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Analysis: Can Ferrari close the gap on Mercedes in second half of the championship?

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Analysis: Can Ferrari close the gap on Mercedes in second half of the championship?
Aug 17, 2015, 11:13 PM

The second half of the F1 season kicks off this weekend in Spa, Belgium.

The second half of the F1 season kicks off this weekend in Spa, Belgium. Based on what we saw in the first half, which teams have the real prospect of moving forwards and improving their competitiveness and what will the second half of the season hold?

To help bring fans a little closer to the sport, the analysis prepared here is exactly what a team will typically do for each event and is expressed in the same way. It gives an insight into the relative performance of the teams and shows trends of competitiveness, especially in qualifying pace. It has been prepared by our colleague Will Saunders, with additional insights from JA on F1 technical adviser Dominic Harlow.

Qualifying through the first half of the 2015 season has been dominated by Mercedes, with the Silver Arrows taking pole position at all ten of the Grands Prix to date.

Nico Rosberg

This trend continues the pattern from 2014, when Mercedes qualified at the front at every race but one - with Felipe Massa the last man to deny Mercedes a pole position at the 2014 Austrian GP. Mercedes uniform dominance of qualifying since has left the Brackley outfit only three races short of equalling Williams’ record of 24 consecutive pole positions from 1992-93.

However, qualifying is about more than just the race for pole position. As arguably the purest measurement of outright speed across a race weekend, qualifying is key to assessing the teams’ relative performance, the rate of development between the teams, and the intra-team performance of each team’s drivers.

Will Saunders

AVERAGE TEAM PERFORMANCE

This graph (click all graphs to enlarge) demonstrates the average team gaps to pole position at each race thus far in 2015. Mercedes position at the top of the graph demonstrates that they have qualified on pole at every race so far this season, and therefore have a team average gap of 0% to pole position.

On the right hand side, the y-axis demonstrates the average percentage behind Mercedes’ pole time that each team has qualified at each race, by taking the mean differential of the individual team drivers’ gap to pole position. For example, in Melbourne (on the far left of the graph) Sebastian Vettel qualified 1.430 seconds, or 1.66%, off Lewis Hamilton’s pole time, and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen qualified 1.463 seconds, or 1.69% behind Hamilton, for a team average of 1.68%.

There are several striking conclusions from this graph. At the front, only once has a team been able to qualify on average within 1% of Mercedes’ pole position time, with Ferrari enjoying an average deficit of 0.58% in qualifying second and fourth in Bahrain.

The ebb and flow of Mercedes’ advantage at certain circuits is also well illustrated in this chart. Bahrain and Canada demonstrate a trend for upward spikes at power circuits as Mercedes and Ferrari-engined teams reduce the average performance deficit to Mercedes due to track configurations which negate some of the W06’s performance advantage through mid- and high-speed corners. On the flipside, high downforce circuits such as Spain and Hungary play to Mercedes’ strengths, and the downward trend of most teams at these races (with the exception of Red Bull and Toro Rosso) highlights the formidable performance of the Mercedes aero package.

Behind Mercedes, the hierarchy is muddled, with eight of the remaining teams typically bunched within a fairly narrow bandwidth of performance, and team average performance fluctuating race-by-race depending on the particular strengths of the cars. For example, Force India’s early season struggles with generating downforce are illustrated by the sharp downward spike in their performance in Spain, a race in which their drivers qualified 17th and 18th - 3.684 seconds, or 4.35% (Hulkenberg) and 3.741 seconds, or 4.42% (Perez) respectively off pole for a team average gap of 4.38%.

Roberto Merhi

At the back of the field, the gap to Manor is particularly startling, with the team failing to qualify on average within 3% of the next slowest car at any of the nine races they’ve qualified for to date.

However, taking the team average accentuates anomalies such as Sebastian Vettel’s failure to get out of Q1 in Canada, and best reflects the relative strengths of the teams where the drivers are on average closely matched in qualifying (e.g. Williams, Toro Rosso). To get a true reflection of ultimate pace, this second graph considers only each team’s best qualifying performance at each race.

Will Saunders

BEST QUALIFYING PERFORMANCE VS. POLE POSITION

Here, the differences in the configuration and fluctuation of the lines demonstrate clearly where one driver within a team has a significant performance advantage over his teammate. For example, Sebastian Vettel has outqualified Kimi Raikkonen 8-2 across the ten races to date, with an average gap of -0.561s, and accordingly the graph demonstrates that by these metrics, Ferrari have qualified within 1% of Mercedes ultimate pole position time at seven of the ten races – providing a much closer threat than their team average may suggest.

Only once, at the British GP, have Ferrari failed to provide the closest challenge to Mercedes – with Williams qualifying third and fourth at Silverstone.

