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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: How Red Bull and Ferrari compare in Melbourne

by Mark Hughes
6 min read

New cars on a new track layout with a new surface around half its length, but a very familiar-looking 2022 competitive order with Ferrari and Red Bull too close to call, and Mercedes struggling badly with porpoising.

The long runs were broken up by a red flag after a piece of Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin was discarded from the car onto the track, so making any patterns difficult to discern.

But the unusual two-steps between the medium and soft tyre (the choice here is C2/3/5) doesn’t appear to have had much impact. Even on the C5s, many were finding they needed two laps to get the rubber working properly and it seems the elimination of the old Clark chicane halfway through the lap (replaced by a long flat-out section up to the unchanged fast chicane) is allowing the tyres to run cooler here than previously.

That soft tyre appears to be around 1s faster than the medium but with a significantly shorter range, the expectation is that the medium C3 will be the tyre of choice on race day, with a move then onto the hards in a one-stop race, such is the low degradation rate. But the medium does seem prone to front graining and who can best limit that will be at the strategic advantage.

This is likely to be the key battleground between Ferrari and Red Bull because on raw pace there seems little to choose, despite Ferrari arriving here in the expectation that the Red Bull would be quicker.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Practice Day Melbourne, Australia

Despite some porpoising at the end of the fastest piece of track (the approach to Turn 9), the Ferrari appeared to be straight into a happy place whereas the Red Bull needed a little more massaging into its sweet spot, but it was pretty much there by the end of running.

“The demands of the circuit are a little different to what they were a few years ago,” points out Christian Horner to SkyF1.

“With this new layout it’s definitely changed some of the energies and these new tyres react in a different way. We began slightly out of the window, we’ve now come into that window and the car’s started to respond much more.”

Leclerc acknowledged that the porpoising was worse than at either Bahrain or Jeddah, “but it’s not really hurting the lap time, just the comfort. I’m not here to have a comfortable car but a fast one.”

The Mercedes divers would doubtless wish they had the luxury of such a choice.

Looking at the traces of the respective best laps of Leclerc and Verstappen, it’s a very familiar pattern from the previous two races: the Red Bull gets through the traps at the end of the straights faster, the Ferrari is quicker in the slow corners and more accelerative.

Verstappen is later on the brakes into Turn 1 despite arriving there at greater speed but the Ferrari’s slow corner grip allows Leclerc to get onto the gas earlier. This and the Ferrari’s great acceleration keeps it ahead down the short chute to the tight Turn 3 where again the Ferrari carries greater speed at the apex.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Practice Day Melbourne, Australia

The next braking phase isn’t until Turn 6 (which Leclerc takes in sixth, a gear up on Verstappen) and this is the beginning of the now flat-out stretch all the way up to the fast chicane of Turns 9-10, approached at around 200mph and entered at around 150mph, with two down-changes in between.

The two cars are almost identical through the reprofiled (and the re-numbered T11) right-hander after the chicane. Through the slow, interconnected Turns 12-13 the Red Bull appears to have more understeer and Verstappen resorts to a quick mid-corner stab of the brakes (while on full throttle) to alter the car’s line, and Leclerc maintains more momentum – as he does through the final corner.

The closeness of the two cars together with the tyre pattern make for all the ingredients of a finely-poised contest around the pit stops – with a likely DRS bout then following. Which sounds exactly like Bahrain and Saudi…

Will it be the same two contestants? Not if Carlos Sainz – who was fastest in FP1 – has anything to do with it, but Charles Leclerc did head the FP2 times from Verstappen. Both Ferraris and both Red Bulls set their best times on used tyres. “It’s not a warm-up thing,” reports Sainz.

“Unlike the harder tyres, they are ready to go on the first lap, but then they just keep getting quicker. We saw it on my side in Jeddah too and we need to understand it properly as it can complicate the run plan for qualifying.” The expectation was it would become less of an issue as the new tarmac bedded in.

Verstappen was initially complaining of high-speed instability through the fast sweeps of the first sector and the car did look a more physical drive than the Ferrari. “We changed the car around a bit for my final run,” he reported, “and I felt a lot happier. We were a bit off Ferrari [on single-lap pace] but on the long runs everything felt quite stable and nice. We made some good improvements.”

He liked the new track layout too: “I think the track grip is quite nice, bumps definitely improve, it’s a bit smoother, but I think it actually makes the track nicer as well because you can attack the corners a bit better now, as it’s a bit more smooth, they did a good job with that.”

FP2 long run pace

Position Driver Soft Medium
1 Verstappen 1m23.55s (4 laps)
2 Leclerc 1m23.67s (5 laps)
3 Sainz 1m23.84s (4 laps)
4 Russell 1m24.20s (4 laps)
5 Alonso 1m24.24s (5 laps)
6 Norris 1m24.87s (6 laps)
7 Gasly 1m25.01s (4 laps)
8 Stroll 1m25.46s (4 laps)

Alpine, Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri and McLaren all set faster single lap times than the Mercedes drivers with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton only 11th and 13th respectively. Alpine’s Fernando Alonso actually pipped Sergio Perez to the fourth-fastest time but such form wasn’t reflected in the long runs.

The Mercedes duo’s problems were exacerbated by difficulty getting the soft tyres to work. Hamilton didn’t get in a meaningful long run but by the time Russell cleared traffic his average pulled him clear of those teams and in that analysis the Mercedes remained the third-quickest car, albeit 0.9s adrift of Verstappen’s Red Bull.

No matter which set-up was tried, the car remained as stubbornly off the pace as it’s been since the start of the season.

“Nothing we change on the car makes a difference at the moment,” reports Hamilton.

“That’s the difficult thing. You get in very optimistic and then you make changes and then it doesn’t seem to be wanting to improve. We made some changes going into P2, P1 was better and P2 ended up being a bit harder. I don’t know, just a tricky car.”

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