-conceived.
In fact, the performances in this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix will serve as a more definitive answer to the all important question surrounding the paddock at the moment: does Mercedes or Ferrari have the edge in Formula 1?
In Australia, Mercedes were clearly quicker under race conditions than Ferrari. During the first stint, Hamilton was easily able to eke out a 3.3s gap over the nearest Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen. Later in the race, Vettel, as the new leader, couldn’t replicate the same performance as Hamilton was still able to stay within 1.5 seconds of the Ferrari for 18 consecutive laps.
There’s no denying that Australia was a clear example of Mercedes’ pace superiority, but the same cannot be said about the race in Bahrain. In fact, during the first stint there, Vettel was able to show promising performance, as he pulled a 3.3s gap over Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes. However, Bottas was able to trim the gap down to 2.2s before Vettel’s single pit stop on lap 18.
The power of the undercut left Bottas roughly 6 seconds (give-or-take 1s) behind Vettel after their first stops. Fast-forward an entire 30 laps and Bottas was still within the threshold, which was even more impressive since his medium tyres were a step harder than Vettel’s softs.
And that should’ve been a determining factor in Bahrain’s race. “There’s a reasonable gap between medium and soft,” Pirelli’s Head of Car Racing Mario Isola said on Friday in Bahrain.
It’s not the most accurate measurement, but Hamilton’s quickest medium tyre lap from FP2 was still 1.2s off Vettel’s soft tyre time in the same session. What we’re getting at is that, in theory, the Mercedes should’ve been significantly slower than the Ferrari during the Bahrain Grand Prix.
One potential reason why this didn’t happen is the driving style. Given that Vettel demanded a 38 lap stint from the softs, his driving would’ve needed to be conservative to stand any chance of successfully completing the one stop. It was so improbable that even Pirelli said they were “expect[ing] two pit stops for most of the cars” during the race.
However, Bottas ability to stay within 6s of Vettel was evident from the moment he exited the pits. This is important because it shows that Bottas could stick with the Ferrari, even when Vettel wasn’t intending to complete the risky one-stop.
“We had targeted two stops and that’s why we had chosen Soft tires,” Vettel said to media post-race. This suggests that from the moment Ferrari exited the pits, they were driving with the intention to pit again, somewhat discrediting the idea that Vettel was driving conservatively.
The other important factor to remember in this debate is the characteristics of Bahrain. Mercedes’ haven’t recorded a 1-2 here since 2014 and they’ve let Ferrari walk away with the top prize for the last two years.
Ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Toto Wolff said he expected the race to be “challenging”, mainly because the extreme conditions make it “extremely difficult to find the right set-up with the car.” In 2017, Mercedes suffered with their long run pace during the Grand Prix, consequently handing Ferrari a win.
Mercedes have always struggled at tracks with unusual climates; Malaysia, Bahrain and Singapore have all sprung surprises over the years, with Ferrari taking shock victories at all venues in the turbo-hybrid era.
Simply put, the Mercedes was most likely not at peak performance in Bahrain, something Bottas clearly believes is true, as he stated post-race, “We still have work to do, especially for conditions like here in Bahrain.”
The mere fact that Mercedes weren’t at 100% in Bahrain could explain why Ferrari could grab a more comfortable victory, eerily similar to how they did in 2017.
If this is indeed true, then, unfortunately for the Italian fans, China’s more ‘normal’ conditions would suggest a return to dominant form for Mercedes. “Shanghai has been a good track for us in the past,” Toto Wolff said in a statement earlier this week.
But, only time will tell which team truly has the pace advantage in 2018.