'Ferrari could challenge Mercedes for victory in Bahrain'
Sky F1's Mark Hughes explains why the Scuderia could be even closer to the Silver Arrows in Bahrain based on Melbourne
Last Updated: 01/11/19 3:43pm
Last year Ferrari qualified 1.4s slower than Mercedes around Melbourne. This time Ferrari qualified within 0.8s of the Mercedes pole time.
Furthermore, last year Albert Park was the furthest off the pace Ferrari qualified all year (when expressed as a percentage). Although race two of 2015 was in Malaysia (placed much later in the 2016 calendar), at race three in Bahrain, the Ferrari qualifying deficit to Mercedes was down to 0.905s.
Essentially, the Ferrari was around 0.5s per lap more competitive in Bahrain qualifying than it had been in Australia. If (an important if) the switch of tracks finds the same benefit for Ferrari this time around, it would suggest a Mercedes qualifying advantage in Bahrain of no more than 0.3s.
Different season, different cars, but the patterns and traits of performance between the two cars does seem quite similar this year to last. The Mercedes advantage over Ferrari does appear to be bigger on Saturday than Sunday and it does partly seem related to how potent its qualifying engine mode is and partly to the Ferraris' struggles to generate front tyre temperature early in a single lap. A Ferrari that can get to within 0.3s of a Mercedes in qualifying might very well be able to match its pace on race day.
Until the red flag stoppage at Melbourne, Sebastian Vettel was of course leading for Ferrari and might have been expected to have won but for Alonso's race-stopping crash. But Vettel's place had everything to do with the track positioning bought by his superb start and the mediocre ones of the Mercs.
The comparison was further clouded by the different tyre choices made by each team during the race. Take these things out of the picture and it did appear that the Mercedes retained a performance advantage on race day - but by a smaller amount than in qualifying. Just like last year.
There is potentially another similarity too. Last year, Ferrari ran their power units quite conservatively in Melbourne. But from Malaysia onwards through Bahrain and China, they felt confident enough to turn them up - and in those races they were at least on a par with Mercedes for race day horsepower, possibly even slightly ahead (this was before the Spain clarification on fuel flow interpretation).
In Melbourne this year, Ferrari again was carefully managing their power units during the race. Kimi Raikkonen in particular could be observed varying the amount of electrical deployment, according to how defensive he needed to be.
Something was giving Ferrari concern about being able to run with full deployment for extended periods. It's possible this was connected to Raikkonen's turbo issues that subsequently forced him to retire, but Mercedes engineers looking at the numbers suspect that Ferrari were running their engines less aggressively than in Barcelona testing.
If this was related to a specific reliability worry Ferrari had over a component and it can be resolved by the next race, then a return to full power in Bahrain could well be enough to allow Ferrari to fight Mercedes on pure performance - on race day at least.
But longer term, a major focus of Ferrari's attention will be on matching the power Mercedes have available for short bursts during qualifying. These extra engine modes are extremely potent and Mercedes development work during the winter - centred around extending the duration of combustion, thereby moving the detonation threshold yet further back, allowing more power for longer - has allowed them to become even more so.
More than ever in the hybrid era, such developments have to be made jointly with the engine department, the fuel supplier and spark plug manufacturer. Although Ferrari appear to have a car capable of racing the Mercs, a breakthrough in qualifying performance is going to be needed before the Scuderia can control their races from the front, rather than relying on better starts or strategy to get them there.
Yet even if they fail to make that step change this year, if they can regularly challenge the silver arrows, the respective dynamics of the driver line-ups of each team might yet offer Ferrari a realistic hope of stealing the title. Vettel is much more clearly a team No 1 than either of the Mercedes drivers. If - as happened in both 2014 and '15 - Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg takes points from each other while Vettel consistently finishes ahead of Raikkonen, it could be the crucial differentiator.
Last year the Ferrari wasn't quite fast enough to make that matter. This year, it just might be.
Don't miss the F1 Report for all the reaction and analysis from the Australian GP. Natalie Pinkham is joined by David Brabham and former McLaren mechanic Marc Priestley on Wednesday at 8:30pm on Sky Sports F1.