Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Red Bull Ring, 2018

Do Ferrari or Mercedes have the quickest car? It’s not clear: and that’s great for F1

2018 F1 season

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Saturday at Melbourne on the first Formula 1 race weekend of 2018: Lewis Hamilton has just put his Mercedes on pole position by six tenths of a second, and this is all looking a bit familiar.

Five months later, the standard of competition is looking a lot healthier. The Mercedes domination we associated with the first three years of the V6 hybrid turbo era is clearly a thing of the past.

Not only are Ferrari in the mix at the front, but Red Bull has been two. For the first time in six years, more than two teams have taken a pole position. However the gap between the ‘big three’ teams and the midfielders remains. The ‘class A’ and ‘class B’ distinction drivers such as Romain Grosjean have referred to is clear to see.

Do Mercedes or Ferrari have the quickest car? Ferrari have closed the gap compared to last year and while Mercedes remain fractionally ahead, the difference between them is now negligible in average terms.

The balance is swinging from race to race depending on how their cars perform on different tracks, tyres and in different conditions. With the cars so closely matched, driver performance counts for more this year than before – something all fans of the sport surely want to see.

The graph above shows how far each team has been off the ultimate pace each race weekend. Strikingly, the ranking of the teams matches the current constructors’ championship standings with one exception: Haas is behind Renault, who are fourth in the points.

In performance terms, the momentum is with Ferrari at the moment. Mercedes admit they are yet to figure out how the Scuderia has suddenly extracted more performance from its power unit.

Nonetheless, Mercedes has taken the last two victories from Ferrari on tracks where the red cars looked quicker in normal conditions. Hamilton has taken advantage of some timely showers to shore up his points lead over Sebastian Vettel in the title race. But will that be enough to withstand the expected Ferrari onslaught at the next two high-power circuits when the championship resumes?

For now at least, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff says he welcomes the renewed threat from Ferrari. “I believe that it’s nice again to be in a situation where you are the challenger,” he said.

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“Since 2013 we haven’t been the challenger anymore and it’s very difficult to set the benchmark. You’re basically running around with a cross on your back.

“And now we know where the level of performance is with the Ferrari. We’re seeing that every day on track. That is something which we are very eager and very motivated to achieve. We are not going to rest until we have done it.”

Arguably, the last four races have all been won by a car which wasn’t the quickest on the weekend. That’s another sign the competition is healthier now than it has been in recent seasons – at least at the front of the field.

Red Bull has often been in the thick of the fight in races, but tends to lose out in qualifying as its Renault engine doesn’t have the same kind of potent high-performance qualifying mode the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari enjoy.

As the graph above shows, the team has slipped back in recent races, a development which appears to coincide with its announcement that it won’t use Renault engines next year. Cynical minds will no doubt question where that really is a coincidence: After all, there’s no love lost between these two.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Hockenheimring, 2018
Red Bull are slipping out of contention
However the FIA introduced new regulations for this season aimed at ensuring customers did not receive inferior products from manufacturers. Their engines should be capable of being run with the specifications of oil and fuel, the same software, and operated in the same way.

Of course this does not require a customer to use the latest developments. Red Bull, for example, did not use Renault’s new MGU-K when it was introduced. “There’s quite a lot of work to do on the chassis side to accommodate it,” Renault’s Bob Bell explained at the time.

And looking at the graph it’s clear all three Renault-powered teams have been less competitive in recent races than they were at the start of the season. This appears to be more a case of Renault struggling to keep pace with Mercedes and Ferrari’s power unit development.

The situation is particularly bad at McLaren. The team appeared to be making good progress over the first half-dozen races as a Renault closer, gradually edging closer to front-running pace.

But the team has since discovered a fundamental problem with its 2018 design, which it now admits is producing less downforce than last year’s car. In Canada and France, only the struggling Williams pair were slower than the MCL33s.

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With a significant change in the aerodynamic rules coming for the 2019 F1 season, which teams can afford to turn their attention to next year, and which ones can’t afford to dilute their focus on the current championship?

Nico Hulkenberg, Renault, Hungaroring
Renault can’t afford to ease up its 2018 development
Unsurprisingly Williams and McLaren are already beginning to switch their focus to 2019. But Renault, which needs fourth in the championship this year to secure further investment and is conscious of the threat from Haas, is pushing on with its RS18.

“Obviously we’re in a pretty tight fight,” said technical director Nick Chester. “We’ve brought stuff all the way up to shutdown. We’re going to carry on bringing some aero elements after shutdown.

“It’s pretty tight. We’ve got to work pretty hard and even the switch over to the ’19 car, anything we can find in development that we can put back on this car, we’ll try and do it.”

