The winter testing is over and now the teams have just over a week to prepare for the new F1 season which kicks off in Melbourne.
It’s been clear throughout the three tests in Jerez and Bahrain with the radical new hybrid turbo power units that we are seeing a different competition in F1 from recent years with Mercedes looking strong and Red Bull struggling, but what is the pecking order going into the first race and what trends are there to consider?
As ever, with the help and input of JA on F1 Technical adviser Mark Gillan, formerly chief operations engineer of Williams and Toyota, we have detailed analysis backed up with graphs based on lap times from the final test, to share with F1 fans, eager to know who’s hot and who’s not.
A clear picture at the front
Mercedes are clearly out front as the new season starts, there is no doubt about that. It’s hard to say by exactly how much, but in both low fuel and high fuel running (race preparation) they have the edge in pace and the reliability is generally good, although they have suffered problems. Gearbox issues restricted running this week in Bahrain, for example.
Behind them it’s close between Williams and Ferrari with Williams probably having the edge. Considering how bad Williams was last season, they have reason to be the happiest of any team after the tests, as Frank Williams’ smile in our top image shows. It’s close with Ferrari, but Williams look as though they shade it, although Ferrari didn’t really do low fuel headline laps. The high fuel running is comparable between the two teams. That said there will be new development parts coming for Melbourne, so it may swing back to Ferrari, but that is the top three at the moment.
Behind them, with a gap, it’s the two other Mercedes powered teams, McLaren and Force India. It’s hard to tell in which order; McLaren was certainly more competitive in the early testing, but hasn’t showed as much recently, while Force India did only high fuel running at the end of the week with Hulkenberg after Perez had topped the time sheets on the first two days.
Behind them it’s very hard to draw any conclusions, beyond the obvious point that Renault engined teams are struggling to do mileage and appear to be running the engine below full power in order to get some mileage done to learn about the chassis.
The Mercedes engined cars
Consider the graph above of Mercedes powered cars on Day 3. Mercedes runs and groupings show consistency and pace and the tyre degradation is pretty low. “Mercedes engineers looking at this graph will be pleased with where they are so far,” says Gillan. “Day 4 wasn’t so great as they had some problems, but Day 3 with Rosberg was very consistent. They are the team to beat in Melbourne.”
This is no surprise, the picture has been this way for some time during testing.
Williams is perhaps the surprise package. The car looks quick in both low fuel and high fuel specification. They didn’t do much high fuel running in the last two days of the test, but Massa set the fastest time of the test with a lap which caught the eye.
This little grouping of laps with Alonso in red and Bottas in blue, shows a comparable trend in high fuel running between the Williams and the Ferrari. They look quite evenly matched for race pace.
The team has not however been showboating this week; the lap times have come and the car has been very reliable, but it has been doing a lot of detailed correlation work, as the image below shows, measuring the vortices coming off the inside shoulder of the front tyres and off the front suspension to compare to wind tunnel data. This indicates that they have done a lot of meaningful work and haven’t just been headline grabbing with an eye on sponsors.
Renault teams unlikely to score points in Australia
“There is nothing there, even in the short runs to get excited about,” says Gillan of the Renault engined teams graph (above). “It looks like they have wound the engine back to be able to get some laps on the board. It is dangerous for us to read much into the speed trap times, but the teams have sound analysis equipment at the track so they will know exactly how many revs the Renault engined teams were using. It looks to me as though the engines were turned down, though.”
Toro Rosso was doing some laps with not disastrous lap times but it’s hard to draw conclusions without a consistent showing from Red Bull as a reference.
Lotus and Red Bull have done very limited mileage and seem to have a number of problems to deal with. Lotus engineers don’t sound too hopeful of finishing in Australia.
“With the first four races all long hauls and the equipment on a plane, it is very hard to get to the bottom of the problems over these first weeks of the season,” says Gillan. “If I was in their situation I would be very concerned. You would want to have done a race distance or, failing that, at least blocks of long runs.”
Red Bull managed a 17 lap run towards the end of Day 4.
In contrast Mercedes and Williams have hit the target of 5,000km of testing, which is what engineers aim for from three four-day single car tests.
Pirelli tyres look more durable
One thing we can say with reasonable certainty is that tyres will not be the main talking point this year. The Pirellis used in the test appear to be more durable and there is no sign from our graphs of the severe tyre degradation we saw at this stage last year. This is Pirelli’s fourth year in F1 and they have learned a lot. The situation appears to have normalised and although the difference between compounds will add strategic interest to the races and the drivers will still need to take care not to ruin them with wheelspin from these high torque engines, they shouldn’t be the focus of attention.
The talking point will be reliability at the outset of the season.