Analysis: F1 treading a fine line on competition – will updates in Spain tip the balance?
Start Sochi F1
Posted By: James Allen  |  05 May 2017   |  3:35 pm GMT  |  140 comments

The F1 season so far has a broadly positive balance sheet; it has featured two good races and two dull ones with little or no close racing, but the saving grace has been the close competition between Ferrari and Mercedes.

Because behind that there is a large gap to Red Bull, then another large gap back to the rest.

And on tracks where overtaking is hard and the tyres offer little or no degradation, like we saw in Sochi, then the cars run in performance order with no real chance for anyone to spring any surprises.

Those involved it the title battle are talking the other side up and predicting that it will go down to the wire in Abu Dhabi in November; the competition is finely balanced between Ferrari and Mercedes, but the reality is that everyone in F1 is holding their breath to see the step Mercedes makes in Spain.

Start Sochi 2017

A gap between the two front runners could easily open if Mercedes bring along an updated car to Barcelona that not only carries the aerodynamic and engine steps that all teams will be aiming to bring with this first major upgrade of the season, but also addresses its weight issue.

And if that happens then the field could spread out, to the detriment of the show.

To illustrate the point, below is the race trace from Sochi (click to enlarge), showing the gaps between the cars in seconds, see how they widen as the race goes on (end of the race on the right of the frame. The sharp drops are pits stops).

The gaps are large. Now imagine a clear gap between Mercedes and Ferrari.

Red Bull is in a race of its own and then the midfield is miles off. This is different from recent seasons, where Mercedes had a pace advantage over everyone, but the field was more closely grouped behind them and a Force India could score a podium, as it did twice last season. That’s a pipe dream for this year.

Carlos Sainz commented on it this week: “If there is something missing in F1, it is that this gap is so great between the first two and the others,” he said.

“If you look at the budgets, you know that it is impossible to reach them. So I hope Liberty finds agreement among everyone so that it [gap] can be reduced.”

This is something that F1’s new owners Liberty Media are well aware of; it’s one of the main areas Ross Brawn and his team are working to resolve for the next generation, so that all the teams have more of a chance to compete and even to win.

Mercedes on a diet

There were suggestions at the start of the season that the Mercedes, with its long wheelbase, was around 8kg over its ideal weight, which equates to almost 3/10ths of a second at most F1 venues.

They have been working on a weight loss programme back at Brackley in tandem with the usual development programmes. So if that is added to a decent step on aerodynamics and engine, it could tip the balance in Mercedes’ favour.

Mercedes F1 team

Ferrari has done amazingly well to produce such a competitive car from where it was last season.

However the pressure is on Ferrari as its record on in-season updates has been patchy in recent years. Many upgrades have not had the desired effect and kept pace with other competitors.

Anything less than a decent step from them on aerodynamics and engine and the balance could start to shift.

What Ferrari has in its favour is the way it uses the new generation Pirelli tyres, especially the softer end of the range. The Mercedes has a narrower operating window for the tyres, whereas the Ferrari has more bandwidth. This will take some time to resolve.

For Spain Pirelli has disappointingly chosen the harder tyres, despite the fact that in winter testing teams were using the ultrasoft and supersoft tyres quite happily. The ultrasoft is probably not the right tyre for the weekend but a selection of supersoft -soft – medium would have made for a more interesting weekend, as we flagged up after the first round.

Daniel Ricciardo has said as much in the Red Bull preview to the Spanish GP:

“We’re going for the harder tyres for the first time this year in Barcelona. I’m not sure if it’ll help us or not but I just don’t think it’s going to be good for anyone.

“The tyres are already hard enough so the harder compounds are just way too hard. Hopefully for Barcelona’s sake it’s hot and therefore these harder tyres work, but if it’s cold then it’s going to be a struggle for everyone.”

Red Bull Racing
Can Red Bull close the gap?
As well as the Mercedes and Ferrari updates, it will be interesting to see what Red Bull brings to the table in Spain. The energy drinks maker failed to live up to expectations with its 2017 challenger, which is not only down on power but also aerdyanamically less stable than its rivals.

Adrian Newey’s team has been working flat out on a B spec car for Spain, while Renault has said that it will be delaying its revised engine, which addresses issues with the hybrid system, until June.

