The last of the opening fly-away races saw the same story of Mercedes dominance repeated once again last weekend – but what other things did we learn in China...?
MERCEDES DOMINATE ON THE STRAIGHT
The key factor in Mercedes’ dominant performance was clearer to see than ever in China, with the 1170m run between turns 13 and 14 showing just how well the Mercedes powerplant is working.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg topped the speed trap table in qualifying, both clocking just over 317km/h, as Mercedes-powered cars filled the top six. In contrast, the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo were right at the bottom, some 20km/h slower.
Almost all of Mercedes’ lap time gain over their rivals came in the final sector, with the long straight that it contains representing a massive 21.4 percent of the entire lap distance.
Asked if Mercedes could be beaten, Vettel simply said: “I think if we put two chicanes in all the straights then yes.”
In the race, Rosberg was fastest at 336.8km/h with Hamilton mid table on 332.3km/h. Ricciardo was on 321.7km/h and Vettel down at 318.3km/h.
The Renault engine that Red Bull is using has a two-fold effect on this differential – firstly the engine and electric motor units are simply not as powerful and secondly the cooling requires larger, bulkier sidepods, which adds to aerodynamic drag.
On any track where the straight-line speed dominates, then, it seems Mercedes have it in the bag...
VETTEL FACES A GENUINE CHALLENGE AT RED BULL – AND IT’S NOT RICCIARDO
We’ve seen it in most of the other opening races and not dared to believe, but it does now seem that Sebastian Vettel has a job on his hands getting to grips with his new Red Bull after being out-performed by team-mate Daniel Ricciardo once again.
The four-time champion Vettel was out-qualified by young Australian Ricciardo for the third time in four races – and by some margin - and in the race he was again asked to let his team-mate by because he was not fast enough.
Vettel’s “tough luck” radio reply and his subsequent firm defence was telling, even if he did eventually give way.
After the race, Vettel, who finished 20s behind Ricciardo, admitted his rival “just seems to get more out of the car" but when analysed in more detail it appears the German’s problem is with rear end stability, which is an issue the Red Bull driver has no had to deal with before.
The cars have suffered a significant loss of rear downforce due to the ban on blown diffusers this year so Vettel is now racing with a very different machine - and that is not suiting the committed turn-in style that has made him so successful in the past.
So it’s not just a young upstart coming in and shaking things up that is causing him problems – there’s a lot more to it than that.
TELEMETRY IS VITAL...
Nico Rosberg was driving blind for the entire race in China after the pits-to-car telemetry was knocked out before the start – but he still made it home in second place.
Despite that success, though, the loss of pits-to-car data did actually ruin his race.
At the start, the teams need all the information they can get on the clutch in real time as they run through a complex set-up procedure to optimise the get-away off the line. Without that, Rosberg got bogged down and dropped back – and that immediately put Hamilton in control.
Rosberg had to feed vital information such as fuel flow rates to the pit wall from his cockpit read-out throughout the race, while the tyre wear was simply monitored by his personal feel. Given that, his second place was quite an achievement.
WILLIAMS AND McLAREN BOTH HAVE ISSUES
It seemed the glory days were on their way back to both Williams and McLaren this year after early testing form suggested the two Mercedes powered machines could be fighting at the front.
But after four races, that early promise has faded – and not only are they nowhere close to the Mercedes works team they are now both behind the other Mercedes customer, Force India, in the championship table.
McLaren scored a double podium in the opening race (after Ricciardo’s disqualification) but they were well off points-scoring pace in China and they posted a double retirement at the previous race in Bahrain.
They are suffering from a general lack of downforce but also from an inability to get the tyres operating consistently – which team boss Eric Boullier put down to temperature sensitivity.
That kind of issue is typically hard to pin down – so McLaren’s success could be in the lap of the weather Gods for the foreseeable future.
Williams, meanwhile, have had dramas that may have clouded the picture, including a crash and a brush with the wall for Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas in Australia and a wheel mix-up for Massa in China.
Their head of vehicle performance Rob Smedley, however, suggested in China that the team has actually been scoring “the optimum result for where we are...(which is) around sixth to seventh position.”
That is concerning, as is his comment after the China race that “to have one car in the top ten shows that we have the pace...”
Williams has come a long way from where it was last year, but after such promising pre-season form, having one car in the top ten is certainly not what they should be hoping for.
The problem they have is a lack of rear downforce that is increasing tyre wear and can, in tyre-heavy races, push them from an optimum strategy to one with more stops that drops them down the order.
If they can get on top of that, however, they could quickly find themselves back in the mix at the front.
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