Of course there’s no chance the championship contenders will ease up the relentless pace of progress. Ferrari is fighting for its first title in 10 years; Mercedes is striving to equal Ferrari’s record of five doubles. And the latter fears it is beginning to slip behind.

“I would hope that we find the pace in the future races that we had at the beginning of the season and that’s clearly in the car which we haven’t been able to show since Austria,” said Wolff.

“At the moment they have the best package. They have a chassis that works well and an engine that has leapfrogged everybody. We were losing four tenths in the first sector [at the Hungaroring] and that is something that is very difficult to catch.”

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Quotes: Dieter Rencken

2018 F1 season

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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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  • 46 comments on “Do Ferrari or Mercedes have the quickest car? It’s not clear: and that’s great for F1”

    1. Brilliant title, one that sums up the season thus far. Let’s hope it runs down to the wire in similar fashion.

      1. Also a great title to get all myopic FER/VET and MER/HAM fans to try and shout the loudest that their car is worse ;)
        The only bit missing is a mention of team bonus payments by FOM.
        This is going to be fun reading all comments.
        @phylyp

        1. The problem with these kinds of comparisons is it assumes the driver setting the fastest times in each car is equally as good as the fastest driver setting the fastest times in another car. The fastest driver in the field could be a second faster than the slowest in equal machinery. Its entirely possible that the Mclaren and Williams are about the same, considering how much faster Alonso was than Massa, and how much faster Massa was than Stroll.

          1. Completely correct.

      2. It’s pretty clear Ferrari were the quickest the past 2 race weekends. At the same time, there was talk of their PU mysteriously outputting more power. I reckon they’ve got the quickest package now because of their PU. Also Ferrari seem to be better when temperatures are hotter and on the softest tyre. For all the talk that Pirelli were helping Mercedes with the thinner tyre tread earlier in the season, it seems missing out a soft compound plays into Ferrari’s hands. That said, we’ll see how it pans out.

    2. There should be a rule that the engine mode used in qually must be used up to the first pit stop in the race also. That would make qually great again.

      1. @RB13 How so? I doubt mandating that would make any difference to qualifying.

        1. @jerejj presumably Ferrari and Mercedes would not be able to use those modes for 10+ laps in a race and so qually would be closer because after 4 years, Renault still cant replicate anything resembling it.

          And I know performance equalisation is a touchy subject but how great would it be if Danny and Max were contenders at most track for pole position also? Answer: Really great.

        2. Bernie's Musical Giraffe
          6th August 2018, 18:01

          It might prevent the red and silver cars turning it up to 11 for one lap, locking out the front two rows on a very regular basis, bring the RBRs into more serious contention. And with running in clear air making so much difference to pace, tyres etc… anyone in P1 and not 2 seconds slower than the car behind has a good shot at a win. Could’ve made this season into a real 3 [6] way scrap for the constructors’ [drivers’] championship. Worth considering.

      2. There are different engine modes for wide range of different things. You have different electric deployment maps for different corners, you have different recharging modes where you can coast more or less aggressively to recharge slower or quicker. Or burn oil for more horsepower. I’d imagine the oil gives pretty poor power to weight ratio so they don’t use that during races. And they don’t want to run out of oil anyways. But in qualifying anything that burns probably makes the car faster as it allows to bypass the fuel flow limit.

        Then you have different modes for qualifying where you probably don’t charge the battery almost at all during your fast lap (you’d only recharge if your battery can not hole enough energy for one lap) and opposite of that is your warmup lap where you don’t use any electric energy. These change the car brake bias as well and it is effectively abs in the rear of the car.

        In addition to all that you have all kinds of fine tuning modes for each of these so you can adjust things if something in the hybrid engine makes the car do wrong things or makes the car unpredictable for example (like sudden wheelspin or sudden rear braking in the middle of a corner). You have maps for saving more fuel if you are stuck behind someone or you have overtake modes which give you the full beans based on where you are on the track. The car knows to recharge when braking into corners and accelerating out of corners and it knows where it is on the track. Sometimes when the car is on wrong mode it could mean the car thinks it is in different corner than it really is so its deployment and harvesting are not in sync with the track for example.

        And you have different modes for driving behind safety car, safety car restarts, virtual safety cars, warmup lap, start, burnouts… even on pits the engine is in different mode.

        Enforcing a single mode would require f1 to create standard electronics controls for electric drivetrain part of the cars.

      3. I think that’s actually a great idea. That would take away Ferrari & Mercs Q3 advantage and get Red bull in the game slightly.

    3. Its facinating that Mercedes and Ferrari have spent 100’s of millions and achieved relatively the same equal performance, resulting in close and exciting racing, yet make any mention of F1 becoming a spec series (which would achieve the same thing for the whole field at a fraction of the cost) and it’s shot down instantly as being against the spirit of F1.

