Have stable rules really helped Mercedes’ rivals catch up?

2016 F1 season

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Formula One is poised to introduce major changes to the technical rules in 2017 in a bid to make the sport more exciting.

But will shaking up the rules arrest the progress Mercedes’ rivals have made in catching up to them?

Mercedes’ team boss Toto Wolff argued against the proposed rules change last weekend. Many Formula One fans will invoke the famous Mandy Rice-Davies quote in response to that: “he would, wouldn’t he?”

It’s not hard to imagine why Wolff, whose team has won 35 of the last 41 races, might not be keen to see the rules changed any time soon. But let’s suspend our cynicism for a moment and put his reasoning to the test.

“The longer you keep the regulations stable the more the performance is going to converge between everybody, and this is what is happening now,” he argued.

If Wolff’s view is accurate then we would expect to find teams had been close together in 2013 (the last year of the V8 engine rules), drifted apart in 2014 (the first year of the V6 hybrid turbo rules) and have closed up since then.

The graph below uses the fastest lap time achieved by each car during an entire race weekend to work out its average performance deficit to the quickest car* in the field in each season. Obviously for 2016 we only have data for the first three races:

It’s clear to see Mercedes jumped into a substantial lead after 2013. Last year Ferrari made great gains but Red Bull dropped further behind – hence their furious criticism of Renault’s efforts.

The field as a whole is more competitive this year than it was 12 months ago. Last year there were 20 cars spread by 6.39% from the front of the field to the back, so far this year we have 22 cars covered by 4.89%.

But on the face of it none of Mercedes’ closest rivals have made serious gains so far this year. Does this disprove Wolff’s view that Mercedes are being caught? A closer look at the three races we have data for so far this year suggests the true picture is more encouraging than that:

This limited data does indicate that in terms of one-lap pace Mercedes’ closest rivals have made measurable progress in catching them. Reports that Ferrari have had their engine turned down for reliability reasons so far, and that Renault and Red Bull will benefit from a significant upgrade in Canada, bodes well for the rest of the season.

Have these gains also been made over a race stint? That is difficult to judge as Mercedes’ closest rivals have had compromised runs in the last two races. Ferrari’s flying start to the opening round at Melbourne indicated the red cars’ potential, but they haven’t realised it yet.

How will Red Bull catch up?

Renault boost helped Red Bull become winners
There is a desire among the rule makers to encourage a competitive field. But it’s not hard to see why they might feel impatient over how long it is taking to happen naturally over time by keeping the rules consistent.

Last week Christian Horner mentioned discussions had taken place on setting targets for “power convergence to within a relatively small bandwidth” between engine manufacturers. Will this be achieved by keeping the regulations stable to encourage convergence to occur ‘naturally’ over time, as Wolff has suggested?

There is an alternative, which occurred the last time F1 introduced a new engine formula. When the V8 engine specification was frozen in 2008 Renault found themselves at a performance disadvantage to their rivals. They were given a dispensation to regain some of that lost ground, and the following year the Renault-powered Red Bulls became a race-winning, championship-contending outfit.

Then as now perhaps Red Bull will use political power, rather than horsepower, to close the gap.

*Williams’ unrepresentative 2015 United States Grand Prix performance has been discarded

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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38 comments on “Have stable rules really helped Mercedes’ rivals catch up?”

  1. knoxploration
    21st April 2016, 12:41

    Merc’s rivals haven’t really caught up on single-lap pace, if you ask me. They’re just flattered by the fact Merc doesn’t even need to push to coast to its inevitable victories, and if you don’t have to, pushing is just an unnecessary risk so they don’t.

    1. ColdFly F1 (@)
      21st April 2016, 13:38

      The analysis is based on “the fastest lap time achieved by each car during an entire race weekend”, which is typically in quali.
      Therefore, ‘coasting’ during the race has no impact on the data or the analysis.

      The biggest unknown is (as @keithcollantine mentioned) the limited data set for 2016!

