“We still cannot think about catching up with Mercedes. Then again, the season is not over, so anything should be possible,” said Sebastian Vettel yesterday.
“The truth is that we have a great car, and now we need to work on the upgrades and implement them in the best possible way to make sure we get more power out of the engine.”
With their third one-two finish in four Grands Prix yesterday in China, Mercedes moved 97 points clear of their nearest rivals, Red Bull, in the Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship.
There is still a long way to go, but as the teams come home from the fly away races, preparing for the start of the European season, the question on everyone’s mind is – can they be caught?
In the drivers’ championship it is still relatively open; despite winning the last three races Lewis Hamilton is still not on top in the drivers’ table showing how damaging a non finish can be. It will be a long time into the season before other drivers like Vettel and Alonso can be ruled out.
But in the Constructors’ Championship, the game may soon be up, if Mercedes keeps racking up 1-2 finishes.
The key to what happens next, as in any F1 season, is development. Last season Red Bull was off the pace at the start of the year but then won nine straight victories in the second half. That was down to development; Red Bull did a lot of it while many of their rivals did less, instead focussing on the new 2014 hybrid technology.
This year they are all in the same boat; with the relative immature hybrid turbo technology, everyone is on a steep learning curve and as next year will be run to largely the same rules, it is a straight arms race to develop the car and power unit package within the rules to get the most from it.
The speed of development and the competence of F1 engineers can be shown by the reliability improvements made already in the first four races. In Australia there were just 15 finishers, yesterday in China there were 20; just two mechanical retirements.
The Mercedes team is where it is because it planned and prepared for the 2014 rules earlier and committed more resource earlier than its rivals. The team had Geoff Willis leading an inner group that was solely focussed on integration of chassis and power unit for the last two years. They invested heavily in people and Energy Recovery expertise at the engine factory in Brixworth from as long as six years ago.
The Renault and Ferrari powered teams are at a disadvantage as a result of all this and they simply have to catch up, as all the team principals have been saying. The rules don’t allow performance development on the engines now that the season has started, but engineers can do two things which will see a large improvement in performance.
The can make changes for reliability or safety and they can work with their chassis partners to maximise the performance of what they have. In the case of Renault and Ferrari the work in these areas will bring a lot more performance. Sebastian Vettel for example, is not getting the most from his car because he’s uncomfortable with the stability and the power delivery. Once he gets that sorted he will be much faster, meanwhile Renault will close down the 22km/h speed deficit it has to Mercedes. By the time we get to the long straight at Abu Dhabi in November that deficit will have been reduced significantly.
The question is, will it have been done in time for any team to stop Mercedes winning the championship?
“We’ve got to if we are going to make a championship of it. We have to take the fight to them,” said Red Bull’s Christian Horner. “We are going to give it everything.
“I believe we can take the fight to them, we just can’t concede too much more ground. We were 22km/h slower than them on that 1km long straight today – that represents almost 100 metres – we are giving it away on the straights and that is where we have got to improve, it’s quite simple. And hopefully we will have doe steps towards that in Barcelona.”
Teams were noticeably cautious about throwing update parts at the cars during the flyaway races as it is so easy to get lost on a development path in the early stages of the season when the cars are away from the factory for almost two months. Updates need to be validated properly to allow a team to move forward.
But everyone will have extensive ideas about how to improve their cars, also from the Bahrain test, which was timely and these will be in production now; you will see them in Barcelona, where the competitive picture behind Mercedes could change as a result.
Mercedes has work to do too, but it is closer to the maximum now than its rivals so there will be diminishing returns as the season goes on.
The development race this time around is linear and there are no distractions regarding next year.
It’s a sprint race towards a finish line in November, in other words
Mercedes has no intention of letting up; it has pressed home its competitive advantage, which is the first rule of sport, unlike McLaren and Williams, for example which have not really taken full advantage in the early Grands Prix of the Mercedes power unit while Renault and Ferrari were struggling.
“Hopefully (Mercedes will develop), more than all the other teams; we want to go to Barcelona with the biggest step, that’s our ambition,” said Nico Rosberg yesterday. “Barcelona is a chance for us to extend the advantage that we have and that’s the approach that we have going to Barcelona, 100 percent. ”
2014 F1 Constructors’ Championship
1. Mercedes 154
2. Red Bull 57
3. Force India 54
4. Ferrari 52
5. McLaren 43
6. Williams 36