F1 frontline with Mark Hughes

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Track and trace

With exclusive access to data that normally only the F1 teams see, we reveal just where the top three cars steal those fractions – or lose them

So just where and how is Mercedes faster than its rivals? Is it true that the Red Bull is aerodynamically superior, that the Merc advantage is all from its power unit? And where does the Ferrari fit into this? 

We have secretly sourced GPS Suzuka data that shows us definitively how the lap time advantage is derived around one of the most technically demanding of all tracks. This data gives us a direct comparison between the top three cars of the 2016 season, allowing us to infer the reality with solid evidence. 

At Suzuka, we saw a slightly detuned Mercedes W07 being pushed quite hard in qualifying by an aerodynamically updated Ferrari SF16. On race day Max Verstappen’s Red Bull RB12 was able to split the silver cars after penalties demoted the Ferraris from their second row qualifying positions. The best respective qualifying laps of the three cars were Mercedes, 1min 30.647sec, with Ferrari and Red Bull respectively 0.302sec and 0.531sec adrift. But during practice the Merc advantage was bigger, for reasons that will be explained. 

We show three graphs of comparison from practice two: Mercedes vs Red Bull, Mercedes vs Ferrari and Red Bull vs Ferrari. Analysing the micro detail we can build up a full picture of how Mercedes’ advantage is derived.

Mercedes vs Red Bull 

Hamilton: 1min 32.322sec (softs) vs Verstappen: 1min 33.061sec (softs). Mercedes faster by 0.739sec

Sector One

Turn One The Mercedes enters the turn with higher end-of-straight speed by 6kph and carries that advantage into the first part of the corner where grip limits are not being breached. As the lateral forces build up to maximum grip, so the two cars converge to an almost identical speed as they decelerate through the tightening radius. 

Turn Two Up to the apex of Turn Two Verstappen maintains slightly more momentum. The steering trace, which we have also seen, shows that Verstappen’s fast, late arrival necessitates a bit of corrective lock. Although Hamilton slows the car earlier, he’s also earlier on the throttle, there’s no time-consuming snap oversteer as the cars accelerate. The Mercedes remains ahead all the way up the hill, continuing to gain lap time by virtue of two things – Hamilton having been able to get on the gas earlier and the Mercedes’s power advantage. The Merc’s greater speed as they approach the beginning of the Esses…

Turn Three …is again carried through into the early part of the turn, elongating the time gain made through the straight-line speed advantage. But this time as they decelerate to the speed required to keep the car on line – where they have to get from the right-hand side of the track over to the left for the approach of Turn Four – the Mercedes is slower than the Red Bull, which has a more responsive front end, giving a sharper directional change. This is part and parcel of its high rake concept, which endows the front end with more grip for a given
front wing angle. 

Turn Four Hamilton decelerates slightly less than Verstappen on the approach and is actually slightly faster into the turn, but Verstappen’s less extreme deceleration allows him a higher apex speed as he is asking less from the front tyres. But Hamilton’s lower speed is a result of making more of a ‘v’ of the corner than a ‘u’, accepting the slower apex speed for the ability to get earlier on the throttle, to maximise his power advantage – especially as the following section is uphill.

Turn Five The entry speed into here is determined simply by how fast the car is going as it reaches the turn, so Hamilton’s advantage carries all the way through.

Turn Six Hamilton makes a later turn-in to the final corner of the Esses, the downhill right-hander that precedes Dunlop, and is initially faster but again has a lower mid-corner minimum speed than Verstappen. As they head down the hill and are pulled over to the left-hand extremities of the track upon exit, they have to get across quickly to the right to be on line for Dunlop. Here we again see the Red Bull’s greater direction-change responsiveness, with a brief blip of blue rising above the red on the graph.

Turn Seven (Dunlop) As they accelerate towards and through the fast, sweeping Dunlop, the Merc again grinds back ahead – a simple function of horsepower. Although curving and uphill, it’s effectively a straight in that they are accelerating all the way through. But that Mercedes power advantage is magnified even in the turns because they are accelerating through power-sapping tyre scrub. As they end the first sector at the crest of Dunlop’s rise, the Red Bull has so far dropped just over 0.25sec to the Mercedes.

Sector Two

Turn Eight (Degner 1) Hamilton arrives at the downhill kink more quickly than Verstappen and remains faster through it. At the beginning of the turn there is continuing gain for Hamilton from arriving faster from the preceding straight. 

