Is the Ferrari/Mercedes battle over after just five rounds?

BARCELONA, Spain — One question kept cropping up during the postrace media sessions at the Spanish Grand Prix: After five consecutive one-two victories, can Mercedes win all 21 races this season?

The question would have been laughed out of the very same paddock three months ago during preseason testing, but on Sunday evening it was taken seriously.

McLaren came closest to a 100 percent win record during the 1988 season, scoring 15 victories from 16 rounds. The dramatic intra-team battle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost meant the season went down in the record books as an instant classic, but the thought of living through the next 16 races with Mercedes winning every weekend seems rather less appealing.

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After all, the team from Brackley and Brixworth in the U.K. is already on a winning streak of five straight constructors’ and drivers’ titles from the past five years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First off, it’s important to look at why the question was being asked on Sunday evening.

Is Ferrari in trouble?

Rewind to preseason testing in February this year and the paddock was convinced Ferrari had the fastest car. It’s easy to pick holes in that analysis now, but up until the final day of the test, everyone — including Mercedes — was seeing the same pattern emerge in the data. Because of the mix of corners at the Circuit de Catalunya, the circuit is often seen as a barometer for overall car performance, but, within the space of just 10 weeks, Ferrari has gone from the team to beat to clear second behind Mercedes.

After showing race-winning potential in preseason testing, Ferrari has yet to register a finish in the top two from five races. Peter J Fox/Getty Images

Of course, the cars have been developed in those 10 weeks since testing and the track conditions on Sunday were significantly different from those in testing. One theory is that the lower temperatures during testing flattered the Ferrari and masked its flaws and that it’s only now, in hotter conditions, that the minor concerns Ferrari held after testing are showing their true form.

Ferrari’s biggest issue this weekend was the final sector of the lap. Performance in that sector is dictated by grip through the slow-speed chicane at Turns 14 and 15, and that is where the majority of Mercedes’ advantage came from. Ferrari clawed back performance on the straight, but nowhere near enough to make up for the deficit it was facing in the corners.

Which begs the question: If the car has speed in hand on the straights and lacks performance in the corners, why not just crank up the downforce level and sacrifice some top speed?

“Right now we are losing a lot in each corner, not only in the last sector,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto explained. “Each single corner we are slow with quite a lot of understeer. That is not only downforce, we have seen something in the data which we need to analyse and understand, so I think an early conclusion today would be a wrong conclusion.

“We need a fix on this, but we need a proper analysis and try to understand the matter of balance, the matter of downforce and maybe even tyre concepts. I think we do not have the answer, and I would not like to go through it yet.”

Perhaps the most concerning part of Ferrari’s weekend was that it threw everything at this race. Along with a package of aerodynamic upgrades to complement the ones we saw in Baku, Maranello also rushed through an engine upgrade for this weekend’s race — yet it still lost ground to Mercedes.

“Our hope was to deliver more,” Binotto said. “We brought some upgrades here — aero and engine — and we were expecting to somehow be in the fight, but it has not been the case. The upgrades worked well, power-wise, straight-line speed we are good enough, but certainly we have some weaknesses on the car that were highlighted this weekend.

“It is up to us to assess and to improve in the future. It can only make us stronger in the future — that is the final story of this weekend.”

So concerned was Ferrari about the developing gap to Mercedes that it brought its engine upgrade for the Canadian Grand Prix forward by four weeks to debut in Spain. That’s four weeks of potential development time sacrificed, just to get an extra performance boost in Spain and, to a lesser extent, Monaco. Under the regulations, teams can bring only three engine upgrades per season before incurring grid penalties — making them a valuable weapon in the development war — and Binotto admitted the decision to fast-track the upgrade came after the team’s drubbing at the opening round of the season in Melbourne.

“I think, when starting the season in Australia, we realised there was performance that needed recovering to the main competitors and so it was important for us to push as much as possible on the development,” he said. “We still believe development will be a key factor this season, so I think, whatever programme we anticipate, it is our duty and our task to do it.

“We decided very early this season to anticipate the programme on the engine. It has been a big effort and not straightforward or obvious, but it has been a last-minute decision to introduce it. We just concluded the entire homologation process in the last days. We did it because we were convinced it could have been important here, as well. Maybe important in the next races and maybe even in Monaco.”