      1. quali on soft (rosberg) while the rest is on supersoft and still the fastest time.. the difference is and stays very big.

    2. As @coldfly points out, Mercedes ‘coasting’ in the races will have no effect on the lap time data described above because few if any of those lap times will have been set in the races. Most will be from qualifying.

      1. knoxploration
        21st April 2016, 17:39

        And if you think Merc are genuinely pushing as hard as they can in quali (rather than pushing for a target time they’re confident nobody else can match), there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.

        1. If you got an evidence to prove it, please reveal by all means. No shots in the dark. Mercedes aren’t running their engines on the fountain of youth to keep extracting more performance on the fly.

        2. Well I believe Rosberg and Hamilton are pushing for Pole, to what extent they can use the full capacity of the engine is a different Question. And it is a good comparison since they were in a dominant position as well last year, thus they are probably pushing as hard as last season. Only issue so far is the sample size.

          1. Lol, crazy insinuations…

            Nico and Lewis, have engine in max power mode for Q2 and Q3. And judging by resonably large gaps… They are probably not sandbaging much… Especially since they already broke one 2004 record. When cars had similar power, less weight, tire war etc.

            Any notion they are not pushing in quali, thus can be dismissed.

  2. I’ll tell you at the end of the season. In theory this should happen but too difficult to give a hardened opinion so far with all the races not allowing straight fights but being more entertaining for this.

  3. Then as now perhaps Red Bull will use political power, rather than horsepower, to close the gap.

    Ha… nice one @keithcollantine

    I think the argument on performance conversion is perfectly true. While Mercedes still holds and advantage over it’s rivals, it’s just a matter of time, especially after the engine token system is dropped, that different PU performance starts getting much closer.

    I don’t think PU convergence will happen before the end of 2018 though, so ideally the changes that are planned for 2017 should be more focused on other parts of the car, such as tyres, chassis dimensions, wings and suspension etc. As a fan of F1, you want to see a team without the strongest PU on the grid fight for top spots as well, and that can only happen if the teams have a bigger opportunity to innovate on different areas. If the 2017 rules focus along the wider tyres, different noses, etc we should have teams like Red Bull and Mclaren innovate on that ground to make up for the engine deficit. I’m not saying for a moment that Mercedes will just lay still, but the opportunity for other cars to make up ground is always larger when there are more variables determining the performance of the car.

    1. That’s a very good point. Cars with different strengths also make for good races and potential of different winners at different types of track. Last year’s WEC Silverstone race had a great scrap when Audio were fast in the corners but as soon as they overtook Porsche, Porsche accelerated past them on the following straight. It was fascinating to see the different philosophies play out in front of my eyes.

      1. @markp: actually not a good point; part of what Toto said that’s not mentioned in the article was that with major rule changes, there’s a bigger chance for one of the big teams to get it right and dominate due to the simple fact that they can spend much more on R & D. In other words, there’s a big chance that Mercs can dominate again. If not them, then Ferrari, red bull or McLaren …

  4. I think the “rewrite the car rules every x years” approach of F1 is as archaic as the governance. It feels like the 90’s.

    Modern (software/services) in the Noughties and beyond are all about small tweaks performed frequently.

    F1 needs to review things like DRS (even as a supporter it was a joke in China), the tyre “ask” of Pirelli (a desire to make cars quicker for longer) and potentially small changes to the cars (reduced reliance on the front wing as the lead for balance).

    The proposed wholesale changes for 2017, including the “halo”, are poorly thought out and not wholly agreed. Let the teams that aren’t Mercedes catch up while investing time in incremental change. No-one wants a step change to the regulations so regularly.

    No wonder fans are deserting the sport.

  5. This is a great article, and I generally agree with Toto, but it helps if everyone is on a more even playing field when the rule change happens.

