AUSTRALIAN GP: race analysis

Articolo di Cristiano Sponton e del PJ - Traduzione di Federico Marchi (@liquo71)

It has been a great demonstration of force from Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel, the one shown on the track of Melbourne on Sunday. For the first time in the era of hybrid engines (2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons) Mercedes have been defeated on track. The other wins from RedBull (2014, 2016) and Ferrari (2015) has been obtained mainly thanks to some errors or issues occurred to the German team. 

The one of yesterday, instead, has been the win of the fastest car on track that exploited and managed in the best way possible the new tyres developed by Pirelli. The rumors that wanted an uncompetitive Ferrari were, as a consequence, not entirely true (not the ones related to the presence in the wind gallery of a SF70H-B with a longer wheelbase, though, still on study to evaluate the pros and cons of such a solution) with a team that probably wished to work with low pressure and few expectations from mass media and fans. News that were reported on this website but also on other more prestigious and well-known headlines. Few people trusted the horizontal structure adopted by Marchionne and Binotto. The new arrivals (no big names), in the engine department mostly from Mercedes and in the aerodynamics department from RedBull, seem however to bear fruit. 

After this necessary premise, let’s go more in depth and see the analysis of the race. Starting from this season, we will try to analyze it through the use of words and graphs. Since the earliest laps it was clear that the fastest car was the one of Sebastian Vettel. After a pretty good start, he managed to keep the position against Bottas and Raikkonen. In the latest years we were used to see one of the two Mercedes’ drivers opening a substantial gap in the earliest laps while easily managing the race and, with no pressures, the strategy. To be honest, even in this case we could expect a race of this kind, given the very good pace exhibited by Mercedes on Friday’s free practices. But it has not been so thanks to the amazing work of the Ferrari’s team after Friday’s FP2. On Friday, both cars seemed to miss a little bit even if they did not appear too unbalanced, that bit that was found on Friday night. However, by looking at the performance of Vettel and Raikkonen throughout the weekend, it is worth noting that what said above fits more to the German driver.

Vettel has been able, since the start of the race, to put under pressure Lewis Hamilton, making him realize that if he wanted to win he should have toil for it. He managed to stay very close to the W08 of the triple world champion for some laps, and this gives proves that the Man in Red was quicker. Realizing that the overtake on Hamilton was nearly impossible, he slowed down a bit and took some space, both to ensure a correct cooling of the car, and to manage the use of tyres without losing ground to aim at an easy undercut already planned.

Exactly in the management of tyres, the Achilles’ heel of the latest seasons, Ferrari built this very important win. Looking at the tendency line at the beginning of the race, it is possible to note how the pace of Vettel has been the best, both in chronometric terms and in terms of the decline of tyres. Only Bottas, of the first three drivers, exhibited a similar tendency line making though record slower lap times of about 0.5 seconds (as you can see in the 1st graph).

TEAM MERCEDES: according to Plan A, Hamilton’s pit stop should have occurred one lap later, during the 18th lap.
Let’s focus on the moment that decided the race, the anticipated pit stop of Lewis Hamilton. The moment chosen by the German team seemed to nearly everybody a bit ahead of time, even if it is worth noting that the Soft compound would have been able to resist to all those laps by ensuring a decent pace. The biggest trouble occurred to the English driver was to find himself behind Max Verstappen, not the simplest driver on the grid to pass, showing that the choice of the engineers has been a mere gamble. To be precise, after the race, we came to know that the pit stop of Lewis Hamilton was planned at the 18th lap, one lap after. The question then is: why did Mercedes decide to stop a lap earlier, without apparently considering that their driver would have found himself stuck in the traffic of the RedBull?

Analyzing the first 16 laps of the driver number 44 (graph 2) it is possible to note that the tendency line started to nose up, symptom of a considerable decline of tyres. Since the beginning of the race he repeatedly whined with his engineer about the lack of grip, caused probably by an unusual oversteer felt on the W08 throughout the weekend, which elicited an anomalous overheating of tyres. However, there was not such an important deterioration to force him to an early pit stop (even if in the last lap of his 1st stint he lost more or less 7 tenths in only two sectors). This fact had put on alarm the box, who opted for an early call.

