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F1 Performance analysis: Snapshot of Mercedes vs Ferrari at Barcelona

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F1 Performance analysis: Snapshot of Mercedes vs Ferrari at Barcelona
Mar 3, 2016, 10:02 AM

Everyone wants to know how close Ferrari is to Mercedes in performance as the pre-season testing enters its final few days.

Everyone wants to know how close Ferrari is to Mercedes in performance as the pre-season testing enters its final few days.

This season has been particularly difficult to read as in addition to the variables of engine modes and fuel loads, there are now five different tyre compounds in play.

However, based on what we know of the relative performance of the Pirelli tyres this winter here in Barcelona, with the help of JA on F1 technical adviser Dominic Harlow here in Barcelona, we can attempt to compare a snapshot of Mercedes vs Ferrari from Wednesday's running and the result is closer than you might think.

Lewis Hamilton set a 1m23.622 on soft tyres, while Sebastian Vettel did a 1m 24.611 on mediums. Pirelli data shows that the performance difference between the two compounds is 0.8s. So on the face of it, the gap was just over 2/10ths of a second.

Fuel loads are hard to discern, but both drivers set their times on runs of roughly similar length; short runs of around 3/4 timed laps.

The two laps were also set in roughly similar conditions, within an hour of each other at the end of the morning. The only varialble as far as the conditions are concerned was the wind, which was gusty on Wednesday. There was a bad tailwind into Turn 12, which unsettled the cars. This also happened at last year's Grand Prix. One of the drivers may have suffered more of a gust than the other, we don't know that.

Hamilton

The two key sectors here are Sectors 2 and 3, which are both roughly 40% of the lap time and are both indicative of downforce and tyre grip. Sector 3 is slightly more weighted towards tyre grip, Sector 2 more towards downforce.

Hamilton did a Sector 3 time of 29.101s, while Vettel did 29.616. Part of this will be down to the tyre performance, the soft on the Mercedes will grip better through the low speed chicane and have better traction out of it. Sector 3 is an important benchmark sector here for low speed performance. It's always the one we look at during race weekend to assess who might go well at the following race in Monaco.

Sector 2 is the one which shows medium and high speed downforce here at Barcelona. Hamilton set a sector time of 31.344s and Vettel 31.853s, which is proportionally the same difference as there was between them in Sector 3.

What is interesting compared to last week is that Mercedes are clearly running a much higher downforce package this week, as Hamilton's straight line speeds are lower. They are running more as Red Bull would typically run, for example.

Hamilton

Hamilton was doing 337km/h top speed on the straight last week and this week he was down at 326km/h. The Ferrari is also running more downforce and Vettel's top speed was 328km/h, compared to 331km/h last week. Part of the deficit compared to last week could be the headwind, but the general trend for both teams is clearly towards loading up the downforce, in preference to running lower drag.

Mercedes played a lot with this balance last year.

Both cars are exiting the final corner at roughly the same speeds; Hamilton at 285km/h and Vettel at 284km/h. They cross the start line and the end of straight speed is 326km/h for Hamilton and 328km/h for Vettel. Both are using DRS as the speeds increase by around 45kmh from startline to end of straight.

Sebastian Vettel

This comparison indicates that in both cases the engines are turned up to a reasonable degree. They are not running with the engines down, for sure. However the real devil in the detail is that final qualifying engine mode, which has been Mercedes secret in the past two seasons and which Ferrari have invested hugely in seeking for 2016. We cannot see that yet and it will probably be Melbourne before we do. Neither team is going to show its hand on that front during winter testing.

Ferrari vs Mercedes

Conclusion

Winter testing is always hard to read, but hopefully this little snapshot of one day in Barcelona where two cars ran in similar configuration at a similar time, with a roughly similar fuel load, indicates that Ferrari is perhaps closer than people have been making out.

Of course, Mercedes could be masking performance in the fuel loads by a couple of tenths, but the conclusion from this comparison, is that when you take out the difference between the soft tyre Hamilton was using and the medium tyre that Vettel was using, the Ferrari was roughly 0.2s slower.

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