The Ferrari front wing tapers down towards the end plates — a design the team hoped would help the overall aerodynamic performance of the car. Trigueros/Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ferrari’s failure to close the gap raises the concern that perhaps it has hit a dead end in terms of development after just five rounds. From the moment the two cars were launched, it was clear Ferrari had followed a different aerodynamic philosophy to Mercedes. The new regulations for 2019 — designed to improve overtaking by decluttering the front wings and limiting the aerodynamicists’ ability to control the flow of air around the car — gave birth to two very different concepts, with Mercedes and Ferrari at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Without going into detail, looking at the wing head-on, it’s clear to see the Ferrari’s tapers down a lot towards the endplates whereas the Mercedes’ looks more conventional with high, steep flaps running the length of the wing. There is a growing belief that, while the Ferrari design was quicker out of the box in testing, the development of the front wing is already reaching limitations, especially in terms of front-end grip, while the Mercedes design continues on a steep slope of performance gains.

In theory, the W10’s front wing should allow Mercedes to run with more front downforce than the Ferrari, helping to eliminate understeer. Trigueros/Urbanandsport/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“I think it’s definitely an interesting thought, because when you see who was in the front in winter testing, it’s very different to the ones that are in the front today — even if you look at the fights in the midfield,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. “It was two different aerodynamic concepts, and maybe there is a certain truth in it.

“But then there is never one question and one answer in Formula One, or a silver bullet that justifies good or bad performance. I think it is about developing the car, keeping the development slope high. We really try to add performance from weekend to weekend from the factory, that means from the real hardware and software but also from the understanding of the car and the tyres.

“In terms of unleashing more performance of the chassis, I think we still have good ideas. It’s still just the fifth race with these new regulations and more potential to unlock. This is also why we decided to go that way. We felt that with the front wing concept we have followed, there is more potential long term, maybe with the risk of a short-term struggle.”

If the theory is true, the problem for Ferrari is that the front wing dictates the design of the rest of the car. Change the wing concept, and you will have to make significant changes downstream — so simply sticking a Mercedes-style wing on the Ferrari car is not the answer.

So if Ferrari does need a fundamental rethink, how bad would it be for the team’s season?

“I don’t think it is a disaster,” Binotto said. “By the time you are improving as a team, and as I often say we are quite a young team, in a learning phase, and I think, in terms of processes and methodologies, there is still much to learn. I am pretty happy that the team is improving. If it is a concept design problem, then it depends what it is, and then we can address it within the season.”

The next race in Monaco is unlikely to offer any further answers — or opportunities for Ferrari success — because of the unique nature of the track. The tight street circuit demands its own maximum-downforce aero package and drivers’ confidence levels can make a massive difference to their overall performance. Nevertheless, based on the evidence of Barcelona’s low-speed third sector, if anything, Monaco will play to the strengths of Mercedes once again.

But before F1 reconvenes at its most famous race, the teams have their last opportunity of 2019 to clock up some testing mileage at the Circuit de Catalunya on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. For Ferrari, it will be two of the most important days of track running this year as the Italian team picks through the bones of its most significant defeat to date in 2019.

Over to you, ValtteriPIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images

Assuming Ferrari’s problems are as deep-set as they looked in Spain, the championship battle will be a straight fight between Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas this year. As things stand, Hamilton leads Bottas by seven points in the drivers’ standings, but the battle has already been tighter than anybody expected.

After dominating qualifying by 0.6s, a Bottas victory on Sunday would have been a body blow for Hamilton. However, a clutch issue at the start of the race for Bottas, an issue that still hasn’t been fully explained by the team, gave Hamilton an opening into Turn 1, and he didn’t think twice about taking it.

“The whole car was vibrating,” Bottas said, recalling the moment he lost the race. “We can already see from the data that because of that my hand [wasn’t steady] because the car was vibrating, as well, with very high friction of biting and releasing, so I lost quite a few metres with that in the initial part of the start.

“Luckily I didn’t lose any more positions, and the team didn’t lose any more positions because of it, but for me I sure did.”

After that, Hamilton pulled a comfortable margin on Bottas, but the Finn was not worried about the large gaps to his teammate during the race.

“Honestly from my feeling, there was no pace difference [between Lewis and me] at all,” he said. “I know the difference, when you are at the front, you can control the pace, you can manage the tyres completely the way you want in the free air. At this type of track, it makes such a difference, you feel it even when you are four seconds away, you feel it in the corners that you are sliding more.

“It doesn’t need much more sliding and your tyres are going to be finished earlier. I am not worried at all about the race pace; I think it was pretty identical. I think the main thing is who ends up first after Turns 1 and 2.”

If Bottas can maintain his current level of performance, such small margins will decide the championship. It might not have the edge of Senna vs. Prost in 1988, but at least there is some element of competition between the Mercedes drivers to keep the season alive.

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