Turn Nine (Degner 2) As they decelerate hard for the right-hander that leads them under the bridge, they converge to almost identical speeds. The Mercedes then grinds its way back ahead under acceleration, though briefly drops a little time to the Red Bull as they go through the flat-out Turn 10, possibly a function of the different lines required by each car’s balance. 

Turn 11 (Hairpin) The braking performance of the two cars is near-identical here into the slowest corner of the circuit. The easing of the angle of the subsequent acceleration curve represents the kink of Turn 12, where the tyre scrub effects gain the Mercedes more time, allowing it a significantly faster exit from there and a faster entry into Turn 13 (Spoon).

Here, entry speed allows the Mercedes to maintain its advantage through the first part, but as the corner tightens for the decreasing radius of Turn 14 (Spoon part two) the Red Bull can again make the sharp direction change better than the Mercedes, though its mid-corner minimum speed is lower. This time it is Verstappen making more of a ‘v’ of the turn – and just as when Hamilton used the technique at Turn Four, it brings a better exit, allowing Verstappen to get on the power earlier.

This helps the Red Bull stay marginally ahead on speed for a long way down the straight (suggesting similar drag levels), but as the Mercedes hits its power stride it claws comfortably ahead. By the time they reach 130R the Merc is doing 327kph, the Red Bull just 315 (the Ferrari 320). But because the Red Bull has kept ahead early in the straight, the two cars cover the length of that straight in an identical time. 

Turn 15 (130R) is flat in top, but a heavily loaded kink. The Merc arrives 12kph faster and its power dismisses the effects of the tyre scrub far more effectively, buying it a whole chunk of lap time such is the length of the corner. Both cars are flat in top but the Merc loses just 3.9kph through tyre scrub, compared to 4.8kph (from an already lower speed) for the Red Bull. 

As they pass the end of sector two, the Red Bull has dropped another 0.3sec to the Merc, making a total of 0.55sec so far.  

Sector Three

On the short straight between 130R’s exit and braking for the chicane (Turns 16-17), the exit speed advantage of the Mercedes continues all the way, further punishing the Red Bull’s relative lack of power. The Red Bull is slightly faster through the chicane. On acceleration through Turn 18 it’s almost identical, with the Mercedes then beginning to ease its way up to a higher speed down the straight. 

In just that section through the long 130R and the short straight that follows, the Red Bull loses all and more of the 0.2sec it is down in that sector – to give a final lap time deficit of 0.739sec.

Mercedes vs Ferrari

In this comparison we have taken the same Hamilton lap from second practice and put it against the equivalent from Sebastian Vettel. Although the gap of 0.778sec is much bigger than that between the two cars in qualifying (when it was down to 0.3sec), this is believed to be from Mercedes being forced (because of Hamilton’s Malaysia big-end bearing failure) to run its engine without the extreme qualifying modes it had utilised prior to this event, whereas Ferrari was facing no such restriction. In the Friday afternoon practice runs shown here, we can see a straightforward comparison when the two engines are on the equivalent (race) setting.     

Hamilton: 1min 32.322sec (softs) vs Vettel (softs): 1min 33.103sec (Mercedes faster by 0.781sec)

This time, with the Mercedes in grey and the Ferrari in red, we can see that from around halfway down the pit straight, with DRS deployed on both cars, the Ferrari is actually pulling ahead of the Mercedes and is able to carry greater speed into the flat-out entry of Turn One. As they then brake for Turn Two, the deceleration is virtually identical, with Vettel marginally slower at the apex.  

Up the hill between Turns Two and Three, the acceleration of the two cars is almost identical but Vettel is able to stay on the power fractionally longer than Hamilton before braking for Three, confirming what has often been observed: that the Ferrari has the best braking capability of all. 

As they exit Turn Three and are forced to get the car quickly from the right-hand side of the track over to the left for the approach of Turn Four, the Mercedes is more responsive than the Ferrari, suggesting that Vettel is struggling with some understeer, quite a common trait of the SF16T early in the lap as it struggles to generate heat in its front tyres. Into Turn Four he has to accept a significantly slower apex speed, probably because of the compromised line its understeer has imposed.   

Hamilton is able to maintain speed for slightly longer into Turn Five, but apex speeds are similar and then as they accelerate through the kink towards Turn Six it seems as if the Ferrari’s front tyres are now up to temperature and Vettel is actually able to maintain a significantly higher apex speed than Hamilton, whose tyres may be temporarily saturated from the repeated direction change of the Esses. Such a sequence of medium-speed direction changes with no recovery time is unique on the calendar and seems to have made a net virtue (in this section at least) of the Ferrari’s reluctance to generate instant front tyre temperature. It’s just coming into its own as the Merc’s fronts are getting too hot.  

