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As the F1 Season Begins, Ferrari Stands Out

Category: Other Sports,Sports

It was no surprise that, after eight days of preseason testing that began last month, Mercedes and Ferrari became embroiled in their traditional mind games as the first race of the season in Melbourne, Australia, approached.

Mercedes completed the most laps at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain: 1,190 compared with the 997 of Ferrari and 961 of Renault.

Lewis Hamilton, who last year won his fifth world title and fourth with Mercedes, was only three-thousandths of a second slower than the fastest lap set by the four-time champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari.

While testing is difficult to read because teams run different engine modes and fuel levels, and do not make the data public, the consensus was that Ferrari had the fastest car based on its race pace measured over a number of laps and will be the team to beat this season.

Vettel has won the Australian Grand Prix, which will be held on Sunday, the last two years.

Hamilton is concerned with the pace of Ferrari. “I think the gap is potentially half a second, something like that,” he said.

“Last year, they arrived with a car working well, but they have done even better this year. It’s O.K. We don’t mind the challenge; it just means we have to work harder. I’m not worried or disappointed or anything.”

Ferrari’s title challenge in 2018 faded because of numerous mistakes by the team and Vettel during the second half of the season.

Maurizio Arrivabene was removed as team principal in early January, and Mattia Binotto was promoted from his role as technical director.

When told of Hamilton’s comment, Binotto said: “I’m happy to know that Hamilton believes we are faster, but I believe Mercedes will be very strong in Australia.

“It would be completely wrong to think we are faster than them. In testing, we may run a different fuel level, a different program, so I’m not expecting them to be behind us. I think they will be very, very close.”

Despite the change at the top, Binotto said little had been altered behind the scenes, but he is aware of what he recognizes as his big responsibility.

“I’m lucky to have such a great role, which is to put everybody in the best position to deliver well, so I’m taking care that each person is in the right situation,” he said.

“Delivering well means being in the right atmosphere, providing clarity with calls. That’s the best way to approach any exercise. I’m pretty sure if we are working properly then we will achieve our best.”

Ferrari has not won a drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen delivered in 2007. It is without a constructors’ championship since 2008.

Vettel said that the opening day of testing was “unbelievable” and that Ferrari had built a car that was “very close to perfection on the first day of driving.”

A crash by Vettel on the third day, caused by an issue with a wheel rim that had been “damaged a few seconds before the car was hit by an impact with a foreign object,” according to the team, was the only black mark.

If Hamilton and Mercedes are to retain their drivers’ and constructors’ titles, Hamilton will have to draw on the mental edge that Toto Wolff, the team motorsport boss, said separates him from his peers.

In an interview, Wolff described Hamilton as “very talented, hardworking, capable, creative, a self-critical human being.”

“That brutal honesty of himself is one of his strengths,” Wolff said. “It is one of the key differentiators, that the best guy out there first assesses and criticizes himself and then internally criticizes the team, all in an environment of brutal honesty and transparency.

“It’s not about blaming a person. It’s about blaming a problem we have and tackling it. And 99 percent of the people I see out there, whether it’s on the team radio during a race or on social media, will always cover themselves first. They say, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong,’ or ‘It wasn’t my mistake.’

“This is the difference, mentally and emotionally, between all the rest and him. It’s his mental strength.”

Vettel has a new teammate, Charles Leclerc, who has been a rising star and got his first Formula One seat last season, finishing 13th in the drivers’ standings. He replaced Raikkonen, who has taken over the seat vacated by Leclerc at Alfa Romeo, which had been known as Sauber.

Binotto has said that Vettel is the lead driver. “The two will be free to fight,” Binotto said. “We will not ask Charles to be slow, or Sebastian to be faster. Both need to run to their maximum, try to do their best.

“But Sebastian is the one with more experience, he has been with us many years, has already won championships, so he is our champion.”

Only eight drivers retained their seats from last season, and there are four rookies in 2019: Lando Norris of McLaren, George Russell of Williams, Alexander Albon of Toro Rosso and Antonio Giovinazzi of Alfa Romeo, the first Italian in a full-time seat since 2011, when Vitantonio Liuzzi raced for HRT and Jarno Trulli for Lotus.

A crucial change is a new engine supplier for Red Bull. After 12 years with Renault in a partnership that yielded four drivers’ and constructors’ titles but ultimately ended with Red Bull’s criticizing Renault about its lack of performance and unreliability, the team will be powered by Honda.

Honda has improved considerably since the company entered the V6 hybrid era a year after the system was introduced in 2014.

If Red Bull is to challenge Mercedes and Ferrari this year, Honda will need to provide a reliable engine that can match the power of its more established rivals, which it had been unable to do in recent seasons.

Christian Horner, Red Bull team principal, has confidence in Honda. “What we have now is a far more collaborative relationship,” he said in an interview.

“With Renault, it was very firmly supplier/customer. Elements of the engine installation were nonnegotiable, whereas with Honda it’s very much a two-way scenario of creating the optimum package to get the most out of the engine.

“There is huge optimism throughout the factory. It’s invigorated the whole organization from top to bottom, and hopefully, we will see that reflected in performance as well.”

The cars have redesigned front and rear wings, and the team hopes that will result in more overtaking and better results.

Behind the leading three teams, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, data from testing suggested that the midfield, which includes Renault, Haas and McLaren, appears to have taken steps to improve.

This season will likely be another fight between Mercedes and Ferrari, Hamilton and Vettel, but teams like Red Bull and its driver Max Verstappen, who won two races last year, could surprise.

“Lewis and Sebastian are two greats of our time: Seb, a four-time world champion, Lewis, a five-time world champion,” Wolff said.

“It’s a rivalry that has determined the last nine years. They are two very different personalities that I enjoy seeing compete out there, and I expect it to be another tough one between the two.”

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