Mercedes and Ferrari seem to be bound together more than ever. There is hardly any performance difference between the W08 and the SF70-H in 2017 which has delivered the best championship campaign so far this season for many years.
Both cars have proved to be the benchmark for the 2017 field so far in almost every area. Mercedes’ W08 and Ferrari’s SF70-H are evenly matched and only the actual form, the driver’s performance, the actual phase of the development process and the track characteristics decide which direction the clock swings.
0.026 second. That was the margin between Sebastian Vettel’s and Lewis Hamilton’s fastest race lap in the Belgian Grand Prix. 0.242 was the advantage of the Briton from his German rival in the qualifying session.
Despite to the tiniest of margins between the two title contenders, there are a few differences between the two dominating race cars.
Previous races indicated that Mercedes continues to excel on tracks which are dominated by long straights and high-speed corners. On tracks such as Spa, Silverstone or Suzuka, aerodynamic efficiency plays a decisive role which has been the ace card of Mercedes since the introduction of the hybrid engine back in 2014.
In contrast to that, Ferrari has showed excellent pace on tracks which require high-downforce aerodynamic configuration. The Scuderia managed to dominate and score a one-two finish on the narrow, slow-speed circuits of Monaco and Hungaroring.
The comparison of Sebastian Vettel’s and Lewis Hamilton’s best lap in the qualifying session for the Hungarian GP and the Belgian GP seems to confirm the assumption that Mercedes still enjoys a slight engine power advantage over Ferrari. The picture on the left hand side shows the layout of the Spa-Francorchamps track while the other one demonstrates the differences on the twisty Hungaroring. The red mark shows Ferrari’s advantage while track sections where Mercedes proved to be faster are painted green.
On the other hand, that assumed power advantages may be tiny, if not inexistent, given Lewis Hamilton's post-race comments that Mercedes did indeed sacrifice some qualifying speed by setting up their car with a lower than optimal downforce to improve their chances to defend their positions, or improve their chances to overtake others.
Hungaroring – festival of slow-speed corners
On the twisty Hungaroring, Mercedes was faster on most of the longer straights. It kept an advantage on the relatively long start-finish straight, the full-throttle section between turn 3 and 4, on the short run from turn 5 into the chicane, the easily full-throttle section between turn 9 and 11 and on the back straight. Interestingly, Ferrari was faster on the run-down from the first corner into off-cambered second corner. That may be down to a better exit out of the first corner from Vettel.
Ferrari had the upper hand in most of the corners, Mercedes only proved to be faster in four bends. Turn 10 is not a surprise as it is a flat-out corner. The W08 was faster from the midpoint of turn 9. More interesting is the fact that Mercedes carried more speed through the chicane.
The SF70-H had the more convincing cornerning speed in the fastest bends of the Hungaroring, through the Mansell- and Alesi-corner. The longest Ferrari-dominated section was from the entry to turn 12 until the start-finish line where the quadruple world champion gained 0.185 seconds over his rival.
Belgium – never-ending straights
The longest track on the actual race calendar was expected to highlight every strength of Mercedes’ machinery after its utter dominance on the Silverstone track back in July, but Ferrari managed to chip away from its deficit on the high-speed circuit.
Ferrari was faster on a short section after the first corner called La Source. The SF70-H had tremendous speed through the quick change of direction between turn 5 and 6. Approaching the medium-speed U-section of turn 8, Ferrari took over the reign until the entry to turn 9. It also proved to be faster between turn 9 and Pouhon. Thanks to a tow from Kimi Räikkönen, Vettel was slightly faster from the entry to turn 16 through Blanchimont which is the only long full-throttle section where Ferrari had the better speed.
Mercedes’s superiority in terms of top-speed became evident once again in Belgium as their car proved to be the benchmark on almost every full-throttle section. On the important high-speed part from the run-down to the Eau Rouge corner through the Kemmel straight to the Les Combes bend, Mercedes was easily gaining on Ferrari which brought an advantage of 0.198 seconds for Lewis Hamilton against his championship rival Sebastian Vettel.
Mercedes’s power advantage is even more highlighted this year as the new technical regulation triggered the increase in downforce and hence the increase in cornering speed. It means more corners are flat-out and drivers can brake later and accelerate earlier out of corners which has a bigger effect in high-speed bends. In Spa, this brought a significant advantage through and after the Pouhon corner which was taken flat-out in the qualifying trim and at constantly increasing speed in the race with the decreasing fuel level.
Interestingly, Mercedes was faster through the 12th and 13th which are both wide medium-speed corners. The W08 also carried higher cornering speed through the –in Spa terms- slowish 14th bend.
Prospects - eight races ahead
Ferrari has made great inroads coming to Beligum. The team introduced a modified suspension which featured an interesting configuration of a third suspension element and it upgraded its SF70-H with a modified front wing and floor. The modified suspension aimed to manage the rake of the car better in order to gain top-speed on the straights while maintaining the aerodynamic balance in the high-speed corners. The fabled Italian team managed to make great strides and significantly closed the deficit it was trailing to Mercedes on high-speed circuits.
However, it still needs to find the last drop of engine performance to pose a real fight to Mercedes and keep the Anglo-German team honest on every type of track Formula One is set to visit in the remainder of the season. This weekend's Italian GP will be the ultimate test as Monza is known for its extreme power sensitivity and mechanical balance under braking and over the kerbs. Mercedes introduced its last engine in Spa while Ferrari still has one more shot. According to the paddock news, the Scuderia is set to introduce its fourth and last specification engine on home soil in Monza in this weekend’s Italian GP.