Last year, for reference, Red Bull was 1.7 seconds off the pace of the Mercedes in Sochi, but then in Spain it was just 0.6s (and they won the race after the Mercedes pair took each other out) so it shows the kind of gains that can be made.

The midfield battle is very entertaining, but even there its hard for the cars to overtake or pull interesting strategy moves on each other when the tyre choice is too hard. There will be movement as some teams gain more from development than others and Renault is worth watching as they seem to be unlocking performance now from their car in the fight with Force India and Williams for fourth and fifth places. Williams has only one driver scoring points and there is no chance of the other being replaced. Renault also has only one scoring points, but the other may be less secure.

McLaren Honda

What about Honda?
The most extraordinary story of the season so far, without doubt, has been the failure of the Honda engine, after a positive upward trend in 2016. The engine’s problems are well catalogued, but engine fixes take time.

Behind the scenes Mercedes engineers have been working hard in a rare show of sporting camaraderie, helping the Japanese manufacturer to speed up the recovery process, to stabilise the parts that keep going wrong and to maximise the integration with the McLaren chassis. There is a lot to be gained and in many ways the future participation of Fernando Alonso in the championship beyond June may well depend upon it.

Alonso is currently diverted by the Indy 500 experience, which has given him a fresh motivation and distracted his attention from the F1 disaster.

A line was drawn in the sand after the testing and first race and the recovery plan will not spare Honda’s blushes; nothing less than ‘whatever it takes’ will do to make the rest of the season respectable for McLaren and to give the commercial team something to sell against for 2018.

Alonso will get wiped out in front of his home crowd next weekend, but his mind will be on Indy. Once he comes back in Montreal, it will hopefully be to a clear sign of progress.

What do you think? Leave your comment in the section below or head over to the JA on F1 Facebook page for more discussion.

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James, does the current F1 McLaren Honda team include the Mugen motorsports tuning team? They were a prominent player back in the late 90’s, but, if they are on the team now, they aren’t getting any mention in the present lineup. If they aren’t perhaps they should be, as their road going products do the business.
For your information my car is a Mugen supercharged Honda CR-Z, tuned by one of the UK’ s leading tuning and car performance company’s, TDI (Torque Developments International) Ltd. Mugen products are second to none (in my humble opinion), so the F1 team are missing out if they aren’t in the partnership this time around.
What are your thoughts, James?
Cheers, Rob


Remember why Mclaren went to Honda in the first place? Because they believed that it wasn’t possible to beat Mercedes as ‘just’ a customer engine team. They had to have a manufacturer and an engine that was atleast as good if not better than the Merc. This was the whole plan. This is what got them Alonso. It would be a long game but this was their ace up their sleeve. Once Honda got up to speed this was how they would beat Merc and give Alonso his championships. But it hasn’t been so easy. Now they have had to let Merc in behind the curtain as a desperate last attempt to appease Honda, sponsors, board members, Alonso.. But they have let the fox in the hen house. This had to be why Merc would be do keen to help. Any ground breaking developments Honda might have been capable will be in the hands of Merc too now. They have given up their ace. Alonso surely won’t stay next year now. Why would he?


As long as Ferrari bring some decent upgrades, F1 should still have a bumper season. Merc running away with it again would be a disaster, even if Bottas does win the title.


A (seems like well informed) poster on a dutch forum, who never posts except his previous scoop that VER would go to RB before Barcelona ’16, before that news was out. Now posted again with some interesting news. Roughly translated: RB will present the RB14 at Barcelona to replace the RB13, wich has some fundamental issues. In simulator VER was 1,3 to 1,5 seconds faster. Time for some digging James, there must be some persons that can confirm or deny.


@ Robert…Now if that were true it would be sweet music to my ears! The fact is that RB are currently approx 1.0/ 1-5 secs off the mercedes so any gain of this magnitude would put them on a level playing field, however, the catch is, that this assumes that Mercedes do not have any significant upgrades themselves. Whatever they do they will still be in front as Mercedes will not be standing still….They’re working 24/7 according to wolffie.


