European Grand Prix Shows Large Gap Remaining from Mercedes to Ferrari, Red Bull

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistJune 19, 2016

No one could get close to Nico Rosberg in the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan.
No one could get close to Nico Rosberg in the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

During preparations for the European Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan, Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff said Ferrari and Red Bull were essentially level with Mercedes' performance.

"The speed of both the Ferrari and Red Bull is pretty much where we are now," he said, per ESPN F1's Nate Saunders. "... We are seeing the convergence of performance between teams that naturally comes with stable regulations—and that has made the competition tougher than ever."

That is true, to some extent. Ferrari and Red Bull are definitely getting quicker relative to Mercedes. But the results of Sunday's race in Baku showed it is premature to say the chasers are now on par with Mercedes (winners, lest we forget, of seven of the eight grands prix so far this season).

After out-qualifying Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel by more than a second on Saturday evening, Nico Rosberg led the entire race for Mercedes and won by nearly 17 seconds from Vettel. Ricciardo, the highest-placed Red Bull driver, was more than a minute behind on a track whose long straights did not suit the Bulls.

But this result was not an anomaly. Mercedes still have the best chassis and power unit combination on the grid.

Rather, the previous three races lulled us (and Wolff, perhaps) into a false impression of Ferrari and Red Bull's improved performance.

Toto Wolff
Toto WolffClive Mason/Getty Images

In Spain, Rosberg qualified 0.400 seconds ahead of Ricciardo and almost a full second ahead of Kimi Raikkonen in the nearest Ferrari. Lewis Hamilton, in the other Mercedes, was even quicker, taking pole by 0.280 seconds from his team-mate.

When the two Mercs infamously collided on the opening lap, they were already well in front of the rest of the field. Max Verstappen ended up winning the race for Red Bull—their first since Belgium 2014—but it is unlikely he or anyone else would have beaten the two Mercedes had they not crashed.

In Monaco, Ricciardo should have won, but for his team's mistake in the pits. The Circuit de Monaco, though, is unlike any other on the calendar. In particular, engine power is not nearly as important there as anywhere else. To illustrate that point, Hamilton set the fastest race lap in Monaco at an average speed of 154.135 km/h. Rosberg had the fastest lap at the next race, in Canada, at an average speed of 207.669 km/h.

Those lower speeds in the principality suit Red Bull perfectly, as Renault continues to play catch-up with Mercedes in the power unit department.

Finally, in Canada, Vettel made one of the greatest starts Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene had ever seen and led Hamilton for the early part of the race. It seemed he even had a chance to win, but Mercedes had a better pit stop strategy and Hamilton hung on for the victory.

So, does one friendly fire incident, one unique track and one great start mean Red Bull and Ferrari have caught Mercedes?

The answer from Baku was an emphatic, "No!"

Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari was no match for Nico Rosberg and Mercedes in Baku.
Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari was no match for Nico Rosberg and Mercedes in Baku.Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Rosberg was never in danger en route to what Autosport's Lawrence Barretto called "a crushing victory." The championship leader set his fastest lap of the day on Lap 48 of 51 and probably could have beaten Vettel by more than 17 seconds, but limits on gearboxes and engine parts mean teams are keen to see their drivers back off when possible.

"Surely it's not great news but all weekend they've been very, very quick," Vettel said of the Mercs in the post-race press conference. "First session, after four laps they were putting lap times in that took us the probably the whole day to copy."

To be fair, Baku, like Monaco, is a track with many distinct characteristics. The most notable is the massive, 1,500-metre straight at the end of the lap, the longest on the calendar. However, unlike Monaco, Baku is a proper test of the power units—and Mercedes did not come up lacking.

After qualifying, Vettel suggested that engine power was not Ferrari's biggest problem, per Autosport's Stuart Codling and Lawrence Barretto.

That may be true, but Mercedes-powered cars (and usually the Silver Arrows themselves) dominated the tops of all the top-speed charts throughout the weekend. In the race, Hamilton's maximum speed at the start/finish line was 364.4 km/h, while Vettel's was 352.2 km/h.

In qualifying, Rosberg was tops through the speed trap at 334.8 km/h, whereas Vettel managed just 325.0 km/h.

Mercedes-AMG F1 @MercedesAMGF1

"It was a pretty straightforward afternoon. There was only one small concern when I was down on power" @nico_rosberg https://t.co/D0bGxtd8WC

Of course, the teams have much more sophisticated data than is available publicly, but it is difficult to interpret those numbers to mean anything other than Mercedes' continued engine superiority.

The next two races are at high-speed circuits in Austria and Great Britain, where Mercedes should again be strong. After that, the series moves to Budapest, whose narrow, twisting Hungaroring is often compared to Monaco. Vettel won there last year for Ferrari and Ricciardo took victory in 2014 for Red Bull.

With Hamilton finishing fifth in Baku after a disappointing qualifying performance, Rosberg's lead in the drivers' championship is back up to 24 points. Vettel is 45 points behind Rosberg, but it looks like this year's title chase will be a straight fight between the two Merc drivers once again.

Ferrari and Red Bull are improving, but so are Mercedes. The European Grand Prix should serve as a reminder that, although Ferrari and the Bulls might challenge Mercedes at certain tracks or in certain circumstances, they are not quick enough yet to beat them regularly, despite widespread desire for a close championship fight.

All timing and speed data is from the FIA's official website.

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