Analysing the Mercedes and Ferrari battle: Who's really ahead in 2019?
Mercedes were faster in Melbourne, but Ferrari dominated Bahrain. So who are the team to beat in F1 2019? Sky F1 expert Mark Hughes takes a closer look at the times, and looks ahead to the Chinese GP...
Last Updated: 10/04/19 6:30am
Two races in, we can see the beginnings of the patterns that will define the season. But there is still one very intriguing question mark.
Which is the real Ferrari/Mercedes comparison?
There is no question that the Ferrari performance of Bahrain was much more representative than that of Melbourne where the SF90 was compromised by both aerodynamic and cooling issues.
The question then centres around Mercedes in Bahrain: was that performance the equivalent to that of Melbourne but simply set against an uncompromised Ferrari? Or did Mercedes under-perform in Bahrain and so we therefore still have not seen both cars maximised at the same time?
To help answer that, we can take Ferrari out of the comparison and look at the Merc's performance relative to the rest of the field for some clues. Here is how they compared at each track, based on their qualifying performances.
Relative gaps to Mercedes
So here we can see that, even ignoring Ferrari, the Mercedes was less competitive (relative to the rest of the field) in Bahrain than it was in Melbourne. This is evident whether comparing it to best of the rest (Red Bull), the fastest in 'Class B' (Haas) or the slowest (Williams).
The difference is significant too. Translating it to actual lap time, if the Mercedes had enjoyed the same advantage over Red Bull in Bahrain that it did in Melbourne, it would have qualified around 0.35s quicker than it did. To put that in perspective, Charles Leclerc's Bahrain pole lap was just under 0.3s faster than Hamilton's time. In other words, Merc's Melbourne advantage over the field was slightly bigger than Ferrari's in Bahrain - and had Mercedes retained that level of competitiveness over the field, Lewis Hamilton would have been on Bahrain pole (by a tiny margin over Leclerc).
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"This is not a track that has ever suited us, for whatever reason," said Hamilton post-qualifying. He is right. Mercedes, as the team which have dominated the turbo hybrid era since 2014, in the six Bahrain races during that period, have been on pole 'only' four times. Had Leclerc's engine not let him down last Sunday, Ferrari would have won the last three races here. Mercedes have not won on merit here since 2016.
The Sakhir track's layout ensures that it is rear limited (unlike Albert Park or Shanghai) in terms of tyre usage. To get the required rear tyre duration in the race, all cars need to be set up with a measure of understeer, giving a more compromised balance in qualifying than at most tracks. Any car that is particularly hard on its rear tyre will need more of that qualifying compromise built into its set-up. The Mercedes is historically a little harder on its rear tyres than the Ferrari. It is just something in the respective DNA of each car and the design philosophies that have been followed.
So in the two races to date it would seem that we have still not seen how the two fastest cars actually compare when they are each at their best. Ferrari's difficulties in Melbourne were greater than those of Mercedes in Bahrain and so as an average Mercedes are ahead. But, that is almost certainly a misleading average.
All the numbers suggest there is actually an epic contest in store.
Watch the Chinese GP, F1's 1,000th race, live on Sky Sports F1 on April 12-14. Sky Sports is the home of live and exclusive F1. Find out more here to watch the 2019 season live