Analysis: F1 treading a fine line on competition - will updates in Spain tip the balance?
The F1 season so far has a broadly positive balance sheet; it has featured two good races and two dull ones with little or no close racing, but the...
The F1 season so far has a broadly positive balance sheet; it has featured two good races and two dull ones with little or no close racing, but the saving grace has been the close competition between Ferrari and Mercedes.
Because behind that there is a large gap to Red Bull, then another large gap back to the rest.
And on tracks where overtaking is hard and the tyres offer little or no degradation, like we saw in Sochi, then the cars run in performance order with no real chance for anyone to spring any surprises.
Those involved it the title battle are talking the other side up and predicting that it will go down to the wire in Abu Dhabi in November; the competition is finely balanced between Ferrari and Mercedes, but the reality is that everyone in F1 is holding their breath to see the step Mercedes makes in Spain.
A gap between the two front runners could easily open if Mercedes bring along an updated car to Barcelona that not only carries the aerodynamic and engine steps that all teams will be aiming to bring with this first major upgrade of the season, but also addresses its weight issue.
And if that happens then the field could spread out, to the detriment of the show.
To illustrate the point, below is the race trace from Sochi (click to enlarge), showing the gaps between the cars in seconds, see how they widen as the race goes on (end of the race on the right of the frame. The sharp drops are pits stops).
The gaps are large. Now imagine a clear gap between Mercedes and Ferrari.
Red Bull is in a race of its own and then the midfield is miles off. This is different from recent seasons, where Mercedes had a pace advantage over everyone, but the field was more closely grouped behind them and a Force India could score a podium, as it did twice last season. That's a pipe dream for this year.
Carlos Sainz commented on it this week: "If there is something missing in F1, it is that this gap is so great between the first two and the others," he said.
"If you look at the budgets, you know that it is impossible to reach them. So I hope Liberty finds agreement among everyone so that it [gap] can be reduced."
This is something that F1's new owners Liberty Media are well aware of; it's one of the main areas Ross Brawn and his team are working to resolve for the next generation, so that all the teams have more of a chance to compete and even to win.
Mercedes on a diet
There were suggestions at the start of the season that the Mercedes, with its long wheelbase, was around 8kg over its ideal weight, which equates to almost 3/10ths of a second at most F1 venues.
They have been working on a weight loss programme back at Brackley in tandem with the usual development programmes. So if that is added to a decent step on aerodynamics and engine, it could tip the balance in Mercedes' favour.
Ferrari has done amazingly well to produce such a competitive car from where it was last season.
However the pressure is on Ferrari as its record on in-season updates has been patchy in recent years. Many upgrades have not had the desired effect and kept pace with other competitors.
Anything less than a decent step from them on aerodynamics and engine and the balance could start to shift.
What Ferrari has in its favour is the way it uses the new generation Pirelli tyres, especially the softer end of the range. The Mercedes has a narrower operating window for the tyres, whereas the Ferrari has more bandwidth. This will take some time to resolve.
For Spain Pirelli has disappointingly chosen the harder tyres, despite the fact that in winter testing teams were using the ultrasoft and supersoft tyres quite happily. The ultrasoft is probably not the right tyre for the weekend but a selection of supersoft -soft - medium would have made for a more interesting weekend, as we flagged up after the first round.
Daniel Ricciardo has said as much in the Red Bull preview to the Spanish GP:
"We’re going for the harder tyres for the first time this year in Barcelona. I’m not sure if it’ll help us or not but I just don’t think it’s going to be good for anyone.
"The tyres are already hard enough so the harder compounds are just way too hard. Hopefully for Barcelona’s sake it’s hot and therefore these harder tyres work, but if it’s cold then it’s going to be a struggle for everyone."
Can Red Bull close the gap?
As well as the Mercedes and Ferrari updates, it will be interesting to see what Red Bull brings to the table in Spain. The energy drinks maker failed to live up to expectations with its 2017 challenger, which is not only down on power but also aerdyanamically less stable than its rivals.
Adrian Newey's team has been working flat out on a B spec car for Spain, while Renault has said that it will be delaying its revised engine, which addresses issues with the hybrid system, until June.
Last year, for reference, Red Bull was 1.7 seconds off the pace of the Mercedes in Sochi, but then in Spain it was just 0.6s (and they won the race after the Mercedes pair took each other out) so it shows the kind of gains that can be made.
The midfield battle is very entertaining, but even there its hard for the cars to overtake or pull interesting strategy moves on each other when the tyre choice is too hard. There will be movement as some teams gain more from development than others and Renault is worth watching as they seem to be unlocking performance now from their car in the fight with Force India and Williams for fourth and fifth places. Williams has only one driver scoring points and there is no chance of the other being replaced. Renault also has only one scoring points, but the other may be less secure.
What about Honda?
The most extraordinary story of the season so far, without doubt, has been the failure of the Honda engine, after a positive upward trend in 2016. The engine's problems are well catalogued, but engine fixes take time.
Behind the scenes Mercedes engineers have been working hard in a rare show of sporting camaraderie, helping the Japanese manufacturer to speed up the recovery process, to stabilise the parts that keep going wrong and to maximise the integration with the McLaren chassis. There is a lot to be gained and in many ways the future participation of Fernando Alonso in the championship beyond June may well depend upon it.
Alonso is currently diverted by the Indy 500 experience, which has given him a fresh motivation and distracted his attention from the F1 disaster.
A line was drawn in the sand after the testing and first race and the recovery plan will not spare Honda's blushes; nothing less than 'whatever it takes' will do to make the rest of the season respectable for McLaren and to give the commercial team something to sell against for 2018.
Alonso will get wiped out in front of his home crowd next weekend, but his mind will be on Indy. Once he comes back in Montreal, it will hopefully be to a clear sign of progress.
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