Certain standout individual performances are also well illustrated in this format, when a particular driver has been able to vastly outperform either his teammate or expectations. For example, Nico Hulkenberg’s fifth place in Austria, Daniel Ricciardo’s fourth place in Hungary or Will Stevens’ effort in finishing over two seconds ahead of teammate Roberto Mehri at Silverstone (and qualifying almost 1% closer to Mercedes’ pole time than any other qualifying lap that Manor have produced across the whole season).

However, discerning patterns within the variables that constitute a natural race-to-race fluctuation is challenging. For the final assessment, we have taken a logarithmic average of the data from graph two in an attempt to demonstrate overall trends across the season.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 22.48.32

SEASON-LONG TRENDS

This graph provides a clear overview of the relative progress of the teams throughout the season when compared to Mercedes’ pole position times – allowing us to extrapolate a rough approximation of the in-season development race.

The big movers in terms of performance are two of the teams who arguably had the most scope to progress during the season: McLaren and Force India. Each demonstrate a clear upward trajectory in terms of qualifying pace relative to pole position, with Force India’s advances attributed to improvements leading up to the launch of the new B-spec VJM08 ahead of the British GP, and McLaren’s relative progress due primarily to ever-improving performance from the Honda engine.

Fernando Alonso

As far as the front of the field is concerned, the trend lines show that Mercedes’ rivals are only making limited relative gains against the Silver Arrows – suggesting a fairly stagnant status quo among the front-running teams.

Unsurprisingly, given their relatively meagre budget, Sauber are the only team to demonstrate a downward trend in qualifying performance relative to Mercedes’ pole position times. Sauber’s increasing lack of qualifying pace is corroborated by their diminishing returns in terms of points-scoring, with 19 of the team’s 22 total points scored in the first three races.

Kimi Raikkonen

CONCLUSIONS

So, following the trend lines through, what pointers can this assessment give for the second half of the season? Given the clear and relatively untroubled nature of their qualifying performances to date, it would be no surprise were Mercedes to continue to dominate qualifying throughout the season – should the sessions remain trouble-free. Only in the rain in Malaysia were Ferrari able to qualify within three tenths of Mercedes, and the Silver Arrows’ advantage in qualifying trim remains formidable.

Mercedes advantage over Ferrari is much larger than the gaps between any of the other teams (for example Vettel to Hamilton vs Bottas to Vettel) so there is probably more chance of Williams catching Ferrari and even more chance of Red Bull catching Williams.

To catch Mercedes in 10 Races Ferrari need to gain almost 0.1s/lap in addition to the normal development rate per event. If we assume the typical wind tunnel development targets of 1 point of downforce per week, or 2pts per event then Ferrari need to gain this plus an additional 3pts per event. So that’s 150% of Mercedes development rate. That seems impossible, based on incremental improvement with a team of a similar size. What is needed is large step changes in Power Unit development and innovation somewhere.

XPB.cc

Williams and Red Bull have consistently been best of the rest behind Mercedes and Ferrari throughout the season, but their team average qualifying positions (7.05 and 8.30 respectively) indicate that they are very much at the mercy of fluctuating form depending on the characteristics of each circuit. Further back, Toro Rosso find themselves with a higher average qualifying position (10.30 – with both Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz sharing the same average qualifying position) than Force India and Lotus, yet behind both teams in the constructors’ standings – highlighting that the team have issues converting strong qualifying performances into consistent points finishes.

Force India made one very significant gain when they introduced their ‘B’ spec car and this affects their average development making it seem better than other teams. What has in fact happened is that they’ve rolled up a winter’s worth of development into the season average as well because they started the season with a car that was much further behind their wind tunnel programme than the other teams. With a normal budget and operation that wouldn’t have happened.

At the back of the field, Sauber have clearly struggled with development, and from having the fifth fastest car in qualifying trim at the start of the season now find themselves ahead of Manor alone in terms of pure qualifying performance. McLaren and Force India will likely see their progress plateau as they optimise their cars towards extracting the maximum from their respective packages. The trend lines project a difficult and lonely second half of the campaign for Manor though, with little sign of tangible progress relative to the performance of their rivals.

What do you think? Leave your comments below

NB - For the purposes of this assessment, we have made the following assumptions:

• ‘Qualifying position’ has been taken as the position in which a driver qualified before any penalties were applied.

• The gaps used are the time difference between a driver’s fastest lap in the session in which they were knocked out, and the ultimate pole position time (hence why Manor’s gaps can be above 107%, as this measurement is based on the Q1 time).

• Where a driver failed to set a time in the session in which they were knocked out, their best time from the preceding session has been taken.

• In wet qualifying sessions (e.g. Malaysia), the gaps have been measured to the fastest time per session due to changing track conditions.
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