    Perhaps you can look at the history of changes dating back to say the mid-90s. From the top of my head…
    Things were relatively competitive in the mid- to late-90s, then Ferrari won 6 constructors in a row, with Michael winning 5 drivers titles. The rules were mostly stable then. Only the tire change rule of 2005 prevented him from winning that year, and in 2006 he almost won again. There was good competition until the 2009 rule change. Domination by Brawn in 2009 gave way to competition in 2010 and 2012, with dominance in 2011 and 2013 by Vettel. And now we have two years of Mercedes winning ways, with perhaps a third in a row.

    1. 2010 and 2012 would have been dominance as well if not for Red Bull giving people a chance by breaking down.

      1. For 2012 that could have been negated by McLaren doing a consistent job in pits, on pit wall, and having reliability.

  6. I see Dr Marko has energised the debate by calling Toto paranoid :))


  7. What does Williams unrepresentative performance in US Grand Prix in 2015, was discarded mean? Why was it discarded?

    1. @jabosha I don’t remember exactly, but I believe they didn’t manage to set a lap in dry conditions all weekend, so their fastest lap would have been dozens of seconds slower than the next fastest team.

  8. Keith, if you exclude the back markers the data shows that the spread from fastest cars to the midfielder has increased compared to last year. However the midfield has converged.

    1. Well, if you exclude all Ferrari powered cars, and only count Mercedes performance vs. Renault, of course they’re still dominating.

      As soon as you start monkeying with the statistics, you’re essentially proving that statistics will prove whatever you want it to prove.

      Based on just “looking” at the numbers, rather than using charts and graphs and statistical analysis, it’s obvious that the entire grid is a bit faster this year, and the gap between 1st and 20th is shrinking, and Mercedes is no longer sailing off into the sunset at 3+ seconds a lap.

      What’s also obvious to people who understand statistics is that while 3 races is enough data to provide a trend, it’s not enough data to provide a conclusion. We’ve got 18 more races to go. Ask me if the gap to Mercedes has shrunk *after* the season, when we’ve got something other than crystal ball gazing for reference.

  9. I still agree with Toto, its natural for everyone to copy the fastest team and after many iterations everyone will eventually arrive at a common formula.

    I think you also have to take account of finances and team changes: Lotus, Sauber, Marussia (doesn’t matter) went no where after 2013, McLaren and Ferrari cleaned their houses, which leaves Williams, Red Bull, STR, and FI as the only ones that had real stability. Of those 4, Williams has improved although sadly they’re now regressing (as I predicted), FI and STR are pretty much the same, and RBR has fallen but is coming back. One can argue that at the top every aspect of the car matters (e.g. engine performance, aero, etc) which is why RBR fell so far back where as the middle of the field has some slack where engine performance isn’t as crucial.

    Keith can you put together the same chart for 2009-2013? From what I remember, 2007 and 2008 were dominated by Ferrari and McLaren with 2008 having some other winners when one they messed up or in the wet. By 2013 most of the teams converged pretty well.

  10. I recommend that anyone who thinks that the rest of the pack is closing to Mercedes have a good look at Rosberg’s race pace in China. He was consistently lapping 1 second/lap faster than anyone else out there, while simultaneously saving his tyres better than anyone else.

    I do believe that eventually the rest of the field will catch up, but I’ve seen absolutely nothing thus far in 2016 which suggests that it will be any different to the 2 previous races.

    1. Hamilton wasn’the, he was stuck in traffic like Ferrari and Red Bull. In clean air you can leave the scrapping pack standing, see Vetted in Malaysia and Hungary pretty safety car last year.

    2. RaceProUK (@)
      22nd April 2016, 0:53

      It’s easy to be faster and kinder on the tyres when you don’t have dirty air screwing with your front aero.

      1. Thank you that is spot on and with top rivals always not where they should be so far Rosberg has had the chance to make Merc look better than they are, in Australia Merc were beaten but Ferrari snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

  11. That question really can’t be answered. If the rules were changed dramatically one could theorize that a different team would come out on top. With the limit on testing which ever team would best take advantage of the new rules prior to the first season the rules were in place would get the advantage and there is no saying which team that would be.

    In fact a significant rule change may be the only way to break Mercedes’ hold on the top rung since they are continually making improvements to an already good design whereas the others are looking for a eureka moment.