I think we need articles like this. There’s a lot of optimism in the sport so far, because we look like we have a close Merc-Ferrari battle; and because the carsare being pushed to the limit. Yet these articles are always very objective – pointing out what’s good but also what’s not so good about the new-look F1 in the context of the racing. There’s also a worry in the article; it’s all looking close now but what if Merc turn on the afterburners and surge into the lead as was the case in 2014-16? At this stage, it’s a valid question because it’s early days. But hopefully as the season goes on it won’t be and the two-way fight will be established. Also, I didn’t know about Mercedes’ weight issue.


I suppose the last thing we need is for Mercedes to take too big a step ahead of the competition. It would seem that Mercedes did not do as good a Job as they have us gotten used to the past 3 years. 8 kilos of extra weigh is a fair lot in F1 i would imagine. You can’t just go around and make parts thinner to gain a bit back.
I believe the Ferrari was better born and so might be easier to fit new solutions on to improve performance. For the first time in a while you get the impression that Ferrari understands their car better than Mercedes. Ferrari is not about to go away regardless of what Mercedes comes up with. Not this year. Marc


I’ll be very surprised if the update in Barcelona upends the balance between Mercedes and Ferrari to 2016 levels. Even if it does, Bottasnis clearly capable of keeping Hamilton honest.

I’d be hard pressed to describe Honda’s struggles as extraordinary, they’ve disappointed far more often than not in recent F1.


Off topic a bit, but two things come to mind concerning F1 that Alonso’s test bring up.
1. The Indy car starts by pushing a button. F1 is a long drawn out process by comparison, and I would say unnecessarily so. What does this say about the PU?
2. The FREE coverage was excellent, considering this was only a test. Mario’s comments were very good, and brought insight about driving these cars. This was a great promotion event as well. Perhaps F1 will learn something about how to cover events. And it will actually bring more USA viewers to F1. And if the schedules allowed, more F1 drivers to Indy. Win win win.


One kilo is worth three hundredths per lap

– Nico Rosberg, undefeated 2016 F1 World Champion.

Chill ou people,
Cavalry is here.
Savour the worlds of wisdom coming from the 2016 World Driver’s Champion and do the math.


Great article, thanks for the insight James. Regarding Honda, I’m not sure there’s any big payback available for going through 3 years of pain. Even if Honda come up with a brilliant engine the FIA are now wanting to make sure no one has more than a 0.3 second engine advantage around Barcelona. Is the benefit to McLaren of tailored control software and engine packaging really worth all these seasons of no decent results and declining sponsorship revenues?


Ok, in quali you can use inters or wets plus one nominated dry tyre. And if you use inters or wets during the race, then the same rules apply as now. What do you think everyone.


Have an idea to spice up races. There are three tyres at Barcelona. No one is going to use the hard tyres. Why not change the rules so that you have to use all three tyres at some point during qualifying or the race. However during qualifying, once you choose a tyre, you have to stick to that tyre type for the whole of that quali section (you can change to new tyres but not a different compound). So no chance to do a banker lap on hard or medium before seeing how it’s going and then going to softs if you can’t get through that quali section (and this includes inters and wets).

This way, as long as a Sauber on softs is quicker over one lap than a Mercedes on hard tyres, the teams will have proper choices to make in quali, which should create one, two and three stop strategies in the same race.


I find it hard to understand how 8KG equates to 3/10ths?? When the car weighs over 700kg.. seems a bit optimistic.


makes sense to me, they asked poor checo to lose some weight at FI, just so u understand that in F1 things are measured in grams and not kilograms…
(I mean checo looks tiny on tv, how do u ask a tiny person to lose weight)
If the Hulk was driving this year at FI then he’d probably have to donate 1 of each organ that he can live without…


An adjective different than “optimistic” would be more appropriate but I am afraid my comment will not be published 🙂


@ James: Should the 2017 Ferrari and the surprising success the Scuderia has had with it so far be considered more of an Alison or a Binotto car ?
I fear the former, which may be very important, especially given Ferrari’s patchy record of in-season development.
I do hope they Keep up with Mercedes but I worry, as James (Allen) seems to, that Mercedes may have more potential to unlock, which will make for a dull season.
Especially so since RBR are not nearly as competitive as anyone of us expected; in other words, if Mercedes disappear in the horizon . . . I don’t see RBR really catching Ferrari . . . and then we have a not just RBR racing themselves but also Ferrari.
I hope none of this comes to pass, of course.

