Analysis: F1 field closes up as Mercedes lose two seconds in four months

Lap time watch: 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

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The scale of the challenge Formula 1’s dominant team of the past seven season is now facing was revealed in qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Just four months on from Lewis Hamilton’s 11th victory of last season at the desert track, Mercedes’ latest car lapped over two seconds slower than its predecessor in qualifying.

New rules introduced by Formula 1 to reduce downforce have clearly had the intended effect. With one exception – Ferrari – every car in the field is at least a second slower than last year.

Suspicions that the changes to the rear of the car have particularly affected those teams with low-rake designs is borne out by the performance swings at Mercedes and Aston Martin. The latter adopted their power unit supplier’s low-rake aerodynamic philosophy last year, and both are over two seconds per lap slower than they were in 2020.

Only Haas, who used none of their development ‘tokens’ in producing their mildly revised car for 2021, have got slower than that. With just one update planned for the VF-21 at the next race, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin look set to spend the season on the back row.

The most encouraging performance of the day came from Ferrari, whose best lap time was half a second off what they managed last year. That was easily the best of any team and an indication they have indeed made the promised gains with their power unit.

Having been the third-quickest team in qualifying, they are one of four teams within a second of pace-setters Red Bull. This is a startlingly different picture to what we saw in November, when Red Bull was the only team within a second of Mercedes, and is an encouraging pointer towards a much more competitive season ahead.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Positive value indicates slower lap times, negative value indicates faster lap times

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2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

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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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16 comments on “Analysis: F1 field closes up as Mercedes lose two seconds in four months”

  1. Finally, FIA broke the dominance of Mercs, at least from the get go. This year’s development wars should be interesting to see how the pendulum will swing.

    1. And maybe these two teams will be too caught up with this year’s championship that they’ll be on the back foot next year… Well, one can only dream.

    2. I wouldn’t read too much into this. Mercedes’ engineers might easily be the smartest this sport has ever been. They’ve been hurt the most by the change, but that also means they know exactly where they have to look to fix the problem. They seemed to be a long way back in testing and now they’re P2 just 4 tenths off the pace. I expect them to continue that trend and be back on top after a few races. For the sake of the sport I certainly hope I’m wrong, though.

      1. …or sandbagging a loooot…… or the stupidest team – by having the best car but didn’t know what to do with it. Let me believe it’s actually more 1 of the last 2 rather than having a mediocre car but pulling some miracle in just 2 weeks. I’m pretty sure their success is thanks mostly due to more R&D work than others, similar to what Ferrari did back in early 2000s: more testing than others thanks to having their own track. And what Ferrari did wasn’t a first, the success of Senna/McLaren started as early as 1985 with heavy testing and work with Honda in Japan too.

  2. Could some of the lost time be because these are new cars, they still have a whole season of development to go. They might get quicker

    1. Ofc they will, it’s normal across a season that teams get faster, and some teams are close already, so some should definitely beat their 2020 times eventually.

  3. Perez poor showing still points to the Redbull being a difficult car to drive. Its a car which Verstappen seems to have adapted to, warts and all, but which continues to makes chumps of all his other co-drivers.

    1. It took him years to stop crashing so maybe just maybe?

  4. I don’t know. Last season when they tested these tyres they were pretty much this slower and merc seemed to dislike the new tyre the most. Looks like last season never ended, Ferrari fixed their engine and that is the biggest gain.

  5. I didn’t expect a new track record but was fairly positive the pole time would be in the high-1m27s (2019, 2018 equivalent region). In the end, it was even slower than 2017 (1:28.769), and only two bettered 2016’s 1:29.493. Mazepin lapped even slower than the equivalents of 2014 and 2015 when F1 cars were pathetically slow in general. The weird comparison is 2016, though, as the tyres were still narrower, and the aero changes intended to make cars several seconds faster were yet to happen, but still, only VER and HAM achieved a lower time.

    1. @jerejj That’s been a trend i’ve noticed in almost every circuit since 2017. The step from 2015 to 2016 in most circuits is almost as big as the step from 2016 to 2017. The 2016 cars were incredibly fast, and i can’t recall Pirelli doing something different with the tires that year

      1. @xenn1 On some tracks, yes, but others such as Circuit de Catalunya, Spa, Suzuka, etc., They’re also pathetically slow for F1’s standards.

    2. They keep increasing the weight. Which had a huge effect on lap times, and wheel to wheel racing over the years. Not to mention fuel consumption and the whole “we are green” thing. Making cars lightweight should be something F1 is pioneering. But instead we see them doing the exact opposite. Having lighter cars would also make life easier for the tyre supplier.

      If i was in charge, i would set a limit of 1000hp and let the teams have complete freedom of how they produce the power. As long as they dont go over that limit they can have any kind of engine. V8, electric, hybrid v6. This would eneable teams with low budgest to have a competitive engine. And would also stimulate great inovation. Do we swap batteries in a pitstop? Do we use hydrogen? Who can produce the most efficient 1000hp engine?

      It would be much easier to police this formula. The FIA would just need one sensor for power going to the wheels. No more fuel flow nonsense. We can get rid of hundreds of pages of rules. Imagine the kind of racing we could get. The different strategies. Honda could stay in the sport and work on their electric future if they want.

  6. It’s bunched up, but this track is also a bit unusual + teams still not familiar with their cars, so still not sure the gaps will remain as small as now.

  7. Yeah, they really screwed with my predicted pole time!

  8. Here is a silly none scientific statistic that we could play with – Manufacturer Average Qualifying position, Simple equation, add the Qualifying position of the two cars and divide by two. i.e. the best a team could do would be to finishing 1 and 2 averaging at 1.5, the worst would be finishing 19 and 20 averaging 19.5.

    Average Qualifying per Manufacturer
    Manufactures Car 1 Car 2 Avg
    Mercedes 2 3 2.5
    Red Bull 1 11 6
    Ferrari 4 8 6
    McLaren 6 7 6.5
    AlphaTauri 5 13 9
    Alpine 9 16 12.5
    Alpha Romeo 12 14 13
    Aston Martin 10 18 14
    Williams 15 17 16
    Haas 19 20 19.5

    Obviously this is fraught with contradiction, but at a basic level it suggests that Mercedes still have the best car. I think it might be interesting to see how this evolves thru the season.

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