  12. I think it’s simpler than this. According to the bbc the cars will indeed become more aero reliant, which puts less focus on the Pu’s if the rules change for more aero RB is going to benefit with that. I wouldn’t be surprised to witness redbull dominate f1 from 2017 onwards, so it’s clear to see why Wolff wants to stick with what we have right now, regardless of his argument being truthful or not.

    1. Ideally we would see RB faster in corners and Merc faster on straights, providing us with some awesome racing. Red Bull wont be able to dominate anything with a sub par engine.

    2. @peartree

      I never looked at it like this before. Good call, sir!

  13. Well, only teams that gained ground on Mercedes are.. Red Bull and McLaren, both were suffering power issues last year and now found more pace in the engine. RBR potentially aero aswell.

    Ferrari seems to have keept touch with Mercedes, but not gained any ground, lets hope they are really running in reliability mode, and a small fix will unlock a lot of extra power.

    That being said Mercedes has amazing chassis. They were #1 in all areas last year, and now they have made a major step faster.

    Midfield is converging, to midfield top level Williams, but up front there is very little convergence so far.

    So Toto can talk the talk. But we heard wind blow before.

  14. You know, Toto does have a point. Despite only being three races in, 2016 seems much more ‘like it’. Despite Mercedes having the edge, Ferrari look much closer now. The midfield looks tight and the slower teams looks like points might come their way with a little fortune.

    Going back to drawing board could be a step back.

    Like Keith already said, Toto would (say that), wouldn’t he?

  15. If it weren’t for the ridiculous restrictions preventing engine development in-season, the competition would have caught up already.

    1. @mtlracer

      Agree. We would have definitely had a Ferrari-Mercedes battle for the title this year, and I’m sure Red Bull would be in the mix as well. Mclaren would have been in the upper midfield as well. I’m glad they dropped it for 2017, but then again, why not just drop if for 2016??

      Just plain and simple stupidity by the FIA which resulted in another era of one team dominance

      1. Disagree. It’s quite obvious that what stopped Renault and Honda catching up was not token limitation. The only thing token stopped was Honda from having a little more deployment in the last races of 2015.

        Tokens never managed to get to a point as which they were much of limiting factor. Because they never went down in number and the close areas weren’t closed etc.

  16. Very nice analysis.

  17. The correct answer to this question is : no! Nothing to do with “stable rules”. It is “rules massage” that helped others to catch up. For this I give credit to Mercedes for not putting a veto to tweak engine token rules. They understood correctly that it was in their own interest too, to allow others to catch up to spruce up the show. The original (brain-damaged) engine token rules were so restrictive, that if you failed to get it correctly right from start you’re kind of stuck forever. This is because the original idea was to restrict engine modifications more and more as time goes by, for cost reasons. Not a single smart person stood up at the time of signing those idiotic rules to ask 3 very basic questions : a) Do the tokens allow a major overhaul if the initial design proves to be very poor? b) Can the small teams pay these engines? c) Do all engine makers agree to supply at least 3 o 4 other teams?

  18. Rule stability hasn’t yet got rid of the gap. But the utter dominance of 2014 isn’t as apparent. When a Mercedes get’s behind another car now they can’t just overtake at will like they could in 2014, they have to fight and on occasion just can’t pass. In 2014 their race pace was as much ahead as their qualifying pace, last year and now this year though they still dominate qualifying, tyre light and fuel management see them much closer to Ferrari and Red Bull.

    To be honest 2009-2013 so much was done to hinder Red Bull that I don’t consider that a stable rule era. Double diffuser ban, off throttle blowing ban, mandatory exhaust placement, DRS qualifying use restrictions, engine map bans, wing flexibility clarifications and nothing stopped them because they always just seemed to roll with it while the other teams were both struggling to play catch up and contend with rule changes.

    Big rule changes role the dice until someone else is on top, little rule changes make it hard to really close in on a team with that comfortable margin that they get to start on new rules earlier.

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