The fact that Mercedes engineers are, apparently, assisting Honda is at the same time a feel-good story for the sport (Mercedes’ generosity/tactical nous) as well as a tremendous condemnation on Honda’s abysmal performance in 2017.
I am an optimist by nature but cannot help feeling that Mercedes assisting Honda is also a clear indication that come what may, Honda will not be anywhere near Mercedes performance levels this year (Mercedes may be “nice”, but they are not stupid; they will not help Honda THAT much).
Yes, we knew this already but nevertheless . . .
Ultimately this (Honda) state of affairs really is not good for anyone; not McLaren, not Honda, not Alonso, not Vandoorne, not Brown . . . not anyone.


Can you expand on your fears that Ferrari’s surprising performance this year is due to Alison? Is there some critical thinking that leads you to this conclusion, or rather just gut feeling. If the former, please do share……..


He is being lead by common knowledge that British engineers are best in the World. They are the only ones able to understand laws of physics.

Such great impact it was that Ferrari allowed Allison to join its biggest competitor within mere months.


I’m terrified that Mercedes will pull clear from Ferrari, with Allison on board now, to oversee upgrades and developments on the aero side. Maybe not as early as Spain, but over the course of the season. Surely he has a fair bit of knowledge about the Ferrari challenger. I find it hard to believe that they would have scrapped his blueprints and started from scratch after he left.
There’s also more scope of development on the engine side, from my understanding, Mercedes are still on their first batch of engine components, Ferrari are on their 3rd Turbo chargers already. (I don’t know about other components) So I think Mercedes have a bigger sheet to work on.


“I’m terrified that Mercedes will pull clear from Ferrari, with Allison on board now, “

If anyone is going to make real difference it will be Allison 🙂 Coincidentally Mercedes now has issue with getting tires in optimal operating window same as Ferrari last year.

I am terrified that you haven’t done a basic research before posting. Turbos haven’t been replaced because of the failure.


Because the Ferrari rate of development was great under Allison?


Driver: ICE / TC / MGU-H / MGU-K / ES / CE

VET: 1 / 3 / 2 / 1 / 2 / 2
RAI: 2 / 3 / 2 / 1 / 2 / 2
HAM: 1 / 1 / 1 / 1 / 1 / 1
BOT: 1 / 1 / 1 / 1 / 1 / 2


if that’s accurate, then ouch… what Ferrari challenge for the WDC, it looks like Mr Finger might be taking a grid penalty every third race pretty soon. thanks for that 1.


The turbo’s aren’t not pooched, or at least that’s what Ferrari have said. All 3 turbo’s can be re-used. Of course, they only have 1 left to introduce any improvements to, but perhaps they’ve tapped out development on their turbo’s.


This just begs the question “why change them if the are working”.
Ferrari obviously spotted something that made them swap them out.
There will be penalties at the end of the year for sure and you can’t stockpile as Merc did with Lewis last year.

Mansell Mania

So James you’re basically saying that Mercedes have a clear and tangible element to make up time on (i.e. the weight issue) whereas Ferrari are developing more on increments alone? I.e more scope for Merc to find the extra time? (Has that made sense?)

Also even if Merc do find a step, the WDC will still be very alive because although Kimi did have a strong race just gone, it looks like Bottas will be taking more points off Hamilton than Kimi will be taking from Vettel. Game on.


That is the concern – that and them overcoming the handicap of not always getting the tyres working

When they do they are faster as we have seen


They showed they were faster on the ultrasoft in Russia. It seems the supersoft has always seemed their weakest tire, though this year’s supersoft is like the previous year’s soft (or even medium, which Mercedes aced).

So is it a given that the teams will go to their 2nd ICE in Spain? I’ve suggested before that maybe the teams should be allowed to run a non-pool engine on Fridays, just like they run non-race gearboxes on Fridays. The first ICEs have done all 12 practice sessions, 4 quali sessions and 4 races so far. What would teams do now though? Would they put ICE #1 for all the Fridays until it reaches EOL, or would they need ICE #2 in there to optimize/tweak it so that it’s at its best for the race? Would be interested to know.


