Which is best? A believable illusion which delivers what we really want OR the cold hard reality that is the opposite of our ideal?
A cynic may suggest that following Mercedes dominance in the 2015 opening F1 race in Australian, the smart move would be for the Brackley team to tone it down here in Sepang.
Both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg made efforts on Thursday to talk down the idea Mercedes would leave the rest for dust this weekend.
In the driver press conference it was suggested by MC James Allen that the evidence of Melbourne was that “Mercedes had doubled their advantage in terms of relative fastest lap times… over your nearest rivals compared to the start of 2014”.
Rosberg refuted the idea, saying, “I don’t think it’s right to say that. Of course qualifying pace was very strong, yes, but more important is the race pace, especially from Kimi we saw an extremely strong stint…. I think Ferrari especially have definitely closed the gap and are closer than our nearest rival was last year.
Well now we have the results of FP2 to examine, where the teams perform race simulations over longer runs. What did we learn?
The first matter of note was only three drivers did stints into double digits, which is not usual. Verstappen and Vettel clocked up 14 laps on the same set of tyres, whilst Sergio Perez managed 12.
During the race in Melbourne, Kimi Raikkonen’s pace raised a few eyebrows, before Ferrari delivered a Mark Webber-esque pit stop to Sebastian’s team mate. Today was more of the same as the iceman looked to be the most impressive of Mercedes challengers.
He clocked the second quickest time in both practice sessions, his best just under 0.4s slower than the leading Mercedes. So the Mercedes sandbagging conspiracy theory will have to be tested tomorrow in the heat of qualifying.
Hamilton’s longest stint was 6 laps and Rosberg’s was 8, so after adjusting for the fact Kimi’s longest stint was 9 laps, the Finn was on average quicker than both Mercedes.
James Allison of Ferrari refused to get carried away over talk of a race win, but he conceded, “Our tyre deg is quite good and we do look as if our pace is reasonably good.
“Everyone uses the Fridays differently, so you never know what the others are doing”.
This is true and the red team have earned the nickname “Friday Ferrari” for good reason in recent years.
That said, given the evidence from Melbourne and today, Ferrari have now established a comfortable lead over Williams, both in 1 lap speed and race pace.
Felipe Massa was the best of the Grove pairing today, as Valtteri Bottas stated his back had not been completely trouble free during his time in the car. The spectre of Williams’ new reserve driver Adrian Sutil taking the wheel of the FW37 during FP3 as a precautionary measure would not be a huge surprise.
Massa on average was over a second slower than the Mercedes pair during his race simulation, whilst Bottas was more than 2 seconds further back of his team mate.
Daniel Ricciardo had technical difficulties in FP2, though his young Russian teammate managed to post a ‘best of the rest’ time just behind Kimi on his quick lap. Kvyat’s race pace was difficult to calculate, as his longest run was just 4 laps.
Romain Grosjean had no long run to speak of though Pastor Maldonado’s race simulation had him comfortably ahead of the Force India drivers.
The data from the Toro Rosso team was also inconclusive but possibly ranks them in race pace around that of Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus.
Felipe Nasr did a fast lap – slow lap sequence for his longest run, yielding no data worthy of consideration. Marcus Ericsson’s race simulation suggests the Swiss team may struggle to outperform Red Bull again this weekend during the race.
The debate over McLaren and Manor making the 107% in qualifying tomorrow was also inconclusive. Will Stevens was a second inside the mark required today, but Merhi would have missed the cut by 0.45 seconds.
Jenson Button cut the gap in race pace to just 3 seconds to Mercedes whilst Fernando Alonso was consistently between 0.5-1.0 seconds slower than his team mate.
Alonso explained the reason for being off the pace. “The conditions are obviously extreme and very hot, so physically it is very demanding and I am not 100 percent physically and fit after two weeks on the sofa and then two weeks not in the car”.
Both McLaren’s are comfortably ahead of the Manor F1 cars.
The performance of the McLaren gave Jenson hope for optimism. “I may have been wrong yesterday when I said that we might not be racing other cars on Sunday. It would be a massive step forward for us if tomorrow we’re able to get in among some of the runners currently ahead of us in the pecking order.”
There is currently an 85% probability of thunderstorms during the qualifying hour in Sepang tomorrow.
Paul Hemebry believes the evidence from today is that the time differential between the harder and softer compounds is around 1 second per lap – and that the levels of degradation seen today will lead to a 3 stop race.
The favoured race tyre is likely to be the harder compound.