MELBOURNE, Australia — Although the sight of two Mercedes at the top of the timesheets is a familiar one in Formula One, it doesn’t fit with the narrative that emerged from testing two weeks ago. According to all the data we saw in over eight days of running in Barcelona, Ferrari had an advantage of roughly 0.3s across single lap performance and race pace. But in Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes finished Friday practice with a comfortable 0.8s advantage over the rest of the field and nearly a second in race pace. So what happened?
The first thing every driver in the paddock will tell you is that Friday practice is not a true measure of performance. The sessions are not competitive, the result does not impact tomorrow’s qualifying and there are no points on offer. However, Friday is crucial for preparing the car for the rest of the weekend and it gives the first gauge of who is struggling and who is likely to perform later in the weekend.
The second of the two Friday sessions is the most useful to analyse. It takes place at the same time of day as both qualifying and the race and is therefore the most valuable to the teams. Engineers stick to a tried and tested run plan of a few banker laps, a quick lap on a set of the softest tyres around the midway point of the session and a solid run on heavy fuel to get a sense of how the car will react in the race.
The single lap pace creates the headlines, but it can also be the most misleading. Fuel loads can skew the picture and, by the very nature of a single lap, a small mistake can make a big difference in the final time. On his fast lap, Vettel missed the apexes at Turns 1, 3, 13 and 15, and watching from trackside, he did not attack the high-speed corners at Turn 11 and 12 with the same aggression as the Mercedes drivers. It all added up to a 0.873s gap to Hamilton over the entire lap, with 0.376s lost in sector one, 0.236s in sector two and 0.261s in sector three.
In first practice Vettel had been 0.038s off Hamilton, but as Mercedes and the rest of the field found roughly a second of lap time in the afternoon, Ferrari failed to make the same progress.
“Confidence,” was the reason Vettel gave when asked where the lap time had gone. “It was a tricky day for us and probably a tricky day for everyone. I think for us we are not where we would like to be — not in terms of lap time, but in terms of car feel and handling.
“We didn’t really get into the groove and rhythm and that’s quite important around here. So if we can get that confidence and that groove back, there is a lot of lap time in that around here.
“I feel that I have the car under me that I had in testing but it is not doing the same thing here and there and that is why I am lacking confidence. But we are all here working flat out to try to understand what happened in the session, the things that we tried and how they changed it.”
As for the gap to Mercedes, he was as surprised as anyone that it flew in the face of the times from testing.
“What was all that bulls— about with them [Mercedes] being out of shape and so on?” Vettel said after the session. “I didn’t understand that to be honest.
“So it was a bit of a surprise, yes! I think they looked really quick, and I don’t know if it was just us struggling a bit today or others as well, but as a matter of fact they were in a league of their own. Maybe everyone else was struggling and then we can turn it around, but they looked very strong and much stronger than they claimed before the weekend.”
Hamilton’s comments about his car were almost the exact opposite. Mercedes had been concerned about the unpredictable balance of the car in Barcelona and, while the same characteristics were evident in Australia, they didn’t have the same impact on lap time.
“The car was in a similar place to where it was in Barcelona, but it isn’t bad at all,” Hamilton said. “What was surprising was to see the balance shift out there in terms of where everyone else was standing.
“I think Ferrari lost a bit of performance in practice two, but we will just focus on trying to do the best job we can. But overall it’s not a bad start at all.”
Deeper analysis of where the cars were quick on track shows Mercedes held the biggest advantage in medium speed corners. Albert Park is mainly made up of medium-speed corners, whereas F1’s pre-season testing venue, Circuit de Catalunya, is mainly high-speed with a couple of low-speed corners. Mercedes also had the advantage in the two high-speed corners at Albert Park, but at 0.1s the difference was marginal compared to the 0.5s it gained from medium-speed corners.
The long run pace was a similar story in the battle at the front. We only get a snapshot of data to analyse from Friday practice, but Mercedes was on average a full second quicker than Ferrari. Once again, that is a huge margin and perhaps more concerning as the larger number of laps helps to remove the impact of the odd missed apex from the equation. If Ferrari can’t find a way to give Vettel and teammate Charles Leclerc more confidence in the car by tomorrow’s qualifying session, Mercedes looks set to romp to victory on Sunday.
Based on Friday’s data, Ferrari is more likely to find itself in a battle with Red Bull. Max Verstappen was 0.073s quicker than Vettel over a single lap but also failed to find the step in performance of Mercedes between first practice and second practice. The most impressive thing about Verstappen’s lap was that it was set on lap three of a 12-lap run, hinting at a heavy fuel load compared to the five-lap run Vettel set his fastest time on.
But once Ferrari turns its engine up for qualifying, it’s unlikely that Red Bull’s Honda power unit will be able to match it and that should ensure the red cars remain on the front two rows of the grid. In terms of race pace, Red Bull and Ferrari look incredibly evenly matched and if anything Red Bull had the advantage. Whatever way you cut it, both teams have serious work to do to catch Mercedes.
Alfa Romeo emerged as the big surprise from the midfield pack. Kimi Raikkonen was just a tenth of a second off Vettel’s best effort in the Ferrari, with the Alfa Romeo registering as the fastest car on the straights. Over long runs the Alfa Romeo was 0.9s off Mercedes and a tenth ahead of Red Bull and Ferrari. The other midfield teams were clustered together 0.3 to 0.5s shy of Alfa Romeo.
At the very back of the pack Williams was 1.7s off the next slowest car on a single lap. Over a race distance the gap to the midfield pack was closer to 1.9s and somewhere in the region of 3.4s to Mercedes’ pace. The car is quick enough to qualify within 107 percent of the quickest time — the cut-off point for eligibility for Sunday’s race — but the car won’t be challenging for points without a large number of retirements.