The Mercedes vs Ferrari battle was always going to be high stakes at Spa, with both camps revealing upgraded ‘Spec 3 engines’ for the Belgian Grand Prix weekend. And while it was Ferrari who came away from Friday’s running with the upper hand, Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas believes there’s little to choose between the two teams realistically.
The qualifying simulations in Free Practice 2 saw Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen setting the pace, finishing up the session 0.168s ahead of the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, with Bottas a further 0.28s behind his team mate in third. That was after Sebastian Vettel had set the pace in FP1, a session where Hamilton finished third and Bottas fifth.
“In general, the car felt pretty good today,” said Bottas, who will start Sunday's race at the back of the grid, having received a penalty after taking Mercedes' new power unit. “The balance was slightly off in the beginning of the day, but we managed to correct that so that the car felt nice pretty much everywhere on the track.
“The lower speed sections were a little more challenging for us, as we struggled a bit with traction coming out of the corners. Ferrari looked a little bit quicker in some corner combinations like Turn 5 to Turn 7 [through Les Combes and down to Malmedy], but I don’t think we’re far off. However, it’s always difficult to make any detailed predictions on Friday for the weekend as it is usually really close in qualifying.”
Hamilton was similarly breezy about his day’s work, and seemed pleased about the power unit upgrades his team had unleashed.
“We’ve brought a new engine today and everything was running smoothly,” he said. “It’s really close between us and Ferrari; it seems like we’ve both been bringing new updates at a similar rate. For the middle sector, you want to have a good amount of downforce, but you want less in the other sectors to gain speed down the straights. The challenge is to find the right balance and thankfully I have a great team working on that.”
James Allison, Mercedes’ Technical Director, was cautiously enthusiastic about the team’s achievements on Friday, remarking that Mercedes had endured a “curate’s egg of a day” – meaning part good, part bad if you were wondering…
“The good part of it was that we ran through the programme we planned without any mechanical dramas to the car and we picked up the information we need to have from the tyres,” said Allison. “The other good parts of it were that both drivers at various points of both sessions looked quick and that the new engines ran reliably and showed a promising performance.
“The area where we need to do more work is that the long runs were poor and scrappy affairs with both drivers,” he added, referring to both Bottas and Hamilton heavily locking up their brakes in FP2. “A mixture of traffic and flat-spotting meant that we didn’t establish the rhythm that gives you a warm feeling going into Sunday. So it was not a bad day, but it could have been better and we will do our traditional job of tucking-in overnight to see what we can improve to make sure that the cars have got a good combination of single lap pace and long-run speed.”
Analysis of both Ferrari and Mercedes’ long-run pace on Friday revealed that they were absolutely neck-and-neck, with Red Bull also in the mix, just 0.2 seconds adrift.
With the double whammy of power-sensitive tracks that the teams now have to contend with – namely Spa and Monza – the next two races will be crucial to see who gets the upper hand in the tightly poised Mercedes/Ferrari fight heading into the final part of the season. And with that being the case, expect pole position on Saturday in Belgium – and the race win on Sunday – to be even more of a matter of pride than normal…