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Analysis: Who's got the real speed after Melbourne season opener

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Analysis: Who's got the real speed after Melbourne season opener
Mar 21, 2014, 2:41 PM

As always on JA on F1 we like to bring the fans closer to the sport in many ways and after the first race of the new Formula 1 in Australia, we've ...

As always on JA on F1 we like to bring the fans closer to the sport in many ways and after the first race of the new Formula 1 in Australia, we've analysed the performances of some of the leading teams to give a better picture of the relative pace at this early stage of the season.

Thanks to JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan, we have some pace charts which give a good idea of the relative speed of the cars and Mark has given us his thoughts on what it all means and what we can expect in the coming weeks and months. The graphs show the fuel-corrected lap times of the cars in question, as a direct comparison of pace.

[Note: Click to enlarge the graphs - The vertical axis is the lap time in seconds, the lower the position on the graph the faster the lap time. The horizontal axis is the Lap Number. The start of the race is to the left and the finish is to the right on lap 58]

Williams vs McLaren

Two of the great names of F1, Williams and McLaren are back on form this season and were contending for podiums in the opening race. McLaren managed to get Kevin Magnussen up there - joined by Jenson Button after the disqualification of Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo - while Williams was challenging for a podium with Valtteri Bottas until he hit the wall on Lap 10. He still recovered to finish 6th.

The first speed graph (click to enlarge) shows the relative pace of McLaren and Williams. Things to note here are Button's final stint on the medium tyre, which is strong and indicates that the McLaren goes well on that tyre. Magnussen lost some time on his middle stint and dropped back a bit from Ricciardo during this period, possibly a mixture of inexperience and instructions to save fuel. He was clearly following varying fuel modes in the final stint, as a prelude to an attack on Ricciardo at the end, but the challenge never came to much as he didn't want to risk a certain third place.

What is clear from this graph is the inherent pace of the Williams in the dry. It is clear to see in the first stint, which is superior to the McLaren pace. Bottas was able to push hard and gain places. Being aggressive like this is easier when working through the positions from P5 backwards but becomes harder the further forward you go as the stakes get higher. Bottas crashed when in P6. Had he been in P3 at the time, chances are he would not have been pushing quite so hard.

There is every reason to believe that they will challenge for the podium in Sepang next week, based on the impressive pace shown in Melbourne.

A concern for Williams will be its wet weather performance (not shown in the graph). In the wet qualifying, the Williams lacked rear end stability in the wet. Williams has had a problem in this area for a few years now and never perfected the Exhaust Blown Diffuser, which helped calm down the rear end of the F1 cars. The EBD is banned now, which helps Williams, but the car is clearly still quite unstable at the rear, which the drivers can cope with in the dry conditions, but struggle with in the wet. This will be a concern for Malaysia next week, where it is often wet.

How big is Mercedes' advantage?

Looking at the second chart above (click to enlarge), which features only the Mercedes-powered teams and the one below which features Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, it is clear that Mercedes has a significant pace advantage, but looking at how it was managed, it's clear that they did not reveal the full extent of it in Melbourne.

Only at the start and after the Safety car (Lap 15 onwards), as Rosberg looked to establish a lead, did we see some of the speed the car has. The rest of the time he was managing the race. This is reminiscent of the way Sebastian Vettel drove the final part of last season in the Red Bull, but the pace advantage here is greater than Vettel enjoyed in the second half of last year.

At times, particularly in the second stint after the safety car, the Mercedes is 1.2 or 1.3 seconds faster than its pursuers. In development terms, with last year's rules that is equivalent to about a year of aerodynamic development. But with this "immature" 2014 technology of the new hybrid turbo power units, the gap will be made up more quickly, as teams and engine builders make breakthroughs. Renault and Ferrari have yet to fully exploit the power unit they have.

The teams look at graphs exactly like these and the others will consider Mercedes' pace ominous. They have a buffer and it will take a lot for others to catch up.

Red Bull were faster than expected after their testing problems, while Ferrari did not show its true pace as the drivers were managing electrical issues and braking issues in Raikkonen's case.

Key to this will be the Technical Directives from the FIA's Charlie Whiting and Jo Bauer. These are private documents circulated only to the technical heads of teams which give permissions and instructions from the FIA, essentially amendments to technical regulations. The public and media do not get to see them but effectively they supersede the F1 Technical Regulations.

This year, as the fuel flow metering row in Australia showed, there will be all sorts of advantages sought by teams and the FIA will be issuing Technical Directives left right and centre to deal with them. It is here, as much as in the development race in wind tunnels back at the factories, that the title will be won.

The power units are supposedly homologated now, which means only adjustments for reliability reasons are permitted. But sometimes things are permitted under the premise of reliability which have performance advantages or allow an engine maker to maximise what is already there. This is the key to the 2014 championship.

Mercedes will not want to change anything!

And for Malaysia? What happens there?

Malaysia will be a huge challenge for the teams, as the heat and humidity will stress the cooling ability to the limit and many teams will be obliged to open up the body work to increase cooling. This will damage aerodynamic performance and in some cases will add to the car's instability in corners. Unlike Melbourne it is very easy to overtake in Sepang, thanks to the two long straights linked with a hairpin and so a battle like Ricciardo vs Magnussen would have a different outcome, when one car has 309km/h top speed and the other 273km/h, as was the case in Melbourne.

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