Azerbaijan GP: 'Are Ferrari making Mercedes look better than they are?'

Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas
Championship leader Valtteri Bottas is 35 points ahead of third-placed Sebastian Vettel

There are still 17 races to go in this Formula 1 season, but already it is hard to see how Ferrari can make a fight of the championship.

Mercedes have taken four one-two finishes at the start of a season for the first time in history, and while it is true that, as their team boss Toto Wolff says, those raw statistics "flatter" his team, Ferrari do not look in any real condition to seriously threaten them.

The record Mercedes have beaten was set by Williams in 1992, and the bizarre thing about it is that Nigel Mansell's famous FW14B had a massively greater advantage over its rivals than the car Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton are driving.

This Mercedes has been, on balance, the fastest car this season, of that there is no doubt. But in 1992, Williams' average qualifying advantage over the next fastest car after four races was 1.2 seconds. Mercedes' is only 0.246secs.

What is really making the difference this year is that Mercedes - as a collective - are operating at a level out of reach of their rivals.

As Hamilton put it: "As a team we're firing on all cylinders; they're not." Or in Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel's words: "We have the tools, we just need to put the package together. I don't think our car is slow. The Mercedes is very fast but it seems easier for them to click, us a bit more difficult."

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Where it's going wrong for Ferrari

Heading into Baku, Ferrari should already have beaten Mercedes in one race - and would have done had Charles Leclerc's engine not gone sick in the closing laps of Bahrain when he was on the way to a dominant victory.

And had Ferrari put together a perfect weekend in Baku, things could have been very different for them there, too.

Just as in Bahrain, Leclerc looked like the key man, but this time it was his fault that a maiden win got away from him.

A crash in second qualifying took the 21-year-old out. His lap time was still quick enough to make it into the top 10, but the car was in pieces so he could not take part. That meant qualifying 10th - which became eighth on the grid after penalties for other drivers.

From there, a victory was always going to be tough if there was not a safety car to even things out. He led for a while because of strategy variation. But Ferrari did not help his quest to beat Red Bull's Max Verstappen to fourth place by costing him eight seconds, by apparently needlessly leaving him out for two laps after he had finally been caught and passed by the leaders.

After that, he was too far back and all that was left was to go for the point for fastest lap.

Charles Leclerc crashed during qualifying in Baku
"I am stupid" Leclerc was quick to hold his hands up and apologise after crashing at Turn Eight during qualifying

The crash also meant that Leclerc had to start the race on the medium tyres, which he said would not have been the case had qualifying run to plan.

But that begs the question of why he and Vettel did their first runs in second qualifying on the mediums in the first place. The answer to that was that they had to - but that was their choice, born of their run-plan through practice.

Ferrari had used an extra set of the faster soft tyres in final practice on Saturday. Mercedes, by contrast, had run a set of mediums at the start of the session - a deliberate choice to ensure their drivers could use softs all the way through qualifying. They felt that was better on a track where grip levels are always changing, the temperature is dropping through a qualifying session run as the sun is setting, and where grip is low anyway.

Why, Mercedes felt, give their drivers the complication of having to adapt from soft tyres to medium and then back again in the middle of qualifying when things were already difficult enough anyway? There was also the risk, by running mediums first in second qualifying, that a crash and a red flag could jeopardise a second run, and with it potentially even a place in the final session.

Leclerc was very hard on himself after his crash, calling himself "stupid". And clearly he should not have done it. But the tyres were a contributory factor. What happened, he said, was that he braked at the same point into the tight Turn Eight on mediums as he had before on softs - and the grip level was not there to take it.

"The performance was there to do pole position," Leclerc said.

Even with Leclerc out of the picture, Vettel should have been in a position to fight for pole. But he did his qualifying lap without a tow, and that was because Mercedes tricked Ferrari into following them out of the pits early - only for their drivers to stop at the end of the pit lane and pretend to do practice starts, letting Vettel past.

Ferrari
Vettel said Ferrari are "not the favourites" heading to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya

Now running on his own at the front of the line of cars, he opted to stay there and ensure he got his tyres in the right window, rather than slow and let someone past and go for the tow. Vettel said he felt it was the right call in the end, but he admitted in the same sentence that he "sort of regretted" he hadn't taken the gamble of going for the tow.

On top of driver errors and occasionally questionable operational management (a running theme through last year as well) Ferrari are also struggling to consistently get the tyres into the temperature window at which they operate best.

"The secret this year seems to be the tyres and maybe we are missing something," Vettel said. "We struggle a bit more with the tyres than in previous years."

The German added: "Obviously the last four races, on average, we were not quite there, so I think we are not the favourites going to Barcelona. But the team is in good spirits. We have another couple of stuff going on the car, so we need to chase them down.

"We are looking to hopefully a smooth weekend. Our first four weekends haven't been that smooth. But it will be crucial to catch them and turn things around."

Hamilton v Bottas

Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas
Bottas beat Hamilton by 1.5 seconds and is now a point ahead of his Mercedes team-mate in the drivers' championship

Ferrari's travails have left the two Mercedes drivers a point apart at the top of the championship, Bottas ahead of Hamilton, and 35 ahead of Vettel, who has finally sneaked ahead of Red Bull's Max Verstappen into third place.

Much has been made of the supposedly reinvigorated Bottas this season, but the facts are that he would have been leading the championship at this point of last year, too, had he not lost victory in Baku to a late-race puncture.

That's two wins each for the Mercedes drivers now, the point separating them being the one Bottas scored for fastest lap on his way to victory in the first race of the season in Australia.

Hamilton, though, was well aware he should have won on Sunday. His failure to take pole on Saturday was the result of cold tyres at the start of his final lap, and mistakes at the first two corners.

He had been 0.3secs to the good after the first runs, but those errors cost him that amount of time at the start of the decisive lap. He made nearly all of that up again in the final two sectors of the lap but ended up losing out to Bottas by just 0.059secs.

Hamilton very nearly got the lead when he made a better start than his team-mate but, having got alongside Bottas into Turn One, he was unusually accommodating to the Finn on the outside. And after a bit of a battle, the world champion slipped back into second place.

Nigel Mansell drives his FW14B Williams at Monaco in 1992
The dominant 1992 Williams took Nigel Mansell to his one and only F1 world title

Hamilton admitted he needed to take a slightly different approach to his team-mate than a driver from another team, but he still said: "I was a little bit too kind at the start. It won't happen again."

After that, the Mercedes drivers were allowed to race, and with the team concerned the tyres might not go the distance Hamilton saved himself for an attack in the closing laps. But he lost ground during a late virtual safety car period - his mistake - and Bottas controlled the race well to just keep Hamilton at bay.

Hamilton, who tends to really come on strong in the second half of the season, will not be too worried about results so far, but he did admit afterwards: "That was an average (weekend). I just need to pick up on performance and do a better job. If I had qualified on pole the positions would have been reversed so it was really all about qualifying.

"Valtteri's really, clearly stepped up this year and is really happy in the car and really delivering and driving fantastically, so it's going to take some really great performances from both of us to outperform each other. And that's how it should be.

"Hopefully at some stage Ferrari will be in the mix with us. This weekend, I do think they had the performance to be on the front row with both of their cars.

"It takes 100% delivery throughout the weekend. We, I think, were as close to that as possible. They're going to have to pick it up if they want to fight us."