Analysing the Size of Mercedes' Speed Advantage over F1 Rivals

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 30:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at the Sepang Circuit on March 30, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

There can be no doubt that Mercedes is the class of the Formula One field so far in 2014.

Two utterly commanding victories in the first two races have led to comparisons with Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull's dominance in the second half of last season. And while the template of qualifying near the front, sprinting out to a large early lead and then controlling the race is familiar from 2013, this season is actually more reminiscent of 2009.

The 2009 title-winning Brawn GP car.
The 2009 title-winning Brawn GP car.Peter Kohalmi

That year, Brawn GP exploited a new technical development—the double diffuser—to allow Jenson Button to build an early lead in the Drivers' Championship that proved insurmountable even once the other teams caught up. 

This year, Mercedes seems to have the total package under the new regulations, but when asked the best part of his car, Nico Rosberg told the official F1 website, "My power unit."  

The Mercedes PU106A Hybrid power unit does seem to be responsible for the majority of the team's advantage so far. In fact, four of the top five teams in the Constructors' Championship right now are Mercedes-powered.

Meanwhile, teams using the underpowered and unreliable Renault and the merely underpowered Ferrari engines are struggling.

But exactly how big is Mercedes' current advantage over their rivals?

Even Renault's head of track operations, Remi Taffin, cannot pinpoint an exact number, telling Autosport's Ben Anderson that, "Saying it is one second is difficult, but it is not one tenth. It is closer to a second than a tenth or a hundredth." 

Let's have a look at some of the data from the Malaysian Grand Prix to help give us an idea. 

First, here are the fastest laps for each of the top six teams in the current Constructors' standings:

Malaysian Grand Prix Fastest Laps
TeamDriverLap TimeGap
MercedesLewis Hamilton1:43.066
FerrariFernando Alonso1:44.165+1.099
Red BullSebastian Vettel1:44.289+1.223
WilliamsFelipe Massa1:44.897+1.831
McLarenKevin Magnussen1:45.373+2.307
Force IndiaNico Hulkenberg1:45.982+2.916

No one is within one second of Lewis Hamilton's fastest time. However, Hamilton also made the last pit stop in the race, so he had fresher tyres than anyone else when he set the fastest lap.

On the other hand, Hamilton set that lap on hard compound tyres, whereas Fernando Alonso's fastest lap—the only non-Mercedes lap even close to one second from Hamilton's—was set on quicker medium tyres.

Of course, one fast lap can be the product of a number of different variables and does not necessarily tell the whole story. Over the entire race, here is Hamilton's average lap time, and the gap to the averages of the next five highest finishers in the race (excluding his teammate, Rosberg):

Malaysian Grand Prix Average Lap Times
DriverTeamAverage Lap Time
Lewis HamiltonMercedes1:47.607
Sebastian VettelRed Bull+0.438
Fernando AlonsoFerrari+0.643
Nico HulkenbergForce India+0.843
Jenson ButtonMcLaren+1.494
Felipe MassaFerrari+1.519

Again, the gap is significant, although Sebastian Vettel's and Alonso's times are significantly closer over the full race than over a single, quick lap.

McLaren, in particular, will be disheartened. After predicting a half-second-per-lap improvement from Australia, Button's average lap time was still 1.5 seconds slower than Hamilton's.  

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 30:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP takes the chequered flag as he is victorious during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at the Sepang Circuit on March 30, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Paul
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Even more discouraging—for all of Mercedes' rivals—is the message Hamilton received from his race engineer on Lap 22 of the race, per F1 Fanatic, "We’re going to look after this engine. We’re just going to turn it down a little bit. ... That’s for both cars." 

In Melbourne, despite an early safety car, Rosberg also spent most of the race more worried about protecting his engine than his lead, as he cruised to victory.

With the next race this Sunday in Bahrain, there is not much time for any of the teams to do significant development work to close the gap to Mercedes.

In fact, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner thinks, per The Guardian, that, "Their advantage will be bigger than it was in Malaysia as that is quite a power-dominated circuit."

Until the other teams (and engine manufacturers) can catch up, they will have to hope for reliability problems for the Silver Arrows—as Hamilton experienced in Bahrain.

Otherwise, we might be in for quite a few Mercedes one-two finishes. But look on the bright side: At least it's not Red Bull.

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