Analysis: Qualifying and race performances during the British Grand Prix

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Mercedes were believed to dictate the pace at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix, but Ferrari shocked its fierce rival with its upturn in form on a track which has been its aching Achilles’ heel over the past seasons.

Aerodynamic efficiency, long straights, blindingly fast bends, hards compounds, special, thinner Pirelli-tyres. The British Grand Prix was going to act as a playing ground for Mercedes which has a stunning record on the Silverstone track. Having won every qualifying session and race since 2013, Silverstone was always a territory where the Anglo-German squad was in a league of its own.

After the successful championship point hunting during the Austrian Grand Prix, Ferrari’s team boss Maurizi Arrivabene was fully prepared to a moderate British Grand Prix for his team, accepting in advance that Ferrari might only play second fiddle to its rival Mercedes. However, right from the first practice session on, Ferrari showed the first signs that it can hang on Mercedes if it finds the sweet spot with the setup.

Ferrari’s sudden unexpected upturn in form was partly down to the unusual British weather with constant sunshine and air temperatures of around 26 degrees. However, the Italians’ shocking pace was also a result of its 2018 car design concept. The SF71H features a long list of departures from the previous aerodynamic concept. Taking lessons from last years, Ferrari’s 2018 machine has a top notch aerodynamic efficiency with brutal straight-line performance and very good downforce levels in a variety of corners and in different cornering phases.

Ferrari and Mercedes neck on neck in the qualifying session

In an absolute thriller during the qualifying session, Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position with only a margin of 0.044 seconds ahead of his biggest championship rival Sebastian Vettel. Third-placed Kimi Räikkönen missed the pole position by only 0.098 seconds which shows how incredibly tight the qualifying session was.

Looking at the fastest sectors times, there is hardly any difference between the top three drivers. Hamilton had the upper hand in the first sector over the three practice sessions, but Ferrari turned up the engines for qualifying which was enough for Räikkönen and Vettel to beat Hamilton, albeit only by thousands of a second. The first sector was always going to stress Ferrari's strengths. The first two high-speed bends were taken at full throttle, followed by slowish corners which lead onto the long Wellington straight.

After Kimi Räikkönen had been strong in the middle sector in the third free practice session, Hamilton took over the reign in the second section of the circuit. The GPS data showed that the Briton was particularly strong in Copse, Becketts and Magotts. The first two of these are taken flat-out, but with significant steering lock which caused the baton to swing towards the two Mercedes cars, however the W09 has been definitely strongger than the SF71H in the high-speed bends all though the year. Coming out of the Chapel onto the Hangar straight, Ferrari was very strong under acceleration and also in the last three slow corners.

Kimi Räikkönen set the pace in the first and third sector, but the Finn threw away a tenth or two in the middle part of the track after he encountered some instability issues on his first Q3 run which prompted him to drive less wildly.

Overall, the trend was quite similar to that already seen on a couple of occasions this year. Using spoon-shaped rear wings and comparable downforce settings, Ferrari was stronger coming out of corners, reached higher top speeds on the longer straights and showed great balance in the slow corners while Mercedes had the upper hand in the high-speed bends.

Mercedes with better tyre wear on the front-limited track

After the first-lap tussle between Räikkönen and Hamilton which ended in a clash, it is worth comparing Vettel's and Bottas' speed. The German started his fist stint on the soft compound in commanding manner, setting the best time of his opening stint on the third lap. He could open up a good margin over Bottas, being 6.0 seconds ahead of the Finn on lap 12. However, Vettel's pace faded after lap 15 when he failed to go under the 1:34.0 mark and was lapping slower than that time on his last five laps of that stint. Vettel himself admitted that he was pushing a little bit too hard on his opening laps which then caused front tyre wear, leading to understeering.

The German's times from lap 2 until lap 19: 1:32.918; 1:32.723; 1:33.108 ; 1:32.991; 1:33.359; 1:33.315; 1:33.302; 1:33.098; 1:33.356; 1:33.687 ; 1:33.784; 1:33.980 ; 1:33.877 ; 1:34.183; 1:34.418; 1:34.055; 1:34.352; 1:34.368.

In contrast, Bottas' pace was more consistent with the Finn lapping just under or over 1:33.5.

The Finn's lap times in the same period: 1:34.460; 1:33.267; 1:33.616; 1:33.653; 1:33.494 7 1:33.703; 1:33.220 ; 1:33.307; 1:33.606 ; 1:33.686; 1:33.528 ; 1:33.995; 1:34.091; 1:33.960; 1:33.794 ; 1:34.073; 1:34.016 ; 1:33.876.

Taking lessons from the first stint, Vettel commenced his second stint at a moderate pace. Interestingly, while others found big chunk of times, Vettel could not beat his best time set in the first stint on the much fresher tyres, clearly indicating that the German was saving his tyres. In these laps, his advantage to Bottas was shrinking: Vettel was strong in the first and last sector, but the GPS showed that he lost around four tenths of a second in Copse, Magotts and Becketts where he was saving his front tyres.

The incidents which prompted two safety car periods make the further analysis meaningless. However, the feeling is that Mercedes was very strong in terms of tyre management which was also confirmed by Hamilton's pace who was charging through the field towards the front. This stunning tyre usage was not only down to Pirelli's shaved, 0.4mm thinner construction, but also to the nature of the Silverstone track. Mercedes has been ominous on front-limited circuits while Ferrari favours the rear-limited tracks.