It’s Ferrari versus Mercedes

With three races down, the 2017 F1 season promises a fascinating battle between Ferrari and Mercedes. And the early signs indicate that the championship will go all the way down to the wire.

Sebastian Vettel is flanked by Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton (left) and Valtteri Bottas, who finished second and third respectively, in the podium.   -  AP

What a fantastic race that was. It was the third race in a row where Formula 1 2017 has delivered a really interesting battle. There’s no question about it, the Ferrari vs. Mercedes battle is going to go all the way down to the wire. Another strategic contest and lots of outside factors at play as well. Let’s start from the top.

Bottas shows his class in qualifying

I was really pleased for Valtteri Bottas getting his first pole position in qualifying for the Bahrain GP. He’s a really nice guy, who I’ve known for many years and it underlined that belief that Mercedes had in him to get him into the team. It didn’t quite work out on Sunday for him, but we’ll come back to that. The reality is to out-qualify Lewis Hamilton is no mean feat. It was a really good effort.

Ferrari was the big surprise of qualifying, in terms of how far back they were compared to Mercedes. I think they were surprised as well. It’s interesting how in the first two races they were right up there, but for whatever reason —temperature, circuit-related differences — no one could really pinpoint it. We haven’t really got enough of a data set to draw a trend — we need to see a few more races.

Nico Hulkenberg was the other star of qualifying. It’d be remiss not to mention his performance, which was very, very good — the best of the rest. When you look at the Grand Prix, they don’t seem to have the race pace to match Williams or Force India and I think that’s something they’ll be working on.

A strategy rethink at Mercedes?

In the Grand Prix we had Lewis starting on the dirty side, which hampered him, and then we had Bottas and Seb up front. Valtteri seemed to be really struggling. Mercedes talked about the fact that they weren’t able to set the right tyre pressures on his first set of tyres and that hampered his first stint. Even beyond that first stint, he didn’t seem to have the pace of Lewis or Sebastian.

That’s interesting. Is that a clear sign that Mercedes needs to start favouring Lewis when it comes to strategy calls and decision-making? Mercedes is very good and very conscious of being unbiased to one side of the garage. It has done it in the past with Nico and Lewis where they tried really hard to be fair and equal.

Now though they’re in a different dynamic and a different world championship battle. They’re fighting against another team and the enemy is no longer within, it’s outside. You do wonder if they need to start rethinking their approach in terms of favouring one driver over the other.

I’m sure it’s a hard decision. It’s early in the season to resign one driver to a number two status, but maybe that’s what it’s going to take. It’s a very tricky situation for Mercedes to deal with.

Ferrari’s superior strategy

In the opening part of the Grand Prix, Bottas didn’t have the pace to pull away. You could see all the way down to fifth, in fact, with Max and Daniel — there were five of them in a train. Ferrari bit the bullet and went for the undercut. You do wonder in those sorts of instances, if Bottas had the tyre pressure issue, which was really hampering him, why didn’t Mercedes pull him in? Or, on the flip side, why didn’t they pull Lewis in and give him an undercut? He perhaps could have jumped both Vettel and Bottas.

When Vettel pitted, Bottas’s time on that lap was a 1:37.6 and Vettel came out 23.2sec behind. But then Mercedes curiously left its cars out and over the next couple of laps the gap came down 20.5sec, 18.0sec and by the time the safety car came out on lap 13, Bottas was only 16.1sec ahead of Vettel.

If there had been no safety car Vettel would have come out seven seconds up the road. In effect, the safety car actually helped the Mercedes drivers they actually made seven seconds if you look at the times in the middle sector of the lap. Despite the safety car, Ferrari still managed to get track position and the decision-making around that three-lap phase was really the critical moment of the Grand Prix.

When you look at the pitstop times, Vettel’s total pit stop time was 24.7sec. Bottas lost time because he had to let the traffic come past and his was 28.3sec, so he lost 3.6sec. In effect, the slow stop was actually the difference between getting out ahead of Vettel or not.

In hindsight, Mercedes will wonder if it should have gone for a more aggressive undercut. There are some extremely clever people on that Mercedes pit wall with James Vowles, a great strategist, Andrew Shovlin, the chief engineer, Pete Bonnington, Tony Ross, the two race engineers. There are some very, very clever people there and I’m sure they’ll work it out.

Fundamentally I believe it’s a philosophical issue of “do we carry on in terms of fairness and letting the driver in front have first call etc., or do we start to favour one driver over the other and use that tactic to combat Vettel?”

Hamilton’s pitlane penalty

I think Hamilton did exactly what any racing driver in the world would have done, when it came to backing up Daniel Ricciardo into the pitlane. The mistake he made was perhaps not backing Ricciardo up enough before the pit entry line.

Ricciardo talked about the fact that before the pit entry line you can slow down, but once you’ve crossed the pit entry line in the pitlane itself, you can’t slow somebody down.

Battles down the field and the driver of the day

A couple of other mentions: Felipe Massa I thought had a very good race for Williams. Lance Stroll was unfortunate. I think Carlos [Sainz Jr] when he watches the replay will slightly regret that manoeuvre.

Nico Hülkenberg had a tough race in terms of race pace, but ‘Checo’ Perez was another star for me. Unfortunately he had a tough qualifying because of the yellow flags, meaning he didn’t get to do his last lap and was knocked out in Q1, but he had such a good race. He did a very good job in the first two or three laps and then had good pace to go with it, to rack up good points. For me, he was probably the driver of the day. He did a really good job.