After the conclusion of 8 days of testing at the sunny Circuit de Catalunya, motorsport fans will be delighted with some insight into the pecking order of the grid. The teams have been busy this winter, wrapping their heads around the greater scope for aerodynamic manipulation and engine suppliers looking to boost their power with the engine development freeze being lifted.
Starting off with the current world champions, many people expected to see Mercedes hit the ground running at this years test sessions and they didn’t disappoint. Right from the get go, Mercedes ratcheted up the mileage. Though they did not eclipse their very impressive 1294 laps from last year at the same circuit, perhaps this years tally of 1096 laps should be viewed as an even greater achievement, considering this is a period for discovering the teething problems that come with a regulation change.
With that said, although the engine development freeze has been lifted, perhaps Mercedes decided to be conservative with the engine development, opting to maintain a high level of reliability and knowledge of the power unit rather than risk the unforeseeable consequences of trying for a big step up in performance? This seems like a distinct possibility, considering reliability seems to be their greatest asset at the moment. If this speculation is accurate, this approach seems to have paid dividends against Renault and certainly Honda, but perhaps it has exposed the reigning world champions to the charging stallion of Ferrari.
Speaking of, there’s a lot to feel positive about over at Maranello. Looking at the lap times of every driver over the full 8 days, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen put their names right at the top. Moreover, Ferrari managed to complete the second most amount of laps of testing, proving that they made the step up in power without sacrificing too much reliability. The wise owls among you who have watched Ferrari flatter to deceive in seasons past may feel this is just lower fuel runs or a tyre differential. While no one but those directly involved can know the fuel loads, we can compare the lap times of the two teams set on the same tyre, which would have Ferrari leading from anywhere from .3s to .7s. Combined with Ferrari’s atypical media silence regarding their prospects for the season, this looks all the more like genuine pace rather than a bluff to panic Mercedes.
Despite this, I would not be shocked to see in three races time that Mercedes were in fact sandbagging and have an extra second in hand, or that Ferrari were just running really light fuel loads. The German manufacturers certainly have developed a habit of trying to hide their pace before they absolutely have to, often keeping the other teams guessing their real pace on a given weekend until qualifying. What is fair to surmise at this point is that Ferrari have made a jump forward against the field. How much remains to be seen.
Behind what looks to be the two front running teams comes Red Bull, who appear to have taken a small step backwards relative to the field. Renault seem to have done a decent job with the power unit, narrowing the gap to the dominant Mercedes engine. This didn’t come without a cost though, as reliability has proved to be somewhat of an issue for Renault customers and particularly Renault themselves who ended up on the back of the recovery vehicle more than they would have liked. As a result, Reb Bull have treated their engine gingerly, with team principle Christian Horner stating the engine is being run in “clio mode”. RBR are known for having an aggressive development path throughout the year so fans need not despair and can hope for second in the constructors, and perhaps an outside shot at the championship.
Looking at the medley that is the midfield, it’s shaping up that there’ll be around 1 second seperating Williams, Torro Rosso, Renault, Force India and Haas, which could become an interesting “race within the race” throughout the year. Williams look to be the strongest of the bunch, appearing to have taken a small step forward in performance. They’ll be eyeing up third place in the constructors, especially given the new formula seems to play right into strengths of a recently retired and, shortly thereafter, unretired Felipe Massa.
On the other end of the spectrum, McLaren Honda are a team in turmoil at the moment.
Entering the third year of the partnership with Honda, Mclaren are increasingly nervous about having sufficient power to compete for podiums this season. Thus far, we have only seen unreliability from the Honda power unit so we can’t determine that there is a definitive lack of power, but if the team can’t finish races, it won’t matter how fast they are. Considering an 11 lap stint was the longest Mclaren could complete, things are looking grim for Melbourne and the season to come. The situation has been made more difficult by Fernando Alonso publicly pointing the finger at Honda and intensifying the pressure on the partnership. Mclaren are even rumoured to have been in talks with Mercedes about potentially returning as an engine customer. Zak Brown will surely be disappointed that the change in livery has not coincided with an immediate uptick in performance.
One final point seemed to come to the fore during testing: tyres.
Pirelli have been vocal in stating that they have delivered what they were asked for, which was tyres that would not be permanently slower once the temperature threshold is exceeded. In other words, tyres that allowed drivers to push consistently throughout their stints, rather than having to control their pace to prevent excessive degradation. The offshoot of this are very durable tyres that can do long stints with little performance drop off. The perceived consequence of this will be fewer stops during races which could mean much less interesting racing.
If the fastest car qualifies on pole and shoots off into the distance while only needing one pitstop, we’re likely to witness a dull affair at the front where other teams have little opportunity to interact that car. Pirelli have said they do have backup compounds if they are called upon, which act similarly to last years compounds so hopefully this wont become a big issue throughout the year.
Testing is always a satisfying experience for fans, with the opportunity to see how your favourite team is shaping up and perhaps a look at how the narrative for the whole grid will begin to unfold. However, part of the beauty of testing is that few definitive conclusions can be drawn and so tuning in to the season opener and witnessing the on track performance is the only way to see your hopes come true… or to be dashed against the rocks!
Join us for our first podcast episode this week where we will review practice, preview the Australian grand prix and the season as a whole.