Red Bull may look unbeatable in Formula 1 at the moment, but the chasing pack hasn’t lost hope. Ferrari is pinning its hopes on finding a set-up sweet spot; Aston Martin on upgrades; and Mercedes on a radical change of concept.
While the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was another crushing display of superiority from the world champions, it did offer fresh insight into the challenges facing the three teams behind, as well as the progress they had made.
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Aston Martin showed again that it was comfortably second-best, while Mercedes showed an improvement on its Bahrain performance. But it was a perfect storm for Ferrari. Between an ill-timed safety car, poor performance on the hard tyres and trouble overcoming dirty air, there was little more the team could do.
Is it an indication of how the hunt for Red Bull will go? We’ve examined the data from Jeddah to build a picture of the three teams.
Tyre strategy dictated by safety car
Chart 1 Summary of recommended and deployed strategies
Crashes, battles and additional drama characterised the previous two Saudi Arabian Grands Prix but this year’s tour of the Jeddah circuit was anything but chaotic.
That theme is captured in our first chart which showcases the variety (or lack thereof) of tyre strategies deployed by each of the drivers, compared with Pirelli’s recommended strategies at the top. The medium-hard one stop strategy was the favoured approach with many choosing to take their pitstops between laps 14 to 18.
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Lap 18 was a popular choice thanks to the unexpected deployment of the safety car in response to Lance Stroll’s retirement from the race. It gave many of the frontrunners the chance for a cheap pitstop at the expense of the Ferrari duo who had completed their pitstops a couple of laps prior. This helped Lewis Hamilton get the jump on both Ferraris after having a less than ideal start to the race.
To add insult to injury, Ferrari’s early stops, which brought a well executed overcut against Stroll, were for nothing given his exit from the race.
This was the extent of the intrigue borne out of strategy from this race. The rest was dictated by pace.
Positive pace for Aston Martin
Chart 2 Average race pace
Chart 2, displaying the frontrunners’ average pace on each of the tyre compounds that they used, shows another race with utter Red Bull domination. Both Perez and Verstappen were well clear of the field in terms of pace on an overall basis but particularly when looking at the hard tyre performance. This is even more impressive after considering that Verstappen started the race in 15th and had to cut his way through the field. However, Leclerc was also strong in the early stages on soft tyres.
Alonso was best of the rest and had the pace to comfortably lead both Mercedes and Ferrari drivers. This bodes well for Aston Martin, considering it had gone for a high-downforce setup that was compromising on top speed due to drag. Despite the top speed disadvantage, Alonso was able to keep ahead of the more balanced set-up choice of the Mercedes and the stronger power unit of the Ferrari.
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Russell had a good performance while Hamilton was compromised by his starting strategy – losing a lot of time due to the hard tyre on the first stint. However this was largely rectified by the onset of the safety car and better pace on the medium tyres – that is until the wear started to set in.
Ferrari on the other hand was out of the mix. As mentioned already, Leclerc had solid pace on the soft tyre especially considering the traffic he had to clear in the early stage of the race after suffering a 10-place grid penalty due to a change of control electronics. Sainz on the other hand was start much further up the field (albeit still lower than where he should have been given the rather lacklustre qualifying performance). Nevertheless, his pace on the medium tyres was little better than Leclerc.
The Saudi Arabian GP story
Chart 3 Race summary – cumulative delta
Digging deeper into the race pace highlights provides further colour on Ferrari’s woes. Chart 3 is the he cumulative delta chart, showing each driver’s average lap time, updated each lap as the race goes on, and set against an average 1min 35sec lap time.
Sainz spent much of his first stint stuck behind both Stroll and Russell. Stroll’s early overtake on Sainz had proved very costly as the Ferrari driver wasn’t able to generate the pace needed to retake the position. Much of this likely comes down to a general lack of pace, it is also indicative of the challenges of racing in Jeddah as overtaking is not always straightforward. Ferrari had opted for a car configuration that was biased towards downforce over pure top speed due to concerns around tyre wear. Aston Martin had also opted to take on more downforce. This proved to be challenging for Sainz who had trouble following cars in front through the twisty sector one and then lacked the required pace through the rest of the lap mount an overtaking challenge. The trouble of following through sector one is something mentioned by other drivers over radio and in post-race comments as well.
This is in stark contrast to the experience of Verstappen who was able to cut through the field after starting in 15th (as shown in Chart 3 above) thanks to his team’s huge top speed advantage. Leclerc was also able to cut through the field (to a point) thanks to the performance he was extracting on the soft tyre. It was so good that he quickly converging on Sainz despite starting much further back on the grid. But this shows that on a tyre equivalent basis, Ferrari are lacking in pace compared to the likes of Aston Martin.
Leclerc loses out to Hamilton
Chart 4 Pitstop Gain/Loss
As good as the start of the race was for Leclerc, the unfortunate timing of the safety car meant for an almost 7 second disadvantage to Hamilton as shown by Chart 4 above, showing the time that Hamilton gained by stopping later.
To make matters worse for Leclerc, Hamilton was on the medium tyres while both Ferraris were on hards, making it even harder to try and reclaim position following the safety car restart.
The gap to Hamilton wasn’t improving for either driver with Leclerc eventually opting for conservatism as following Sainz was more trouble than it was worth as shown in Chart 3 earlier.
Had the safety car not had played out, perhaps Ferrari could have put up a greater fight against Hamilton, though Russell may still have been out of reach.
Hard tyres hamper Ferrari
Chart 5 Trend race pace compared
The story gets worse when looking at the second stint of the race. As both Chart 3 and 5 show; Ferrari’s pace was lacking against Mercedes. Worse yet, the degradation profile was worse as well, with both drivers experiencing a tail-off in tyre performance toward the end of the race (though some of this would be down to risk management as they likely conceded the battle to Mercedes in front).
Even though Hamilton’s wear on the mediums manifested in a small pace disadvantage against Russell, it was nowhere as bad as what was seen by the Ferraris.
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Alonso on the other hand remained incredibly consistent across both stints, with the first stint being particularly impressive against his peers.
All of this is reassuring for Aston Martin and its concept. Mercedes has done well to limit damage despite the woes of its philosophy. Ferrari still has much work to do if it is to overcome its challenges with tyre wear. The pace is there in qualifying, but the amount of time it has been spending running race simulations in free practice, suggests that all is not well on long runs. Watch this space.