      1. that would be against the spirit of F1

      2. @emu55, I would wager that it creates more interest for quite a few fans where you have two teams that have achieved similar overall performance across a single lap, but achieve that through slightly different means around the circuit.

        That creates uncertainty and more interest about whether a team can find a way of counteracting the advantages that another team finds elsewhere around the lap through strategy or set up decisions, whether or not a particular team might have an advantage at a particular circuit, or how certain events during a race might upset previous conceptions of who might be best placed to win.

      3. Haa haa, I asked for that one.

    4. I thought Ferrari were pulling ahead, but Hungary was a bit strange with Mercedes better than expected, even allowing for track position advantage. Definitely a good place for the championship to be going into the pre-Spa holiday. The downside is Red Bull falling away from the front two teams. Difficult to see any improvement to their situation given that Renault will be committed to their own team this year, next year’s customers – and Danny Ricciardo’s arrival.

      1. At least renault won’t be interested in sabotaging ricciardo’s remaining PU this year, so they might have less mechanical issues in these last races!

    5. “Since 2013 we haven’t been the challenger anymore and it’s very difficult to set the benchmark. You’re basically running around with a cross on your back.” – You mean since 2014.

      ”With a significant change in the aerodynamic rules coming for the 2019 F1 season, which teams can afford to turn their attention to next year, and which ones can’t afford to dilute their focus on the current championship?”
      – I wouldn’t really call it that significant, though. The real changes will be the ones planned for 2021, so the changes for next season are basically just short-term ‘tweaks/modifications’ as preparation for the real changes aimed to make the cars more followable, and thus, more race-able.

      1. He meant that 2013 was last year they were the challenger. Since 2014 they have been the benchmark.

      2. Since – In the intervening period between (the time mentioned) and the time under consideration, typically the present.

        “Since 2013 we haven’t been the challenger” means “In 2014, 2015 etc we haven’t been the challenger”, so no he didn’t mean 2014.

        “With a significant change in the aerodynamic rules coming for the 2019 F1 season”

        I don’t think it is saying that the rule changes themselves are significant, but that the effects of the rule changes are significant.

    6. Interesting article. Everyone’s assuming Ferrari has the quicker car, but this shows that overall the Mercedes is better, which was unexpected. You’d think that Ferrari has the upper hand with the tracks that are left though, but who knows.

      1. Everyone?! It was obvious to me that last year Mercedes was still better than Ferrari, at least overall. This better means reliability too, it’s a decisive factor. Only this year… finally… Mercedes seem to have a contender to match them, the differences being made by the track and/or tyre. Even so, my feeling is that Ferrari still lacks in consistency compared to Mercedes… and I’m not talking about VET’s mistakes.

      2. Read again. On average over the course of the season the cars were pretty close. The article goes on to say that Ferrari now has the upper hand.

        1. Ferrari also have the upper had with reliability too. Merc have had lots of reliability issues in 2018. Autosport did a good piece on this. They also have Ferrari as the slightly faster car.

          From Autosport :

          “Ferrari has had the faster car on seven occasions this year, with Mercedes quicker five times. One of Ferrari’s races was Monaco, where Red Bull set the pace.”

      3. @hugh11p, the problem is that the analysis of the data set is rather crude and is therefore presenting a misleading picture of the performance of the teams this season.

        If we consider the second chart, which shows the average deficit per circuit, that shows that Ferrari have had the fastest car in six events, Mercedes in five and Red Bull in one – so, in other words, Ferrari have actually been the ones who have been the fastest team slightly more frequently than Mercedes have been.

        What Keith has done is to take the average deficit over every single race so far this season, and then divided it by the 12 races to get that 0.19% deficit. However, that average is being heavily skewed by the deficit in the Australian GP – if you ignore that result, then the average deficit Ferrari have had over the remaining races is 0.13%.

        Meanwhile, if you repeat the same exercise with Mercedes and strip out the results from the Australian GP, then the average deficit that they have had to the benchmark time increases from 0.17% to 0.19% – a less dramatic change, but still one that has a noticeable effect.

        In reality, the reason why Mercedes appears to be fractionally quicker is because Keith has included a set of freak results, namely the abnormally large difference between Mercedes and Ferrari in the Australian GP. If that race is excluded, then the data set suggests that Ferrari are the quickest team on average and have a small performance advantage over Mercedes, not the other way around.

    7. Really interesting article. Like everyone else has said its great for F1 and the title race. The problem with the graph above is that it doesn’t “truly” show you who has the fastest car, as its still dictated with who is driving the car. If I was driving one of the cars the graph would show they had the slowest car when in reality it wouldn’t be. Its definitely a good guide though.