Vettel is marginally quicker into Dunlop (Turn Seven) and carries that advantage for maybe 150 metres, but the raw grunt of the Mercedes then grinds Hamilton ahead up the steep hill and he’s travelling faster by the time they have to slow for Degner 1 (Turn 8) where, again, Vettel is able to maintain a noticeably higher apex speed. 

From there through the hairpin and onwards towards Spoon, there’s no significant difference between the two cars, Hamilton able to stay marginally longer on the power before Turn 13, the first part of Spoon. Though his apex speed is slightly lower than Vettel’s here, he’s able to accelerate between there and Turn 14, the second, tighter, part of Spoon. This may be nothing more than driver choice, with Hamilton’s technique appearing to bring more reward on exit than it loses to Vettel on entry. As they accelerate up the back straight, in the lower speed ranges the Ferrari is marginally faster, though with DRS not being used here the difference is smaller than on the pit straight. But when they get to the upper end of the speed range, the Mercedes overtakes and pulls clear. Although the Merc is travelling 7kph faster by the end of the straight, the Ferrari has actually covered the total straight in slightly less time. As they go flat in top through 130R (Turn 15), the Merc’s greater arrival speed and extra power allows its advantage to build. Into and through the chicane they are much the same, with the Ferrari beginning to pull clear on the DRS zone of the pit straight.

Red Bull vs Ferrari

Verstappen: 1min 33.061sec (softs) vs Vettel: 1m 33.103sec (softs). Red Bull quicker by 0.042sec.

This compares the Verstappen lap in Graph 1 with the Vettel lap in Graph 2. The total lap time difference is 0.042sec. The significant differences are the Ferrari’s much greater end-of-straight speed, both in the DRS zone and without DRS on the approach to 130R, the lap time benefit of which the Red Bull claws back through higher apex speeds through Turns Four, Eight, 13 and through the chicane.

Conclusions

The Mercedes derives most of its edge from a power advantage, increased further in qualifying with the extreme engine modes available for short stints. But these were not used in Suzuka qualifying because of reliability concerns after Hamilton’s engine blow-up at Sepang. Untypically, in Japan it was Ferrari that could turn up its engine more in qualifying, enabling it to close the gap on Mercedes and draw away from Red Bull.   

These Friday practice laps show the three cars running with normal race engine settings and an assumed approximate equivalence on fuel loads. This way, over one lap, the Merc displayed a significant power advantage and was 0.7sec quicker than either the Ferrari or the Red Bull.

Ferrari made significant aero upgrades at this race, worth about 0.3sec per lap, and this data suggests the Ferrari is now competitively aero-efficient. Despite a power shortfall to the Mercedes it is still quicker down the two long straights, suggesting it has a lower drag co-efficient. Yet it’s competitive with the Merc and Red Bull through the high-speed downforce demands of Spoon. It lags to the Mercedes and especially the Red Bull through the Esses, at least partly through its inability to instantly switch on its tyres by the start of the lap. As stated previously, this pays dividends later in the lap as the constant pummelling through the Esses causes the Merc temporarily to overheat its rubber just as it induces the necessary heat into the Ferrari’s, giving the SF16 a significant advantage through Turn Six, by a small margin over the Red Bull. 

The Red Bull is clearly the least powerful of the three, with the best directional change ability. It has been suggested that its straightline speed shortfall is not purely down to lack of power but also to higher drag. If that were so, it would show between Spoon and 130R, where the RB12 is comparably fast to the Mercedes (but slower than the Ferrari) and only really falls behind as the cars load up with tyre scrub through 130R. Having the power to offset the speed-sapping effects of tyre scrub through such a fast and long corner is the Merc’s biggest asset here. 

Any difference in the chassis/aero performance of the three cars is small but seems slightly to favour Red Bull. The improved Ferrari makes time over the Red Bull with engine performance but sets a near-identical pace when both are in race mode, suggesting it still lacks the Red Bull’s ultimate downforce. The Merc compares to the Red Bull on chassis performance but possibly overworks its tyres in the Esses. The dominant factor in that 0.7sec edge over the Red Bull is the power unit. Its similar advantage over the Ferrari appears split more evenly between chassis and engine.

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