Expert opinion and analysis
Mercedes vs Ferrari vs Red Bull – is that the shape of Formula 1 2018? It looked rather like it after the initial stages of pre-season testing in Barcelona.
Of course, it is difficult to glean too much precise information about competitiveness from running at an exceptionally cold (and recently resurfaced) Circuit de Catalunya – too many variables apply.
But it did not escape anyone’s notice that when the teams were going through the homework of proving their cars, focusing on little other than making sure Unusually cold conditions brought testing to a temporary halt they worked over the initial stages of testing, before the complications of true performance runs, the big three occupied the top of the timesheets.
The usual provisos apply: the cars’ specification was unknown. The weather was unexpectedly cold – there was even snow. All will have major upgrade packages for the first race. But Red Bull-mercedes-ferrari on day one of testing and Ferrari-mercedes-red Bull on the second, each separated by fractions and well clear of the rest of the field, then Lewis Hamilton ending the test fastest by 0.3secs from Sebastian Vettel, tells its own story.
If so, this would not be a surprise. They are, in essence, the only teams with the resources to mount a title campaign. Mclaren, the only other team close, are working through the growing pains of starting with a new engine manufacturer. More of which in a moment.
So there is every reason to believe the big three will take up in Melbourne somewhere close to where they left off 2017 in Abu Dhabi.
Each has continued their own development path with their 2018 car. Mercedes have refined their low-rake, long-wheelbase philosophy, while hoping to address their narrow set-up window and issues that affected the car on slow-speed tracks; Ferrari have lengthened the car a little to boost aerodynamic efficiency but stuck true to their high-rake, high-sidepods philosophy which gave them such pace and flexibility. And Red Bull have learned the lessons of their slow start to 2017.
Relative competitiveness may hang on engine performance and reliability.
Mercedes – already the standard-setters on both pace and reliability – are ducking questions as to whether they have hit 1,000bhp on their test beds in the factory, which rather suggests they have.
Ferrari, as is their wont these days, are saying very little. And Red Bull team boss Christian Horner is already expressing “concern” over partner Renault’s plan to focus on reliability first and only introduce performance upgrades when teams take their second engines.
Horner said: “Our expectation and goal is to try to reduce the gap to the cars ahead of us. Mercedes are the benchmark, the favourite. If rumours of 1,000bhp are correct, that is going to put them in a mighty position. But we have made good progress and we hope to be a challenger team particularly at circuits that play to our strengths.
“Reliability has been a big priority for Renault so they are coming into the year better prepared. Hopefully that will allow their focus to start to centre on performance.”
Renault Sport boss Cyril Abiteboul, however, points out that a focus on reliability does not necessarily mean performance will not improve.
“Reliability and performance and competitiveness go hand in hand,” he said. “Last year we had to reduce the performance potential of the engine because of reliability. So the target is to start the season reliably so we can use the engine to its full potential, which we were not able to do last year. So from a performance perspective the engine should be performing better.
“When they are reliable, components open up more options in terms of performance. When you work on reliability, you work on performance also.”
Abiteboul says the Renault performance at the start of the season “will be comparable to the end of last year when we were using the engine at its maximum potential, which has not happened on many occasions, except maybe in Abu Dhabi. Look at Mexico, Interlagos and Abu Dhabi, you will see a huge spread of performance and Abu Dhabi was the best compromise.”
Even so, Renault do have other concerns. Mercedes engine boss Andy Cowell is sticking resolutely to the
“MERCEDES ARE THE BENCHMARK, THE FAVOURITE. IF RUMOURS OF 1,000BHP ARE CORRECT, THAT IS GOING TO PUT THEM IN A MIGHTY POSITION CHRISTIAN HORNER
desire to use only three engines all season. He says: “We think overall it is better to create a power unit that does have the required durability and doesn’t lose significant performance through that life. If you work on the assumption that you are not going to win one race then you are potentially throwing the championship away.”
But Renault are already talking about the possibility of strategic penalties. Abiteboul says: “I’m accepting you need to optimise your potential. If it is better for everyone to use four engines rather than three, in which case we make that decision, but it is too early.
“First I want to see where we are sitting in the pecking order, in terms of mileage, reliability, performance against what we have measured on the dyno and priorities set for the Renault team, which is what matters the most.”