Analysis: Friday Practice

Analysis: Friday Practice

After the cars were tucked safely back into their respective garages, one thing is for certain about F1’s return to Austria – the 2014 cars are nearly as quick as the beasts of 2003 around the Red Bull Ring.

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The lap record, set in 2003 by Michael Schumacher, is a 1:08.337 and Lewis Hamilton topped the timesheets in FP2 with a 1:09.542. Given that the 2003-4 machines were arguably the quickest cars that have ever existed in F1 and factor in track evolution, setup changes for tomorrow and maximum power unit modes, you can bet that we will be somewhere near the 1:08.5 mark come Q3 if conditions remain dry. That’s pretty impressive considering that the tyres don’t really suit the cars and the reduced levels of downforce.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of things, Mercedes are still on top by a comfortable margin. The Red Bull Ring is a pretty short track but both Silver Arrows were at least 0.551s clear of the opposition. That’s a staggering margin and one that the other teams are well aware of. The race runs were also telling as only both Mercedes cars ran in the 1:13 bracket, on both soft and supersoft tyres.

Behind them on race-pace terms is a close bunch once more, with Williams and Ferrari looking strongest. Williams split their race simulation strategy with Valtteri Bottas taking the soft and Felipe Massa the supersoft tyre. Bottas’s stint was pretty impressive as he managed an average lap time – discounting clear anomalies due to traffic – of 1:14.98 over his 24 lap run, comfortably stepping up the pace when told to about 11 laps in. His final three laps curtailed off quite dramatically, though, so there are still signs that Williams have not conquered their rear tyre degradation problems. This issue was also apparent in Massa’s rather messy supersoft run: of his 18 lap simulation, he lost a 0.4s consistently on each of his last 4 laps before pitting.

At Ferrari things are also looking promising, particularly through Fernando Alonso. Apart from a brief dip into the 1:15s, he had a very consistent pace during his soft tyre run between laps 8 and 17, lapping between 1:14.2 and 1:14.6 before pitting. This could put them well into to the ballpark for a podium but we have seen this before from them, so let’s hold our horses for now – no pun intended.

In qualifying terms the Ferrari looked a bit of handful for both drivers and their inherent understeer continues to plague them. The tyres Pirelli have elected to run lately don’t really suit the F14 T as the car is much more well balanced on the harder compounds. However because all the tyre compounds are so hard, Pirelli are forced to bring their softer range which is hurting Ferrari. This is why Ferrari has done better at circuits where Pirelli has brought the medium or hard compound tyre, such as China and Malaysia.

Red Bull, on the other hand, looked a little at sea in both FP1 and FP2. It is very rare that we see both drivers with handfuls of oversteer and trips onto the grass because their chassis is pretty solid, yet that is exactly what Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo encountered today. The car didn’t look too bad to drive in the first sector and into the middle of the lap, but in the final sequence of corners it was a little ragged. This could be down to just setup tweaks as we would expect them to be ahead of Ferrari at this circuit given the RB10’s strong aerodynamic characteristics.

Vettel’s race run in particular didn’t look very fruitful, either. He spent most of his time on the soft tyre hovering in the high 1:14/low 1:15s area and even complained that the tyres were gone after only 16 laps. This is partly down to graining, which exaggerates the effect of degradation, and should be expected at a track that hasn’t seen much action. FP3 will be an important session for Red Bull tomorrow if they want to contend for a podium on their home turf.

Above all, however, we have to consider the wind factor that disrupted FP2’s race simulations. There were gusts of 20mph at times which unstabled the cars into the final sequence of high speed corners and Turn 1.

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Say Mercedes ran 80kg of fuel during their race runs, and it’s 0.35s time loss for every 10kg of fuel, that’s 2.8 seconds per lap. Given that Hamilton’s qualifying simulation lap was 1:09.542, his ultimate race pace should be a laptime of 1:12.342. Take into account tyre preservation and fuel saving, you’re looking at a high 1:12, and this is the target Mercedes set Hamilton as he ventured out of the pitlane, as heard on team radio.

However his race run average on the soft tyre was 1:13.575, so the wind factor made about 0.5-0.7s difference at times. F1 cars are highly sensitive to external factors such as wind and the drivers were visibly struggling in the final sector. Each car is affected slightly differently by the wind so this skews the race runs slightly.

In terms of qualifying there is a huge scrap for best of the rest behind Mercedes. Just 0.504s covered positions 3 to 11, with Williams, Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and an improved Toro Rosso all in the mix. The smallest mistake will cost you massively here so it’s all up for grabs tomorrow.

Images courtesy of Octane Photographic

William Tyson

William Tyson

William Tyson - a Mechanical Engineering student at Swansea University - has been writing about the technical side of Formula 1 since February 2013. After joining the Richland F1 team for 2014 he has continued to establish himself as a more rounded technical analyst whilst maintaining a healthy following on his blog.