After Australia the common consensus was that Mercedes were the team to beat, and while some still believe that, Ferrari were obviously the quickest team in Bahrain. Mercedes were smarter strategy wise, but they were still no match for Ferrari's raw pace. Ferrari locked out the front row in qualifying by a small margin and Bottas was unable to close the gap to Vettel until the German's tyres began to fade.
Part of the reason for Ferrari's dominance was Mercedes' tyre issues. Similarly to last year the Mercedes' rear tyres were overheating throughout the weekend. This resulted in a significant loss of grip and both of their drivers were struggling to find the limit. In recent years the Ferrari has been known to be better on its tyres. This was evident in qualifying, and even more so in the race when Vettel was able to make the soft tyres last 39 laps, 10 laps longer than Pirelli's estimates.
Coming out of Australia, Vettel was still unhappy with the setup of the car, particularly the front end. Ferrari made aerodynamic changes to the front wing and throughout the practice sessions they were able to sort their setup. The confidence this gave Vettel was clear in qualifying, as he was matching Raikkonen's times and eventually took pole. Improvements to the Ferrari PU over the winter have brought the Scuderia close, if not equal to the Mercedes PU. In Bahrain, Ferrari were able to match Mercedes' party mode in Q3 on a fairly power sensitive track. This could mean Ferrari are closer at other power sensitive tracks over the course of the season.
Ferrari are expected to bring more major updates to their floor and bargeboards in the coming races which could put even more pressure on Mercedes to find some pace. Mercedes continue to insist they don't have another 'Diva' car like last year, as they are desperately searching for their first win of the season in China.
The track in Shanghai is totally different than Bahrain and Australia, as straight line speed is the highest priority. The cooler climate will also help keep Mercedes' tyres from overheating. Last year Vettel could have challenged for the win, however an ill-timed safety car forced him to fight through the field and settle for second.
Last year Ferrari lost the championship due to reliability issues and their inability to challenge Mercedes at power sensitive tracks such as Spa and Monza. With a longer wheelbase, more powerful engine, and (so far) a reliable package, Ferrari look like serious contenders. On paper China, Baku, and Barcelona should favor the Mercedes, but with how close it is at the top it could just be a coin toss. Strategy could end up playing a major role in China, as it is currently unclear whether a one or two stop strategy will work best.
by Josh Holland