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Flawless Mercedes pile pressure on Ferrari – Palmer column

Jolyon Palmer

Former F1 driver Jolyon Palmer, who left Renault during the 2017 season, is part of the BBC team and offers insight and analysis from the point of view of the competitors

Three races, three one-two finishes for Mercedes. On paper, this new Formula 1 season already looks like a story of Mercedes domination.

But the statistics don’t tell anything like the whole picture.

The form guide between Mercedes and Ferrari has been up and down like a yo-yo so far.

The last time a team started a season this strongly was Williams in 1992. But that was a case of their car being miles ahead of everything else.

That has not been the situation in 2019. Yet as a collective, Mercedes have been far the stronger team, and Ferrari have a number of problems to sort out.

Why are Mercedes so good?

Mercedes F1 driver Lewis Hamilton

There are many reasons why Mercedes have started the season so well – and been so successful since 2014.

Firstly, Lewis Hamilton himself. He’s the best driver in the current field, and maybe the best Formula 1 driver ever.

In Bahrain, he single-handedly took the fight to Ferrari, who arguably had a bigger pace advantage than Mercedes had enjoyed in China last Sunday. Yet look at the differences between Hamilton and the other three drivers in the top two teams.

In China, the Ferrari drivers had nothing to offer the fight at the front. In Bahrain, Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas couldn’t offer anything against Ferrari.

But Hamilton drove the wheels off his Mercedes at Sakhir. While Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc dominated, Hamilton got ahead of Sebastian Vettel twice, and the second time pressured his rival into a spin which subsequently allowed Bottas to beat the German as well.

So when Leclerc hit engine trouble, Mercedes had got themselves into a one-two position that was not imaginable at the start of that race. And it was almost entirely down to Hamilton.

But one-twos aren’t the work of only one driver. Bottas has raised his game this year. He won in Australia, with a strong drive after beating Hamilton off the line, and had he still been driving as he did in the second half of 2018, the Finn would not have finished second in China.

Whether Bottas can fight Hamilton for the title remains to be seen. But his pace has definitely improved this year, as shown by his qualifying comparisons to Hamilton and pole position in Shanghai as well.

Where Ferrari are falling short

Sebastian Vettel leads Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc round a bend during the Chinese Grand Prix

Vettel is now 29 points behind Hamilton, with Leclerc one further behind, but aside from Vettel’s spin in Bahrain, the Ferrari drivers haven’t done a lot wrong this season so far; they just haven’t had the best car in two of the three races. In the one they did, Vettel spun and Leclerc’s engine denied him a maiden win.

But reliability is a concern.

There were question marks in Melbourne as to whether their lack of pace was down to running a safer engine mode which compromised performance. Then, Leclerc had his issue in Bahrain, and another in China which caused him to miss much of second practice.

Ferrari deny they have cooling problems, but reliability has already cost them a victory and poses question marks that Mercedes don’t have, having had perfect reliability thus far.

Operationally, Ferrari are making mistakes, just as they were last year.

In China, in the top 10 qualifying shootout, Vettel nearly missed getting round in time to start a final lap before the chequered flag fell. He just made it, after doing a great job in communication with his engineer to pass a couple of cars on his out lap.

Leaving it too late to go out is a basic error, one also made by Red Bull and Haas, whose cars all missed out on a lap at the end. The fact three teams did this shows these things can happen. But that’s not an excuse.

Ferrari aren’t competing with Haas or even really with Red Bull. Mercedes are the ones to beat, and as usual they were in complete control of the situation from the moment the drivers left the pits.

Strategically, Ferrari have also not been perfect so far, and it has cost them points.

In Melbourne, Vettel pitted too early and too far back from Hamilton to have a chance to undercut him in the pit stops. In the end, it cost him a place to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and would likely have also put him behind Leclerc if Ferrari had not used team orders to keep him ahead.

Then, in China they were outmanoeuvred by Red Bull, who were aggressive with their strategy in trying to jump the Ferraris, while Ferrari seemed only focused on a futile fight with the Mercedes ahead. Verstappen jumped Leclerc in the pits and almost Vettel as well for a podium place.

Between those two incidents, both Ferrari drivers have lost two points.

Then there’s the strategy of fastest lap in the race. In 2019 that is worth a point, yet Ferrari haven’t gone for it when they’ve had the chance to.

In Melbourne they could have pitted both cars at the end without losing position. One of them would have got it on new tyres for sure. Instead, it went to Bottas in the Mercedes, so a two-point swing against them.

