Before the opening race of the European season, everyone was getting their hopes up that we could see another epic fight between Ferrari and Mercedes, as the Catalan track is very similar in its nature to the Sepang circuit. It is hard on the tyres and strains the rear tyres more than the fronts.
Too bad that the primes are even harder than daddy’s morning wood. Pirelli’s orange-marked Tritanium tyres mean that the load profile is taken away from the rears and shifted more towards the left front, which plays right into the cards of AMG Mercedes and nixes Ferrari advantage, an observation confirmed by Adrian Sutil, who after Auto Motor & Sport‘s technology expert Michael Schmidt in FP1 and Mercedes test driver Pascal Wehrlein in FP2 was already the third co-commentator that Sky Germany have gone through this weekend.
Going by the Friday practices, this unexpected shift is compounded by the fact that Ferrari seem slow in understanding their big upgrade. Especially Kimi Räikkönen had been very critical of his cars handling, labeling yesterday’s second free practice ‘completely pointless’. There is no doubt that Mercedes’ updates are spot-on though and interestingly enough, the updated Merc seems to fit Rosberg like a glove. The German looks so far quite collected and not the least rattled by the unfortunate Bahrain GP or Hamilton’s sometimes showy coolness.
The early part of the session was dominated by a long series of locked up fronts and many a hard tyre was ‘Flintstoned’ in the opening twenty minutes. Some, like Rosberg had also problems getting their rear breaks up to working temperatures. At least that particular problem should not recur due to the warmer temperature in quali and race.
Red Bull’s Danny Ricciardo was running an out-of-sequence program due to the missed running from yesterday and was out on the options already halfway into the session, but it became obvious that the Austrian team is in for a very long weekend when he barely managed to beat the times that Rosberg and Hamilton had set on the wooden tyres.
Speaking of Lewis Hamilton. The champion could be seen in the early parts of the session lolling about in a way you wouldn’t allow your kids in the living room, but when it came to on-track performance, he looked a trifle lacking in concentration. Shortly after half-time he filed his front tyres into rectangles at the same spot where Fernando Alonso had his mysterious shunt during winter testing. This time there was no mystery. Lewis had hit the astroturf and his W06 swapped ends. But the save was quite epic, if somewhat deadly for his tyres.
As the last 10 minutes started everyone went out on mediums and it looked as if Ferrari have learned a thing or twelve overnight. Vettel set an early mark that was quickly beaten by Rosberg, but by less than 0.2 seconds. That’s pretty much the closest a Ferrari has come this year in terms of one-lap pace.
Lewis was never looking likely to beat Rosberg’s lap, even though he was eight thousands of a second back after sector two, but he blew it when he missed a breaking spot and lost two tenths in the last sector, slotting in third behind Vettel. Kimi was a shocking 0.8 second slower than Vettel, but the mystery was solved when Kimi was informed by a somewhat contrite sounding engineer that his batteries had not been loading fully due to an erroneous ERS setting. The Iceman’s reply, dripping with sarcasm, was classic Kimi: “Excellent, Excellent.”
Ferrari seem to have made progress in understanding their own upgrade, but it’s not yet time to break out the champagne. The higher temperatures in the afternoon shift the advantage more towards Mercedes and it has been known for some time that they have an extra engine mode for the one-lap sprint. Ferrari have only a theoretical chance and should be more concerned with defending the second row against Williams, well, at least the one driven by Bottas.
In recent years I would have said Lewis will be unsettled by his mistakes in FP3, but he’s been so at ease this year, it will probably just provide an extra motivation. Rosberg will have to bring his A game if he wants to score his first pole of this season.