F1 test analysis: Is Ferrari really ahead of Mercedes? Here's what to look out for
Today is the 70th anniversary of the first Ferrari car being driven out of the workshop by Enzo Ferrari.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the first Ferrari car being driven out of the workshop by Enzo Ferrari. And the signs from the winter testing are that the newest Ferrari F1 car, the SF70H, is set to race at the front in 2017.
But it's not the headline lap time of 1m 18.634secs, set by Kimi Raikkonen on the final day, which makes F1 insiders believe that Ferrari is able to challenge for wins from the first round.
Single lap times in qualifying simulations during testing are smoke and mirrors; main rivals Mercedes are notorious for masking their one lap pace in testing and practice but then for pulling out stunning times on extreme engine modes for qualifying when it matters.
So is the Ferrari really a Mercedes-beater? Or is it all hype and conjecture?
Rather than single lap analysis, it is the study of the long run pace of the Ferrari that provides the real insight into how strong they truly are relative to their main rivals. And that also tells us the pecking order of the field as a whole after testing.
This is because the teams are obliged to run the maximum fuel load at the start of a race distance simulation and from that we can work out the underlying (fuel corrected) pace of the car. Mercedes could be running with some extra weight and with the engine slightly turned down and we would expect some of that. Ferrari tend to be under pressure to look good at this time before the season. But whether Mercedes are masking 0.3s or 0.6s is impossible for anyone outside the team to say with certainty.
But even so, the numbers here say that Ferrari is ahead by a good 3/10ths on long run pace after the second test. So in all likelihood they are very close on pace in reality, even if Mercedes is sandbagging on the upper end of the scale.
Red Bull has some work to do, as it trails Mercedes by an easily identifiable 4/10ths of a second per lap on long runs, so that is six or seven tenths to Ferrari. But their aerodynamics have been sparse so far, so there is likely to be more to come and they have opted to leave it to the first race to reveal their ideas, rather than let other see them with time to react.
Here is how it looks when the lap times from the best race sims for each team are plotted together.
A plot like this is exactly what the F1 engineers will be studying now as they assess the performance from testing.
In our race plots above (click to enlarge), you can see the relative pace of the cars in action. These are generated using the best long runs of each team during the tests (Key: Purple = Red Bull; Red = Ferrari; Green= Mercedes). We can see that Hamilton is the faster Mercedes driver, Verstappen heads his team mate at Red Bull, while Vettel had a faster race run than Raikkonen at Ferrari. The vertical axis is the lap time (faster times lower down on the plot). THe horizontal axis is the lap number in the stints and the race distance as a whole.
What is particularly interesting here is the parallel line between the Mercedes and Red Bull, using the same tyre order, that shows the Red Bull 4/10ths slower per lap. It's harder to read across from Mercedes to Ferrari as they use a different tyre order; Vettel uses medium tyres in the final stint and softs at the start, where he is extremely quick.
Nevertheless, this is the plot that teams will be looking at when they tell you that Ferrari really was the fastest car in testing, whatever games were going on over single lap qualifying pace.
The equivalent plot to this 12 months ago showed Mercedes clearly ahead, despite the headline lap times showing Ferrari with the fastest single lap. The Scuderia had a chance to win the 2016 Australian Grand Prix, but gradually fell away as the season went on and they ended up winless.
In the second plot we include some other teams, like Williams and Force India for comparison (also as they use the Mercedes engine) and Toro Rosso (which uses the same Renault engine as Red Bull).
Comparing their best runs from week two, it is important to note that the tyres are used in a different order (look in the legend at the bottom) – so Perez and Vettel are on soft in the middle stints when the others are medium. This makes them look particularly fast at this point but the flipside is the others pick up in the last stint on soft tyres, when the Ferrari is on medium. You can see that the pace increases significantly; it looks like the soft is over one second per lap faster than the medium.
Worth noting here is that the Red Bull doesn’t look great in the middle stint on medium tyres. However the Red Bull is on Mercedes pace in the final stint on softs. Considering some of the comments from Daniel Ricciardo it is possible that this is because they are generally a bit on the knife edge with balance. If we are reading this correctly it is something they will be working hard to rectify before Melbourne, where they are expected to bring a revised aero package.
There is real encouragement again for Ferrari as the car seems to work well on all the tyre compounds available this year. In recent years they have been weaker on the medium and harder tyres than Mercedes. That seems not to be the case any longer.
Esteban Ocon did a strong race run on Day 3 for Force india, using different tyre choices, like super soft tyres on the first stint, while Sergio Perez did do a more ‘normal’ race simulation on Day 4 which started on Soft then soft again in stint 2 and this has enabled an easier comparison to the rest of the midfield.
From this we can deduce that the Force India is a quick car, very close on pace to Williams. It's just that they haven't run on low fuel like others, and so are beneath the radar somewhat. Williams is a shade faster at this stage, but it is noticeable that Lance Stroll had obviously been given strict instructions to drive more calmly in week two, after having two incidents in week one. He was not pushing hard and aiming for consistency so he could get his and the car's mileage up.
Some way back Renault are hard to place as they didn't seem able to recreate in week two the pace they had at the end of week one. We believe that they are in the very tight midfield battle with Toro Rosso and Haas. We cannot separate them.
The further down the grid you go, the more the tyre become a problem, for the teams with less downforce it is very hard to 'switch on' the larger format Pirelli tyres. The Italian company has selected soft, medium and hard for the Spanish GP, despite the fact that we are looking at one stop fewer anyway due to the tyres than last year. This exacerbates the gap back to the teams with less downforce.
Sauber are very slow, while McLaren are the real surprise of testing. They covered just over one third of the mileage of Mercedes and were slow.
Instead of taking a further stop on from 2016 and moving into the space behind the top three teams, as they were targetting, they are two seconds a lap off the pace of the Williams, which is the benchmark for the front of midfield. As most of the problems are in the Honda engine, which is both underpowered and unreliable, they will not catch up quickly and it is set to be a very frustrating season for the team.
Other notes from week two were that Valtteri Bottas improved his pace relative to Lewis Hamilton on the longer runs and we will see in Melbourne how far off he is in qualifying trim.
The conclusion is that Ferrari has an innovative car with low wishbones, high sidepods and deeply undercut bodywork that is working aerodynamically, while the engine has improved and did not miss a beat in testing. The single lap pace looks promising, but it has been a Ferrari weakness for many years and we will only find out where the car stands relative to its rivals for qualifying after the first four rounds, using a variety of tyre compounds. It is no use having strong race pace if you qualify behind your rivals on a tight track where the strategy is likely to be one-stop.
Red Bull has work to do, but will improve a lot over the season and we expect all three teams to win races. One suspects that the weight of history will weigh on Ferrari, who tend to go strongly in testing, but fall away as the year goes on, while Both Red Bull and Mercedes will be powering on with development. Can Ferrari buck that trend in 2017?
Both with also be studying the Ferrari aero solution closely - Mercedes will have an advantage there because new technical director James Allison oversaw the concept of the 2017 Ferrari and its development up to July.
Whether the concept is easily copyable is open to question.
Everyone will have updates in Melbourne that will affect their competitive situations somewhat, but this is the way we believe things stand after winter testing.What conclusions have you come to after testing? Leave your comments in the section below
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F1 test analysis: Is Ferrari really ahead of Mercedes? Here's what to look out for
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