In China, Leclerc had a free pit stop to do it again, only for Ferrari not to go for it. But Red Bull did. They pitted Pierre Gasly, and the Frenchman took it, despite being a second slower than both Ferraris in qualifying the day before.

Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto accepted the team made an error in Melbourne, with just a lack of thinking compared to the major teams around them. But in China the reason would have been to keep the point with Vettel rather than have Leclerc take it.

The team orders controversy

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Team orders – and the controversy that surrounds it – is another problem that Mercedes haven’t given themselves yet.

Ferrari have used team orders in all three races, all favouring Vettel over Leclerc.

In Melbourne, Leclerc was ordered to stay behind and obeyed in the closing stages. In Bahrain, likewise in the opening stages, although he disobeyed and should have won the race. In China, he was ordered to let Vettel through early on to attack the Mercedes ahead.

The reason Ferrari have got themselves in this tangle so early on is largely because of how they’ve handled it publicly.

On the one hand, you can admire Binotto for being so open with the media and explaining what they will do and the reasoning behind it. But right now it is biting him.

That is because Leclerc’s pace is too good. He’s been very close to Vettel in two of the races and considerably quicker than him in the other. It’s a nice problem to have, but a real, serious problem if it’s not handled in the right way.

Ferrari’s decision in Melbourne was understandable. It was their fault that Vettel was struggling at the end of the race, and he had been the lead driver throughout the weekend. For him to hold position ahead of Leclerc on a track that is hard to overtake on is understandable.

I also agreed with their more controversial decision to swap their drivers’ positions in China. I believe Vettel had a marginal pace advantage throughout the weekend, including in the race.

The fact he was able to sit within a second of Leclerc for so long in the early laps suggests he was quicker at the start of the race. While the DRS overtaking aid would have helped him stay in touch on the straights, it is slower overall because of the downforce you lose staying that close through the corners.

Following that closely for that long also damages your tyres and possibly explains why Vettel had nothing more to offer once he was ahead of his team-mate.

Why Ferrari’s policy is a problem

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel runs his hand through his hair after the Chinese Grand Prix

All this leaves Ferrari with some tricky questions.

In isolation, the China situation is normal in F1. A team has a quicker driver behind, the lead car is dropping back from the cars ahead – albeit slightly in Leclerc’s case in China – and they swap the positions in the interests of the team. It happens all the time throughout the season and up and down the grid.

Sometimes, if that lead driver can’t make the progress expected, the positions are swapped back in the interest of fairness.

On the radio, Ferrari were clearly unsure what to do once Vettel showed he, too, couldn’t match the Mercedes. But ultimately they didn’t swap back, and once Verstappen pitted early, they never had the chance again.

All in all, it was an understandable decision from the team, but it ended up in a fairly messy situation because of their constant public backing of Vettel since the start of the season. This highlights these decisions, even if they are made with the best intentions. And it adds to the pressure on Vettel.

Clearly, Vettel is deemed the lead driver at Ferrari. So if he is outperformed by Leclerc – as he was in Bahrain – there will be questions. If he then has team orders to beat his team-mate, there will be even more questions and very uncomfortable ones as well, as he clearly recognised in China.

It speaks volumes that Vettel said he knew, as he passed Leclerc, that he would have some questions to field after the race.

It cannot be healthy for a driver to be thinking of that, rather than about chasing the Mercedes.

It potentially explains his overdriving once ahead of Leclerc. Two lock-ups in three laps cost him a lot of time and meant he couldn’t eke out a gap to Leclerc as his other laps had done.

The last couple of years, and the Bahrain Grand Prix, have shown us that Vettel is capable of mistakes under pressure.

Ironically, right now, with the intention of helping Vettel’s chances and lightening the load on him, Ferrari may actually be amplifying the pressure on their lead driver.

They seem to have made a rod for their own back by publicly supporting Vettel. Even when the situation merits a position swap, there is criticism of their team orders stance.

A better position for now would be to abandon the overt policy of backing Vettel no matter what, let the drivers race and take each case on its individual merits until one of their drivers has clearly shown superiority in the title chase.

That is what Mercedes did last year, when Bottas became number two to help Hamilton’s chances later in the season.

For Mercedes, the fact they have made the best start by a team for 27 years and their rivals are in disarray will make it all the sweeter.

But one thing they have never been is complacent. Ferrari’s Bahrain form shows they can be a threat. They need more of that coming up, and the next race in Azerbaijan is on a circuit closer in characteristics to Bahrain than China.

There’s a long way to go, but it would take a brave man to bet against the silver arrows right now.

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BBC Sport – Formula 1

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