      Definitely shows F1 has a problem with the spec A and B claims too, Renault have a long way to catch up if Ricciardo is to be successful there

    8. @emu55

      Because the team development battle and varying performance from track to track and year to year is part of the drama and intrigue to F1 fans.

      There’s a bunch of spec series already, F1 is more popular than them all for good reason.

      I don’t honestly care what it costs them to develop these cars, it feels special when they are closely matched.

      1. I totally agree, it’s just sad we’ve had to wait four years for this to happen.

      2. It feels even more special when Toto Wolff does not know where does Ferrari power come from.
        Nowdays, he has breakthroughs about Ferrari power unit. Some discoveries!
        It means that both Merc drivers are driving blindly…just everything in his team depends on luck.
        Very lucky man.

    9. “With the cars so closely matched, driver performance counts for more this year than before – something all fans of the sport surely want to see.”

      Unfortunately, not all fans. That unpleasant fact is apparent in pretty much every comments section. As a longtime fan, that’s one of the biggest problem F1 (and global sports in general) has to deal with right now: too many casual (but often rabid) “fans” of drivers with no real understanding or appreciation for the athletes or sport itself.

    10. So essentially they are very close toggether. A driver might decide who is better on the day.

      And after years of Wolf crying Ferrari, we now finally have a stable competition.

      But still untill two stars fight to the line for thebwin F1 could use improvement.

      1. Do you mean Wolff crying Wolf? lol

    11. With the cars so closely matched, driver performance counts for more this year than before – something all fans of the sport surely want to see.

      I’d like to see more drivers in the mix as well, and am glad the 2 top teams are so evenly matched with RBR close enough to have some fun as well.

      But when the dust of excitement settles a bit we realise that this season has as many drivers fighting for the WDC as we had in 2016. Car superiority of the past has been replaced by team orders.

      1. Yes, probably both teams want the WDC so bad, mercedes to equal ferrari’s record streak, ferrari to stop mercedes from doing so and also to win another driver’s title after 11 years that since they also have a driver who is normally much faster than the other one, it’s quite an easy decision to allow team orders in hamilton and vettel’s favor. They’d do it the other way around if bottas and raikkonen were consistently quicker than their team mates.

    12. Mercedes is ahead only cuz that spetacular lap Hamilton made at Meulbourne alone was worth almost a second ahead of Ferrari.

      Take that race out, and things get very different.

      Ferrari was the faster car on more instances and has had better reliability too.
      Vettel and Ferrari had bad luck or made mistakes in at least four races.

    13. I think what might really count against Mercedes is the pace of the Red Bull.

      At tracks where Merc is fast, Ferrari will be a close second. At tracks where Merc is weak, the RBs look likely to be ahead but still behind Ferrari.

      Despite the lead LH has, I think SV will take the title, unless Merc can find a way to improve. It may not be as much of a diva as last year but it isn’t the all-round car that Ferrari have.

      1. This was a pattern we saw in 2017. On the tracks where RB was strong on pace, Ferrari was also strong, pushing Merc down to 3rd on pace (usually behind Ferrari in 1st place, RB 2nd e.g. Mexico, Singapore, Malaysia). Hence why i don’t buy the arguments that the Merc car was too strong for Ferrari to challenge in the latter part of the 2017.

    14. Arguably, the last four races have all been won by a car which wasn’t the quickest on the weekend. That’s another sign the competition is healthier now than it has been in recent seasons – at least at the front of the field.

      That sums it up. Deciding factors right now are circumstances. And that’s got nothing to do with pure machinery performance. Actually, blunders are dictating the outcome more than anything else.

    15. I’m Ferrari Fan. Ferrari car is better than merdeces. But hamilton make difference. He’s mental strengh is a monster.. vettel always make mistake..

    16. I like @keithcollantine but what a rudimentary way to work out which car is faster.

    17. Results more often than not is an indicator of car performance. But this can be misleading.
      In 2017, Ferrari lost more races to Mercedes as a result of operational errors and driver mistakes. Ferrari suddenly found themselves with a very fast car and couldn’t maximise it’s potential, effectively throwing away the championship.
      2018 had seen an even Moet improved Ferrari, and a relatively struggling Mercedes. Yet we find these 2 teams falling over themselves unable to consistently make the right strategy calls. And then there is Vettel, he must be under intense pressure because the driving errors he had come up with, compared to how much he gets paid, leaves one scratching ones head.
      Mercedes and Hamilton are now ahead in the respective championships yet they are the ones feeling the most insecure. Because Ferrari just have this unbelievable speed all they just have to do is control themselves.

    18. Upcoming Monza race we may see how dominant the Ferrari is.. I predict at least 30sec ahead of Mercedes in race. After that Ferrari will continue this dominant trend till the end of season while Mercedes encountering PU reliability woes trying to extract more power..

      1. *Noted for the end of the season.

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