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.
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?
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
- Honda’s jet division helped F1 engineers solve power unit problem
- McLaren Racing losses rise after Honda split
- Ricciardo: Baku “s***show” was Red Bull’s fault
- “Drive to Survive Episode 1: All to Play For” reviewed
- F1’s television and social media audiences rose last year