Oh great we have a entertaining midfield battle 1 lap behind the leaders to look forward to. Yawn!
Lets hope Mercedes dont pull away.
How long until Redbull start moaning because cant see them winning a race.

James I usually pay £6.99 to watch the live F1 races when not on channel 4 but not this year unless it rains. Barcelona will back to normal.
First time since 1990s ill watch highlights instead. Im not paying for a high speed traffic jam


James, what’s the news on Mario Illien helping with Honda’s engine?


JAF1…. I am not getting email responses to my posts? Is it a general issue? Thanks


I never have…so, yes!


any idea on when these engines will have their development frozen?
I would imagine it’s 2 years away considering the move to help Honda has actually materialised


“8kg over its ideal weight, which equates to almost 3/10ths of a second”

Hi James, usually I can relate to the numbers that you quote but this one is beyond my comprehension. With a minimum weight of 722 kgs 8 kgs relates to around 1.1%. As a comparison the success ballast in the BTCC is 75kg for first place, that’s around 6% of the minimum weight of 1280 kgs. It was changed in 2015 from the previous 45 kgs because it was deemed to not have enough effect.

Based on my 30+ years of experience in motorsport a 1.1% higher weight would have an effect around 0.075 seconds in a 2 minute lap. Which is so far away from 0.3 seconds quoted that there must be something more to it. Is it that the 8kgs isn’t the real issue but that Mercedes are looking at, say a 20 kgs weight reduction which then enables them to get down to the weight limit plus move 12 kgs of ballast to achieve a better weight balance? That may well equate to something closer to 0.3 seconds but just a simple 8 kgs reduction would be highly unlikely to achieve.


“Based on my 30+ years of experience in motorsport a 1.1% higher weight would have an effect around 0.075 seconds in a 2 minute lap.”

Ssshhhh, enough with common sense. We need to maintain narrative of Mercedes being so much smarter than everyone else and to increase page views.


3498, do you really believe that’s a motivation for James? It seems to me that you do not like anything even remotely negative said about Ferrari. Is Ferrari a perfect team? No. Have they stalled in the development wars of past seasons? Yes, they have. It doesn’t mean that that will happen this year, but it has been a trend. It’s silly to just shut your eyes to that.


Hi Gary, F1 people often say that adding 10kg of fuel costs 3 tenths per lap.

I suspect the effect of extra weight can vary greatly, depending on factors including:

– It’s height (I think BTCC ballast is placed low in the car)

– The contribution of aerodynamic downforce, as opposed to gravity, to the car’s grip.


Wow that chart really makes the point doesn’t it.
Cars simply rolling around in order of their development /budget with just the odd exepction where there is a failure or significant driver gap.
This isn’t what anyone want to see (except those with the best car/budget).
I don’t know what the answer is, but hopefully Ross or someone can figure something out.
God forbid – even Bernies sprinklers and shortcuts will start to look like good ideas soon if this keeps up.


When, in the last 20-25yrs, was it ever different? This is the story of F1 since technology became the major driver of performance in the late 90’s…


True, It has always been an issue somewhat. But 1 single pass all race after the first lap is taking it to a ridiculous level.


James, you say the Mercedes is overweight, by an estimated 8kg, but does that mean that they have no scope for adding ballast to optimise the balance of the car? Could this be part of the reason why they have had such difficulty tuning the handling to the operating window of the tyres?
If this is the case, they presumably need to save a lot more than 8kg, so as to give themselves scope to use ballast to adjust the balance? And if they were to succeed, the payoff would be a lot more than just an improved power:weight ratio?


The only real solution is one that everyone wants to avoid and that is to move closer to a spec series.

The HAS and Ferrari partnership has proven in a way that a spec style series would work, each works team just needs to offer a car to the other non works team with a possible 2/3 different engine combinations.


So the overweight issue is useful technology/aero that does not work as well as it should? If it’s lighter there is less of it so it will be a faster car? I’m confused. There are potential losses involved for Mercedes if a new car/spec b?/ summer diet car ends up being more hard work? Basically if you loose weight is it always good?