Barhain Grand Prix in some ways will remain in the history of Formula 1. Clearly, for the performance achieved by Charles Leclerc, talented and solid both in qualifying and in the race, able to not get carried away by emotions despite the great attention that they focused on him. In fact, before departure, many people were around him, but Charles managed to make a literally memorable race, which he would have won if a power unit failure had not occurred. With this article we want to inaugurate a series of articles that analyze the races from a different point of view, without necessarily being exhaustive but going to examine those points that can be underestimated.
Ferrari finally has a strong driver
The difference in performance between Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel should have become very clear by now. Beyond the mental limits that the German driver is revealing (he turns again at the umpteenth close encounter with Lewis Hamilton), Vettel today can be an obstacle for his young teammate. He slows him down at the start, making him lose time, just like in Melbourne. Attention, although the Barhain circuit favors overtaking, it was not easy at all to get rid of Bottas and reach his teammate in so few laps, plus surpassing him with that ease. The margin between Leclerc and Vettel at this time is very evident and it is clear from the fact that before the problem with the power unit Leclerc was significantly ahead and was controlling the race in a relaxed manner, while Vettel was working with Hamilton, despite having a car , as demonstrated by Leclerc, much faster than the Mercedes. This situation, with Leclerc several seconds ahead of Vettel, clearly showed the gap that exists now between Ferrari and Mercedes, which is not very different from the one between the two cars last year. In other words, we can now say it firmly, last year Ferrari threw the Formula 1 championship for an inability of the drivers.
Mercedes gained 8 tenths of a second between Q2 and Q3
Ferrari was significantly faster than Mercedes in all free practice sessions, in all phases of qualifying and in the race, with both cars. In this way, it made sense of the winter tests, basically repeating that performance, and contradicting what was expressed in Melbourne instead. The advantage has always been clear, except in the Q3 where Mercedes has gained considerably. Why? It has long been known that, benefiting from the greater reliability of its power unit, Mercedes is able to push the engine over very important operating conditions during the Q3, probably over-feeding the electric part. Ferrari in recent years has tried to respond to this performance arrogance in qualifying with various methods, of which the most famous was based on burning oil, with obvious aesthetic repercussions on all Ferrari powered cars that let go of an almost invisible trail of fuel from the rear axle. Now this system has been completely banned by the FIA, after it has been tolerated, despite going against the regulation that provides for the burning of gasoline only, so as not to overturn the results achieved last year.
I speak of this to point out how a series of rather strange rules of modern Formula 1 put more attention on the management of the components than on the set-up. The Formula 1 driver must disentangle himself between the various engine mappings because this recovers kinetic energy during braking, which is then used to power the electrical component in order to have the maximum possible power for the straights. This requires a lot of battery efficiency and requires drivers to carefully manage the various stages of the race, as they will almost never have the maximum engine power available. They must be able to prepare the machine for the good lap, and make sure it has the right battery charge to maximize performance. Going beyond this balance, at the risk of damaging the power unit, is therefore a great achievement for Mercedes, probably one of the reasons that have made it dominant in the hybrid turbo era.
Ferrari, according to some rumors, would have achieved the current advantage by proceeding to a sort of overboost of the electric component of the engine that led to an overheating of the entire power unit. In Melbourne it would have been so slow because this power was leveled to prevent overheating, which it failed to do, probably because it was thought to have managed to bypass the problem, in Bahrain, and the consequence is this which happened to Leclerc. In short, in the modern Formula 1 the fastest is not the winner but who manages in the right way the degradation of the components.
To which we add all the talk about tires, which today are perhaps the most discriminating element regarding performance. Note that Formula 1 drivers today go slower by about 6 seconds per lap in the race compared to qualifying on circuits where it is easy to overtake as Bahrain, a gap that even rises to 12 seconds on a circuit where it is very difficult to overtake, like Singapore. Which is unacceptable, and highlights how serious the management problem today is. Remember when Pirelli, at the beginning of his experience in Formula 1, claimed to have deliberately created tires that degrade quickly in order to favor the spectacle due to the many pit stops. Now, most races require only one pit stop: Pirelli has therefore improved its tires a lot compared to a very rough and too degrading original version, hiding the problem with the excuse of the show. One of the biggest challenges that has always existed since the Pirelli tires are in Formula 1 is keeping the tires at the right operating temperature. Attention, it is not a question of having tires that are too hot or too cold, but rather of getting the precise operating temperature within an incredibly thin range. In the past there have been crazy races, one won by Maldonado with Williams and another with a second place for Perez with Sauber, triggered by this phenomenon. Which is not completely solved by the teams, and this explains how Bottas can precede Hamilton by 25 seconds in Melbourne and stand behind him 25 seconds in Sakhir. In some moments of the race, by the radio, the technicians in the pits tell the driver exactly the lap time to keep on track to find themselves in the right temperature, and the pilot very often runs it at the tenth of a second.
In short, you have to be careful about the overheating of the engine, and you have to keep the right pace so that the tires are not too hot or too cold compared to a window with operating temperatures such that they do not degrade before losing their performance. In circuits like Sakhir in my opinion it is always worth to do an extra pit stop because you risk having an overly slow car on average: if you can overcome you can afford to enter the pits and you can discount the time penalty that occurs when you overtake other slower cars. In circuits like Melbourne, however, all this is impossible because being behind another car, even a lot slower than you, involves an important aerodynamic decompensation that ends up compromising the race. In this regard, Ross Brawn said that the cars that will follow the great regulatory change of 2021 will lose 5% of the downforce when follow another car, while now in some cases it is lost up to 50%, despite the aerodynamic change taking over 2019 precisely to meet this problem.
Here is who is the strongest driver now in Formula 1 (or at the same level as Hamilton)
In my view, it’s Nico Hulkenberg. We are talking about a driver who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, more importantly, always faster than his rivals in Formula 1. Before Barrichello in Williams, then Di Resta in Force India and last year of Sainz in Renault . The only one who really put him in trouble was Sergio Perez in Force India, but it was not a clear advantage. Now Hulkenberg puts a noble pilot like Daniel Ricciardo seriously in crisis, considered on the same level as Max Verstappen before what happened last year in Baku. Attention also to the same Sainz who in Sakhir passed Norris in qualifying and in the first part of the race, which is no small feat considering the crystalline talent of the British McLaren driver. Norris has a history of glorious past victories among the youngest: in addition, in the pre-race, Sky commentators invited him to participate in a gokart competition with the other rookies this year, George Russel and Alexander Albon. Well, Norris won. It may seem stupid, but usually those who are better at gokarting, for obvious reasons, are better at Formula 1. In short, Norris is very strong, but it is not certain that with Sainz he will have an easy life, rather the opposite is more likely.
And this is again indicative of the ability of Hulkenberg, who last year literally outclassed the Spanish driver, both in qualifying and on the race pace. Nico Hulkenberg is less precise in overtaking, but is more solid in qualifying and in the race than a driver like Ricciardo.
To conclude, Formula 1 is the sport of definitive excellence, where everything must be in the right place and at the right time. It is science and a scientific answer everyone is able to give it, but when you reach the highest level of sophistication taking the last step is the most difficult thing, and it makes the difference. This is why this sport is fascinating and that is why men can always express their talent, even if it is the car that commands. Comparisons among the pilots of the same team are the only way to understand if that man is really able to give that little extra to go beyond the limits of the car, and Ferrari must improve in this.