Mercedes continue to reign supreme but the battle for second is once again hotting up, as William Tyson investigates.
Free Practice Two was a highly anticipated hour and a half of F1 action. The teams had two weeks to improve their cars during the 4 week summer break and many, including myself, were curious to see if the pecking order had changed, especially given the array of new developments seen on the cars this weekend.
The simple answer is that nobody is even close to Mercedes this weekend as we are set for another two horse race between the two Silver Arrows drivers on Sunday. However the chasing pack appears closer than they were before, especially given the circuit length. When we start looking at the laptimes this will become apparent. Ferrari have taken a healthy step forward thanks to small mechanical improvements in the power unit area, drawing level with Williams in a tight battle for second.
Considering that Mercedes normally run a little heavier fuel load for the qualifying simulation, their margin to the rest of the competition was indeed impressive and probably expected. Spa is definitely a circuit that Mercedes-powered cars will have an even greater advantage over Renault and Ferrari, with 7 of the top 10 drivers exposing this fact.
Here I have taken the fastest laptime from each team to form a pecking order:
1. Mercedes (Lewis Hamilton) – 1:49.189s
2. Ferrari (Fernando Alonso) – 1:49.930s +0.741s
3. Williams (Felipe Massa) – 1:50.327s +1.138s
4. McLaren (Jenson Button) – 1:50.659s +1.410s
5. Toro Rosso (Daniil Kvyat) – 1:50.725s +1.536s
6. Red Bull (Daniel Ricciardo) – 1:50.977 +1.788s
7. Force India (Nico Hulkenberg) – 1:51.077s +1.888s
8. Sauber (Adrian Sutil) – 1:51.450s +2.261s
9. Lotus (Romain Grosjean) – 1:52.196s +3.007s
10. Marussia (Jules Bianchi) – 1:52.776s +3.587s
11. Caterham (Marcus Ericsson) – 1:54.050s +4.861s
Lewis Hamilton may have had a 0.604 second advantage over his teammate Nico Rosberg, but the latter driver’s lap was scrappy so we cannot conclude anything just yet. Afterall, Hamilton has now topped 10 of the 12 FP2 sessions this year and has been out-qualified by Rosberg 6-5 so far.
A tenth behind Rosberg was Fernando Alonso who looked impressive in the revised F14 T. Given that his Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen has a strong track record here, his languishing 15th place is also confusing given that the team have taken a small step here. On paper Ferrari are about 0.4 seconds clear of the Williams, at a track where the latter have high hopes of challenging the Mercedes cars. Whilst the Scuderia look considerably stronger at the moment, I do expect Williams to jump them come qualifying. The FW36 looked a little lazy given that the team are running a higher downforce package than most teams this weekend so I would imagine that they are running a touch more fuel.
Further down and Red Bull also appear to be sandbagging a touch. Only Daniel Ricciardo was available for FP2 as an electrical problem in FP1 forced the German to sit out the afternoon session. Ricciardo’s lap was very messy and the car was understeering as he pushed hard in the middle sector – in other words, not how a Red Bull car should handle at qualifying pace. I expect them to move into the battle for second as we shall discover when we delve into the race simulation times. Fastest of all through the speed trap in FP2 was not a Williams or a Mercedes or a McLaren, but Ricciardo. A very low downforce wing and small changes along the RB10 have improved its straightline speed considerably despite their significant power disadvantage, so this bodes well for the race.
McLaren brought a number of updates to the MP4-29 but at the moment they have not appeared to have moved the team forward at all. If anything Jenson Button’s time flatters the performance of the car due to the fact that Red Bull are (probably) not flexing their muscles just yet. This looks promising then for Toro Rosso who have been disappointed with their point scoring this year despite the pace of their car. Daniil Kvyat looked especially good on Friday so let’s see how they progress.
Finally, Caterham’s array of updates have not done much to suggest that they are any closer to the midfield or indeed their immediate rivals, Marussia. The new owners have a mountain to climb if they want to regain a potential 9th place in the Constructors’ championship.
I have gathered laptimes from the long runs and – removing anomalies – created an average laptime during their respective stints.
All the average times below were generated from runners using the option tyre:
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes – 1:54.998s
2. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull – 1:55.142s +0.144s
3. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes – 1:55.148s +0.150s
4. Felipe Massa, Williams – 1:55.608s +0.610s
5. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari – 1:55.773s +0.775s
6. Jenson Button, McLaren – 1:56.295s +1.297s
7. Kevin Magnussen, McLaren – 1:56.922s +1.934s
Because of the length of the lap, the fuel effect is pretty high and the drivers, although mildly effected by traffic, were not that consistent as a result. Therefore only clear anomalies were removed from the data to form the averages above.
The race runs confirm that Red Bull are well within the hunt for second and have the pace to challenge with the Mercedes cars. However it is worth noting that Ricciardo started his long run some 10 minutes later than others so track conditions had inevitably improved. Of his 7 lap run he was into the mid-1:54s bracket over the first two laps of his stint but then settled into mid-1:55s for the remainder of his run.
By contrast, the Mercedes cars were happily in the 1:54s for their longer run, with Hamilton and Rosberg completing 10 and 11 laps respectively. The difference between the two drivers came towards the end of their runs where they both fell into the 1:55s – Hamilton managed to generally stay in the 1:54s until lap 9 before completing high 1:55s on his final 2 laps. Rosberg, however, was consistently into the 1:55s beyond lap 6 of his run and even drifted into the 1:56s before bailing for new tyres. The battle between the two drivers is intriguing and it will no doubt take another twist as the weekend continues.
Behind them we can see that Williams are looking comfortably in the hunt for a podium just ahead of the Ferrari of Alonso. Like in Red Bull’s case, the race runs also suggest that Williams were carrying a little more fuel for their qualifying simulation. Felipe Massa did a respectable 11 lap run whereas Alonso only completed 5 laps before choosing to take no further part in the session, which is a shame because we did not get to see how the Ferrari chewed through its soft compound tyres. One thing is for certain though and that is Alonso is well within an arm’s reach of a podium if things continue. Mind you, how many times have we said that this year?
The two McLarens had disappointing pace. Even if Kevin Magnussen did not look entirely comfortable, Button’s pace is surely conformation that they continue to lag behind the front runners. The cooler track conditions will have hindered their speed but they still have plenty of work to do.
Moving onto those who ran the prime tyre during FP2 and things are again interesting. Here are the average laptimes from three drivers using the medium compound tyre:
1. Jenson Button, McLaren – 1:56.282s
2. Valtteri Bottas, Williams – 1:56.381s +0.099s
3. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India – 1:57.045s +0.763s
Let’s give these times some context before we begin. Button had just done an 8 lap stint on the option tyre so when the primes were fitted he had 8 laps less fuel on board. Valterri Bottas and Nico Hulkenberg set out from the pits and completed their runs without ever pitting for options and completed 10 and 12 laps respectively.
This puts Bottas’s simulation into the limelight. There is a 1.5-2 second difference between the two tyre compounds depending which car you are sitting in, so now we can see that both Williams cars are looking at the pound seats for Sunday. Bottas also had consistent pace and was even able to slowly dip into the 1:55s at one stage.
Although Nico Hulkenberg’s average time looks less impressive, I was drawn in by his consistency. Here are his lap times:
Apart from a brief blip during laps 8 and 9, the German was always hovering around the 1:57s mark, which puts him in a good place for strong points tomorrow. Mind you, their qualifying performance needs to be worked on if they want to make life easier for themselves.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic