Russian GP: What must Mercedes improve to defeat Ferrari?
Mercedes have won all but one of this season's qualy battles. So where and why are they falling short?
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 26/04/17 8:16am
Find speed on the softest tyres on race day
Mercedes have taken pole position for every race so far this year, beating Ferrari by an average of three tenths and Red Bull by over a second.
Mercedes Qualifying advantage
|Event||Gap to nearest Ferrari||Gap to nearest Red Bull|
|Australia||+ 0.268||+ 1.297|
|China||+ 0.186||+ 1.355|
|Bahrain||+ 0.478||+ 0.776|
|Average||+ 0.310||+ 1.14|
But that substantial advantage on Saturdays has then been followed by what appears to be a small but critical disadvantage against the Ferrari on race day.
And that disadvantage has been particularly apparent at the start.
In Australia, Sebastian Vettel was the fastest driver through the race's opening stint, laying down a race-winning platform. And in Bahrain he took a race-winning initiative after matching both Mercedes cars through the early stages before taking the lead with a smart undercut.
"The main question mark is the first stint as I didn't have the pace," reflected Valtteri Bottas in Melbourne. "The car was sliding around a lot with the ultrasofts but at the end it was feeling consistent and I could really push."
As discussed below, the Mercedes may have a problem with heavy fuel loads. But that can, at most, be only half the story. Vettel's early stop put the lead Ferrari and Mercedes on divergent strategies in Shanghai but when they did converge for the final 20 laps, and when both teams set their fastest lap times of the race and both of their lead drivers were pushing, Vettel was quicker than Hamilton.
Something else to ponder on: In Bahrain, Ferrari ran Vettel on a supersoft-supersoft-soft strategy, but Mercedes only felt able to put Hamilton on a supersoft-soft-soft selection because of Bottas' second-stint struggles on the supersofts.
And rewind to winter testing for another apparent tell-tale giveaway of a Mercedes weakness: over the eight days in Barcelona, the team's fastest time was set on supersofts rather than ultrasofts.
In short: the softer the tyre, the less comfortable - and relatively strong against the Ferrari - the Mercedes seems to be.
Find pace with fuel on board
But according to Lewis Hamilton, it may be too simplistic to suggest Mercedes are losing out because it doesn't like soft rubber.
"Basically, at the beginning, the car is a big heavy lump," Hamilton revealed after Bahrain. "The grip just doesn't feel good at all and the car is sliding around. Then the car gets lighter and it gets more and more comfortable. When you put the fresher tyres on at the end, the car is more nimble and like it is in qualifying. There's a point where it goes one way or another."
This would seemingly explain why the Mercedes looked faster than Ferrari during their final exchange in Bahrain - although it would be naive to think that Vettel wasn't holding plenty back - and would point towards Mercedes already curing some of their race-day weaknesses since the season's start.
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It was also Mercedes' overriding focus of attention during last week's post-race two-day test in Bahrain when the fastest time recorded by the W08 was three seconds shy of its Sakhir pole time.
"Our focus was on advancing our understanding of the tyres and also the rear of the car so that we can improve our long runs - particularly during the race and on the supersoft compound," reported Hamilton.
Make the Pirelli tyres last
To add to the list of reoccurring themes over the opening three races - Mercedes' qualifying pace not being maintained on race day, the Merc struggling relative to the opposition on its opening stint and the Ferrari liking softer compounds - can be the inability of the W08 to preserve the Pirellis the way the SF70-H can.
This was most marked in Australia when Vettel's first stint was 30 per cent longer than Hamilton's but was also evident in China when Vettel was faster than the victorious Hamilton through the final stint on tyres two laps older.
"We were focusing all-day on the long-run pace, which was a bit of a problem for us on Sunday compared to Ferrari," added Bottas after taking over from Hamilton for the final day of the Bahrain test. "We did some interesting tests to try and improve both the tyre life and the race pace."
Mercedes aren't alone in this issue. The Renault, for instance, looks to be fourth-fastest on single-lap pace but has struggled on every Sunday so far after chewing up its Pirellis. Conversely, no car in the field seems as proficient as protecting tyre life as the Ferrari. Mercedes' real problem in this regard could simply be that the Ferrari is abnormally kind on its rubber.
Match Ferrari on strategy
Look beyond the timesheets, meanwhile, and one other potential weakness in Mercedes' arsenal leaps out from the opening three races: Ferrari's superior race calls.
Mercedes erred badly by pitting Hamilton early in Australia, surrendering track position in a race where barely any positions changed on track, while Ferrari took the Bahrain race by the scruff of the neck by pitting Vettel as early as lap 10. It was bold, imaginative and ultimately decisive.
'Surprisingly, Mercedes look a little flustered by Ferrari seizing the initiative in strategy and having the more comfortable race car,' noted Sky F1's Martin Brundle in his post-race column.
Cut out the silly mistakes
And then there's the things that F1 teams just can't legislate for but which make live sport such a subject of fascination.
Bottas was hamstrung in his opening stint in Bahrain after the generator Mercedes used to reduce tyre pressure on the grid failed. Vettel's undercut lap could have been negated by a smart stop; instead, a problem with the wheel guns meant Bottas was stationary for four seconds longer than Vettel - spending 28.3 seconds in the pits compared to 24.7 for the Ferrari - and emerged in second. And then, as a partial consequence of Bottas' tardy stop, Hamilton unnecessarily backed-up Daniel Ricciardo, triggering the five-second penalty which cost him a genuine victory shot.
Lots of small things, in other words, added up to Mercedes' second defeat in three races.
The margins between Ferrari and Mercedes - a few tenths here, a few tenths there - are so fine that every slender advantage and disadvantage has the potential to be pivotal.
"It's small percentages now, which is what racing should be about," said Hamilton. "It means all of us in our team need to be operating at our maximum."
The pressure is on.
Russian Grand Prix - Sky Sports F1 TV Times
|Session||On air||Session start|
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