Brackley is usually a pretty good place to be on Monday morning. Mercedes are accustomed to returning home from a Grand Prix weekend with the big trophy and the back page accolades. However, as F1 has radically altered its regulations, the mood in Mercedes’ debrief will have changed as well.
Sebastian Vettel has had the spring back in his step all winter and this weekend has made it clear as to why. Vettel was imperious in yesterday’s curtain-raising race, with his SF70H’s pace proving too hot for Mercedes to handle.
It’s only one race, of course, but signs that Ferrari have 2017’s best package have already become evident.
From lap one onwards, Ferrari’s intentions were clear. After a great launch, Lewis Hamilton looked to extend his lead. With Vettel splitting the Mercedes, the race was poised to be a classic tale of one Mercedes breaking clear while the other valiantly battles back to second place.
Vettel had other ideas. He managed to match Hamilton’s pace, staying glued to his gearbox throughout the opening stint. This was critical, as with overtaking difficult and the race shaping up to be a one-stop, Vettel’s best chance to beat Hamilton would come during the pit-stop phase.
When Hamilton stopped on lap 17, having complained about declining grip from his ultrasoft tyres, Vettel had enough rubber left at his disposal to extend his advantage out front. With Hamilton bottled up in traffic, Vettel made the overcut work. He took the lead and was unchallenged for the rest of the afternoon.
Several elements in the battle for Melbourne glory will be of serious concern to Mercedes when they analyse the race in the coming days.
- Mercedes seem less efficient at following other cars
Vettel managed to follow Hamilton very closely in the opening phase of the race. Whether he had the capability to invoke an overtake is unknown, but he certainly looked comfortable in Hamilton’s wake. When the Mercedes, however, cruised up to the back of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull it was a different story.
Despite being on fresh tyres, Hamilton could not get within half a second of Verstappen. Not being able to pass the Red Bull eventually proved pivotal and is an early indication that Mercedes could once again have a package that works well when leading a race, yet is inefficient when following rivals.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Mercedes’ flow structures are far more complicated than that of their rivals. Triple element tower bargeboards may look sublime and work well in a wind-tunnel, but it’s not difficult to see why they might be affected by turbulence.
- Mercedes were uncomfortable with degradation rates
Tyre degradation is evidently less of a factor this season. The infamous performance “cliff” is no longer an issue, with the harder construction of the 2017 tyres meaning that wear is far more linear, allowing drivers to push for longer.
With a battle to record the fastest lap of the race enthusing drivers and enraging race engineers in the closing stages, it is clear to see that degradation has damatically stabalised.
However, no one had told Hamilton that. With Ferrari applying considerable pressure, Hamilton regularly took to the radio to complain about the performance of his rubber. He stated that he had no grip on his ultrasoft set early on, while just a handful of laps into his stint on the soft tyre, he reported that the tyres had already overheated.
In stark contrast, Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were free of rubber-related worries. Both set blistering laps late on in the race, with Raikkonen’s 1:26.538 winning the DHL Fastest Lap award. Vettel’s 1:26.638 was similarly impressive.
While it is important to note that Valtteri Bottas managed a 1:26.593 in the second Mercedes, Hamilton was locked into the 1:27’s. Ferrari have what appears to be an early edge with regards to tyre wear, with the SF70H potentially being less sensitive in this area.
- Hamilton was at maximum attack and still unable to close
While differences in degradation levels are difficult to quantify, the stopwatch is the obvious yardstick of performance. Just after the pit-stop phase, we saw the clearest indication yet that 2017 could be a year of Mercedes chasing rather than leading.
With Vettel having constructed a six second advantage, Hamilton was informed of the team’s switch to “Plan B.” With this being a two stop strategy, Hamilton was asked to close up to Vettel in order to execute the planned second trip to the pits and give him a chance of closing down the leader in the closing stages of the race.
Low 1:27’s were required of Hamilton, but the Englishman was pinned to mid 1:27’s. He was only able to match Vettel and as a result, even the magician that is James Vowles on the Mercedes pit-wall could not conjure up a strategy to get Hamilton back in front. They switched back to “Plan A” and with that message to Lewis, threw in the towel.
While we cannot identify whether Vettel had any lap time in reserve – albeit dipping into the 1:26’s just for fun late on would suggest so – Hamilton played all his cards. Ferrari were simply faster than Mercedes in Melbourne, as the Silver Arrows could not cope with Vettel’s speed at any point.
Was this a flash in the pan? While it is fair to say Ferrari tend to perform well at Albert Park, the circuit has been somewhat of a fortress for Hamilton during his career. The Briton took his seventh podium at the circuit yesterday and his sixth Pole Position in Australia on Saturday. Swings and roundabouts.
What is evident, is that Ferrari are not about to regress to their sub-par 2016 form. The SF70H is already a ‘Merc-beater.’ The Chinese Grand Prix and trip to the permanent Shanghi International Circuit will provide more clues as to whether Mercedes are now only the second best team in F1.
If I was a betting man, however, I’d say the smart money for 2017 glory is now on Ferrari.