Looking at the graphs below, we see that Hamilton was progressively opening the gap on Verstappen. Until the 13th lap he was gaining about 1 second per lap, while from the 14th to the 16th lap the gain reduced to 6 tenths per lap on average. At the 16th lap the gap between the two drivers was of 18.5 and, looking at the tendency, Hamilton should have pitted at least 6 laps later in order to maintain the position on the Dutch driver (he would have anyway risked because few seconds ahead there was the SF70H of Kimi Raikkonen).

Mercedes, put under pressure, has hurried the stop and Ferrari has cunningly took advantage from it. The pressure that Vettel was exercising on Hamilton, turned out to be crucial to cause big issues to the brains of the German team. The traffic caused by Max Verstappen has been fundamental to make the strategy of Ferrari effective. As you can see from the graph below, Hamilton, in the first two laps after the pit stop, has been able to gain some tenth on Sebastian.  From lap 20, however, the English driver started to lose ground due to the presence of the RedBull RB13. The 22th lap revealed to be decisive for the destiny of the race, with Sebastian Vettel gaining 1.4 seconds on the triple world champion and building the gap needed to pit during the following lap. Perfect strategy from the Italian team. For what concerns Mercedes, instead, we reached the conclusion that their decision cannot be completely considered a mistake for the reasons explained above (decline, chance to undercut Vettel,...). Could they force Vettel to undercut on Hamilton and get him stuck in the traffic? Yes, if the tyres of Lewis were in good conditions.

AUSTRALIAN GP: during the 1st stint the fastest driver on track was Sebastian Vettel
In the table below we summarized the average times set by the top 5 drivers in the first part of the race: all the drivers involved were on UltraSofts (tyres already used in the Q2 of Saturday’s Quali).

From this analysis it is possible to note that the pace of Vettel was slightly better than the one of Hamilton (who, however, had a 25% shorter stint) by few thousandths.

Not good, if compared with the one of Hamilton, the pace of Bottas who has been 6 tenths slower than his teammate (on same tyres). Same for Raikkonen who appeared in trouble over the whole weekend. Difficulties highlighted also in the pace during the 1st stint, given that the gap from Vettel was of 7 tenths.  

AUSTRALIAN GP: on SuperSofts the RedBull of Max Verstappen had a good second part of the race
During the 2nd stint the fastest car on track was the RB13 of Max Verstappen. The Dutch driver has been capable of exploiting at their best the SuperSofts without major problems realizing a stint of 32 laps.

Among the drivers who used the Soft tyres, the pace of Sebastian Vettel has been very similar to the one of Valtteri Bottas, and to the one of Max Verstappen (on SuperSofts, as indicated above). It is important to remind that the difference of performance between the two compounds was more or less of 7 tenths per lap, reduced over the laps due to a greater decline of the red compound. Pretty good also the pace of Kimi Raikkonen who, using this type of tyres, nearly matched his teammate. The graph below shows that Raikkonen, during the 56th lap, set the fastest lap of the race. 

Anyway Vettel, given the gap on Hamilton, did not push hard in the last part of the race but he only focused on managing the car and the tyres (he, however, set the 3rd fastest lap).

Insufficient performance the one of Hamilton on Soft tyres: he had never found a decent pace (even worse than Bottas).

Looking at the graph below it is possible to see the fluctuating tendency of his times (lapped drivers should be not be blamed for this, given that the same cars were easily passed by Sebastian Vettel). It seems that the main issue of the Mercedes W08 of the English driver has been the overheating of rear tyres. After two or three fast laps, the triple world champion, was forced to “take a break” in order to bring his tyres back to their window of functioning.

Analyzing top speeds, we see a Ferrari in a very good shape, exhibiting speeds similar to those of Mercedes. This, once again, proves the amazing job of the team directed by Sassi, who developed a Power Unit at the level of Mercedes. The SF70H in this race, combined a very aggressive rake setup, a high downforce rear wing and the monkey seat. Mercedes, instead, opted for a medium downforce wing coupled with a smooth setup. Notwithstanding this, the speeds recorded by the SF70H has been really good.

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