Feature F1 Unlocked
MONDAY MORNING DEBRIEF: How Jeddah highlighted the fascinating battle between Aston Martin, Ferrari and Mercedes
It doesn’t require any detailed analysis to understand that the Red Bulls once again had a huge margin of superiority over the field in Saudi Arabia. But the performance hierarchy of the three teams immediately behind Red Bull – Aston Martin, Mercedes and Ferrari – was actually much closer than Fernando Alonso’s front-row start and early lead of the race for Aston made it look.
In the long runs of Friday, Alonso had impressed by lapping within 0.2s of Sergio Perez’s Red Bull on the same medium tyre and over a similar length stint. But in the race, there was no comparison, with Perez easily overtaking on track and subsequently pulling away well out of undercut range as the first pit stop window opened up.
It rather suggests that Aston Martin uses a lighter base fuel weight for its simulations in Friday practice than Red Bull. The teams analyse the GPS data and the varying weight sensitivity of different sectors of any given track to estimate likely fuel weights and engine modes of their rivals.
Mercedes believed that when adjusting for those variables, its race pace was very similar to Aston’s and Ferrari’s. As such, in a straightforward running of the race, where they each finished would be even more heavily reliant than usual on their respective qualifying performances.
This is where both Ferrari and Mercedes hit snags. Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari qualified the fastest of the group, but he was taking a 10-place grid penalty for his power unit change.
Carlos Sainz under-performed, not getting a good first run in Q2 and therefore needing to use up another set of soft tyres to get through to Q3, meaning he had only one new set available there. He was only fifth-quickest, out-qualified by both Alonso and George Russell’s Mercedes.
Leclerc’s grid penalty and Verstappen’s driveshaft failure in Q2 put Alonso on the front row but he dismissed the idea that he might be fighting Perez for the victory. Their respective race performances showed this assessment to be totally accurate.
Although Russell could take some solace from out-qualifying one Ferrari and having the other relegated behind him on the starting grid, he was still 0.12s slower than Alonso.
The Mercedes was on the knife-edge of getting its front tyres up to temperature by the start of a single lap. Russell just about managed to cross the temperature threshold but Lewis Hamilton – afterwards ruing that he’d gone the wrong way on his set-up - did not. That left him only seventh-fastest, almost 0.4s slower than Russell.
Accordingly, Hamilton chose to start the race on hards and not the mediums of all those ahead of him. After Alonso’s three-lap blaze of glory leading the race, he was passed and left well behind by Perez and took up station ahead of Russell, Lance Stroll, Sainz, Esteban Ocon’s Alpine, Hamilton and Leclerc.
Hamilton’s Mercedes was working quite well on the hard tyre – and he passed both Ocon (before the Safety Car) and Sainz (after the Safety Car) on track. But the Lap 17 Safety Car (for Stroll’s broken Aston) had obliged him to take the opportunity of the time-cheap pit stop, also because it was felt that worn, hard tyres would have made him vulnerable on the restart.
That Safety Car came at exactly the wrong time for Ferrari – which had just pitted both cars, Leclerc because he had started on softs, Sainz in order to overcut himself past Lance Stroll’s soon-to-retire Aston Martin and its slow-to-warm hard tyres.
The Aston/Mercedes/Ferrari group were all quickly passed and left well behind by Verstappen’s Red Bull and Alonso concentrated on trying to consolidate his third place from the closely following Russell. They ran at a very similar pace in the low 1m 34s only around 1.5s apart. This had a complicating effect on Hamilton’s race.
Because he’d started on the hard, Hamilton had been obliged to switch to the medium at his stop and was initially therefore quicker than Russell, who was now on the slow-to-warm hards. Hamilton began to pressure his team mate. But the whole Mercedes strategy, in their attempt at beating Alonso, was to run the early part of the stint at a relatively gentle pace, hoping this would give a tyre advantage late in the race.
But they had no way of knowing how hard Alonso was pushing. Hamilton was briefly faster than Russell but had no way of using that to pass. After a few more laps, with Russell’s hard tyres fully up to temperature, Hamilton no longer had a performance advantage.
Mercedes’ hoped-for deterioration in Alonso’s pace didn’t happen and it’s clear that the Aston’s greater downforce (which makes it draggier than the Mercedes and slower on the straights) helps it to excellent tyre degradation.
Russell was “driving like a mad man” late in the race trying to keep the gap to Alonso at less than 5s (because there was a possibility of a 5s penalty for the Aston). But when Alonso was requested by his team on the penultimate lap to try to make the gap bigger, he responded with a stunning last lap only 0.3s slower than Verstappen’s, a time that was a couple of tenths out of Russell’s reach.
All of which suggested that the Aston’s small advantage over the Mercedes in qualifying carried through into the race and that the apparent closeness between Alonso and Russell was more a function of the Spaniard gauging his pace back to Russell so as to preserve his tyres.
So could Leclerc – who’d qualified faster than Alonso – have beaten the Aston had he not had his grid penalty? It would probably have been a struggle. The Ferrari’s tyre degradation was not good, especially on the hard tyre. The limitation around Jeddah is the front tyres and the Ferraris were overheating them.
Sainz was very explicit about the car’s current tyre degradation limitations. “I think the last stint on the hards proves we’re not where we want to be,” he said.
“We still deg more than the Mercs, we still deg more than the Astons, we still lack a bit of race pace. It’s tyre deg, balance, dirty air when following, we just struggle a bit. If we already overheat the tyres in clean air, imagine following. We just eat them alive and we need clean air to produce some kind of decent lap time.
“On the hards, I was pushing flat-out, Charles was pushing flat-out behind me and we just couldn’t keep up [with the Mercs]. I think this is just the true picture. The Merc and the Aston had maybe two or three-tenths on us today but the Red Bull, at beginning of the stints, they have a second like in qualifying and then it opens up even more, even on good tarmac like here.”
That’s how the battle far behind the Red Bulls shaped up at Jeddah. But it was close enough between the three teams to suggest there will be variations from track to track. Alonso, Stroll, Hamilton, Russell, Leclerc and Sainz look set for some close tussles.