Barcelona beckons as Formula One prepares to begin the European season proper, with the teams having 10 days to reflect on the four opening races and prepare for the upgrades that will be unveiled in Spain. The new regulations have thrown up a tense and gripping, rather than spectacular, prologue and the racing has been better than many feared, while there is an absolutely cracking battle at the front in prospect. Time then, to consider where the leading drivers and their teams stand before returning to the fray at the Circuit de Catalunya.
Ferrari’s resurgence has proved the perfect fillip for F1 and Sebastian Vettel. The German has been in fine fettle and it is not just because he has the championship lead. Vettel is more relaxed and happier than he has been since joining the team in 2015. Last season’s frustration and his sometimes fractious relationship with Ferrari has gone and his driving reflects this. He has huge confidence in the car and in a team that is now making the right calls from the pit wall. Two wins from four put him on the front foot going into Europe.
His main rival remains Lewis Hamilton, who has had a similarly strong opening but with some concerns that he will hope are being addressed. The three-time world champion trails Vettel by 13 points, with one win in Shanghai. A poor race in Russia, off the pace all weekend, does not reflect a solid campaign. In Australia Ferrari had the better strategy call and similarly in Bahrain, where it was compounded by Hamilton’s pit-lane-entry mistake.
What he needs is to be as at ease with his ride as Vettel. He has struggled to put the tyres in the right window and is working them too hard in the process. He is still buoyant, confident and genuinely enjoying the scrap, but narrowing the gap on the German will be paramount.
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Hamilton’s team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, after his first F1 win in Sochi, believes he can repeat the feat and put himself in the title mix. Certainly, he has already crammed a huge amount into the season. A solid third in Australia was followed by the unforced error in China, spinning behind the safety car. He was redeemed by his first pole in Bahrain and in turn his first mechanical problem for Mercedes that ultimately led to him being the first to succumb to team orders.
The subsequent win pretty much made a full house, four seasons in four races that will stand him in good stead, but the Finn needs to secure another win quickly to be a realistic threat.
The fourth main protagonist, Kimi Raikkonen, remains an outlier. Having started slowly he produced his best performance in Russia with second on the grid and third in the race. He has struggled with the front end of the Ferrari and in a car that is proving highly competitive he should have been more threatening. Sochi gives grounds for optimism but for the moment it looks likely that his role will be taking points off Mercedes and Hamilton.
The relative strengths and weaknesses of their rides have now become clearer and while the development battle will begin in earnest in Spain, patterns are emerging. Ferrari are on the front foot. The SF70H has superb balance, is strong through corners, runs well in turbulent air and has a wide operating window for its tyres. The latter factor is of the greatest importance, as Sam Collins, a motor racing engineer and the deputy editor of Racecar Engineering magazine, confirms. “The real key is that they built a car that works throughout the tyre range,” he says. “A really versatile machine, the big advantage is that wide operating window, there is no one thing they have done, it’s the whole concept.”
Mercedes, in contrast, have a car with a narrower operating window and one that is not nearly as comfortable in dirty air. It has been designed to run at the head of the field and for pace – it is undoubtedly fast – but at a cost. “They designed a car to run in clean air, out at the front,” Collins says. “But it has a very narrow operating window, when it gets into that window I believe it is a quicker than Ferrari but it is too easy for it to drop out of that and then the Ferrari is all over it.”
The final major player has disappointed. Red Bull are unexpectedly off the pace. The car has lacked downforce and while a whole new machine is promised for Spain, the step up they require is enormous and there is no clear indication where it is coming from. “The Red Bull chassis has looked a bit unfinished since it was launched,” says Collins. “I don’t know what it is that is missing but when I look at it I don’t really understand the direction they have taken.”
In terms of making a radical change it seems unlikely. “There is a concept of a car and you can’t just click your fingers and change that,” he says. “You still have the same gearbox, monocoque and so on, parts you can’t just switch. Red Bull have the resources to do it but I don’t think they are going to. I think it means new bodywork, which may or may not work.”
We shall have the answers in Barcelona, where battle is rejoined and an equally absorbing European season is on the cards.