So the season opener race was a dream come true for Ferrari and the Tifosi and a nightmare for the Silver Arrows.
Ferrari’s win was such a jubilant moment for everyone not only within the Scuderia but all over the world. Fans have been tired of the Silver Arrows slug fest for the past 3 years.
For people within Scuderia, it was a surreal experience followed by a sense of relief. And rightly so after last year’s disappointment. This year’s media blackout coupled with testing performance had the hype train building and anything less than a win would have been damning.
But the Ferrari won and they’re leading both the titles as of now and this begs the question
Is Ferrari really a Mercedes beater? To answer this question we need to analyse the elements that led to Sebastian Vettel’s victory. The first and foremost element was lining up second on the grid, then being able to keep Hamilton within his sights, the second element was going the distance on the purple walled Ultrasoft tires, the third element was Lewis Hamilton getting stuck behind Verstappen and finally, the overcut.
From 2015 onwards we have seen that Ferrari has matched Mercedes in terms of race pace. It’s on Saturday where Mercedes enjoy a healthier advantage over it and converting that front row into track positions.
For 2017 Ferrari has closed down that gap to 3 tenths of a second from 8 tenths of a second since last year. One of the most instrumental elements in Vettel’s win was pipping Valtteri Bottas to P2 in qualifying thus allowing him the ability to run in the contention for a win. Bottas was 3 tenths down on Hamilton in a track that’s arguably not one of his strong ones, in a team that he joined only in January and where there’s a great expectation and pressure. It’ll take Bottas a race or two to close that gap to Hamilton or even beat him in qualifying relegating the Ferraris to P3 which means the best they could do would be usurping P2 in the race.
During the entire first stint, what was the most commendable thing about the Ferrari was its ability to run right up to the Merc’s gearbox. Winter testing had revealed the flaw in the new regulations as pundits and driver voiced their concerns that following other cars and overtaking would be a very difficult task and the Australian Grand Prix established it. Cars with half a second of each other and even with the DRS could not overtake.
So for Vettel to be able to keep Hamilton in his sights during those first 17 laps speaks of the advantage that Ferrari has. And despite following the Brit in dirty air, he was able to eke out 5 more laps out of those Ultrasofts really turned the tide into his favour. So this could be one area where Ferrari may be better than the Silver Arrows.
Hamilton was not able to find performance from his Ultrasofts and Bottas backed his claim. Mercedes has traditionally suffered from this flaw as pace gains from hard compounds to soft compounds have been smaller when compared to its rivals. Once on the yellow walled soft tires, Hamilton was actually putting in fast sectors until he found himself behind Verstappen and the Merc could not overtake the Red Bull even with the DRS and it’s superior engine. We have the new regulations to thank for that. Vettel who was ahead at that point and had track position, an overcut opportunity just presented itself to the team and they took it. As Ferrari’s Jock Clear himself said that they themselves were planning of an undercut but Hamilton came in before them forcing them to stay out and try something different and with Hamilton stuck behind Verstappen, the overcut simply presented itself.
Even during the race, Ted Kravitz mentioned that Bottas’ race manager had framed Bottas’ strategy on an overcut. With the new tires and aero, we are moving away from the era of Undercut i.e pitting early bolting on new tires and blitzing the opposition to the era of Overcut i.e. maintaining track position. Mercedes’s strategy department is sure to analyse their defeat and expect them to come back even stronger.
The bottom line is Ferrari is stronger than last year and certainly closer to Mercedes than ever before. They’re even better in a few aspects. But are they really leading the pack? I’m afraid the answer is no, it’s still Mercedes leading the field, however the Reds are breathing down their neck.
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