F1 2017: What are strengths and weaknesses in Ferrari v Mercedes?
Sky F1's Mark Hughes analyses the battle at the front and explains why the balance of power is set to ebb and flow this season
Last Updated: 25/04/17 6:03am
The key pattern to emerge from the first three races of the season is that the Mercedes is the fastest in qualifying but the Ferrari is faster for longer in the races.
This has set up a fascinating dynamic that lent the races in Australia, China and Bahrain real tension. If the slower race day car qualifies ahead of the faster one, it generally promises a good race - and that's what we've had each time.
The Mercedes seems to have two things going for it over the Ferrari on Saturday - it energises its tyres more, giving instant high peak grip, and seems to have more of a one-lap power boost.
But on race day the power difference evaporates to nothing and the more aggressive way the Merc treats its tyres becomes a liability rather than the asset of qualifying. So each time Sebastian Vettel has been able to chase down a Mercedes and in two of the three races emerge ahead after the first stops.
The Ferrari keeps its tyres in better shape and is more adaptable to tyre choice, seems to have a broader window that allowed it in Bahrain, for example, to be fast on both the super-soft and soft whereas the Mercedes was only happy on the harder tyre.
The degree to which Vettel has been able to offset the Mercedes qualifying advantage with the Ferrari's more flowing and compliant handling has varied according to how power sensitive the track is and how hot or cool it is. The Mercedes tyre usage would see it as its best over one lap of a cool track.
One lap on a cool track with a layout that brings a lot of lap time reward for the extra power would be the ideal Mercedes qualifying scenario - but that's a combination we have not yet had.
In Melbourne we had a track with quite low power sensitivity and highish track temperatures - a combination that probably favoured Ferrari where Vettel qualified on the front row, slower than Lewis Hamilton but with a useful gap over Valtteri Bottas.
In Shanghai we had a track of medium power sensitivity but a cool surface, in theory a better combination for Mercedes, but offset by how punishing the layout is of the front tyres, allowing the more compliant, lighter Ferrari to claw back some of that loss. There, Vettel was again on the front row, closer to Hamilton than he'd been in Melbourne, but with the improving Bottas only 0.001s slower. This time Vettel had the front row by the skin of his teeth.
In Bahrain we had a highly power-sensitive track layout (good for Mercedes) but a pretty warm track surface (not so good). But the power sensitivity overwhelmed the tyre behaviour differences and Vettel was dismayed to find himself around half-a-second off the all-Mercedes front row.
Going into the race, that second row grid position potentially presented Ferrari with a real problem even if its car was again faster on race day than the Merc. Previously Vettel only had one Mercedes to chase down to the stops; this time he had two.
He put that right within a few hundred metres of the start by getting between them into turn one. It was then relatively easy for him to stay with the leading Mercedes and have Ferrari use its greater tyre durability to undercut Bottas ahead. This was almost undone by the subsequent Safety Car, but the wheelgun problem in the Merc pits cancelled out the favourable timing of the safety car for them. Which allowed Vettel to stay ahead and indeed pull away.
But even if the Safety Car had allowed the leading Merc to stay ahead of Vettel, Ferrari would have gotten a second bite at the cherry for this was a two-stop race. In theory Vettel should again have been able to be close behind the leading Merc and had the tyre life to have undercut very early.
Ferrari's worst scenario would be a track that is highly power sensitive with cool conditions but a very low tyre degradation rate that ensures the race is a one-stopper. In such circumstances, another all-Merc front row would be likely and from there Ferrari would find it extremely difficult to undercut two Mercs with only one pit stop. Furthermore, the Ferrari's race day pace advantage would be minimised by the cool conditions.
The above scenario sounds exactly like Sochi next weekend.
Let's see how it plays out.
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