We are now two days into testing of the new F1 cars at Barcelona and although no-one is yet making predictions for the season that lies ahead, the teams have an initial sense of where they stand on baseline performance.
That said, with a major rule change such as this one there will be large steps made on development throughout the year and the performance levels will fluctuate as a result. We will see some significant new aero developments on cars at next week’s test, for example, worth half a second to a second a lap in some cases. So the picture is fluid.
But it is possible to see a rough outline of where teams stand now and draw some interesting notes and pointers from what has happened so far.
So with the help of our JA on F1 technical team here is our take on the undercurrents from testing.
Although everyone says you can’t learn much from testing, that’s not entirely true. It is true that F1 has become very hard for even knowledgeable F1 enthusiasts to follow, as the problem is that these days there are so many variables, different tyre compounds can be evaluated (although here there are compounds and ‘back ups’ which have a slightly different construction and performance) but there are more tricky things like whether a driver used DRS on the straight or not. Another is whether the ERS is running ‘sustainable mode’ or not, which is worth 6/10ths of a second either way.
And above the biggest variable early on is what level of fuel he uses; typically teams like to run around with 70-80kg in the tank, but some run lower around 30-40kg. You only find that out when they do a ‘step change’ from high fuel to lower fuel. Then you start to get a picture of underlying pace, albeit still with caveats about engine modes.
On Day 1 Ferrari and Williams were the only ones to do a ‘step change’ during the day’s running ie run two different fuel levels during the day. This gives us an indication of their higher fuel (70-80kg) and lower fuel (30-40kg) pace. This shows their hand a bit; we can draw some conclusions from that.
In contrast, Mercedes kept a steady fuel load, likely to have been in the 70-80kg range from past experience. So they were not giving anything away. Assuming they were running a similar programme to last year fuel wise (because why wouldn’t they?) it looked like the Mercedes is a good bit faster than the Ferrari.
On Tuesday we got some more information from the second day’s running. Hamilton again looked fast, but Valtteri Bottas seemed to be struggling more for pace. He also had a minor off. When Bottas is in the car, it’s on the same pace as Ferrari. When Hamilton is in the Silver Arrow, it’s faster.
How can some cars do 700km on Day 1 and others break down?
It’s been a shocking start for McLaren, with problems on the new Honda engine from the outset on Day 1 and only 40 laps for Vandoorne today. An oil tank design issue is one possible cause doing the rounds.
In contrast Mercedes did 700km on Day 1 and over 1,000 today, while Ferrari covered 500km today.
The top teams can do this, partly thanks to a reliable engine, but also thanks to their dynamic test rigs, which are multi million dollar pieces of equipment that ‘test’ the car back in the factory before it gets anywhere near a race track.
These machines have been around for a couple of years and they are the reason that we see such high mileages in Barcelona. Red Bull has one too, but Adrian Newey’s complex designs and last minute aero updates mean that the team don’t get the car onto their dynamic rig until the last minute. It’s always impressive to see the midfield teams without a rig doing over 100 laps as Haas did today or over 80 as Force India managed.
The high-risk Ferrari aero design works, but is the car fast enough?
When the new Ferrari was rolled out last Friday the Italian sports paper Gazzetta dello Sport put it on the front page with a headline “Ferrari risks everything”. After years of not being very innovative, Ferrari’s new aero team under David Sanchez has gone properly left field with the treatment of the leading edge of the floor, sidepods and turning vanes, with some very complex shapes. The good news is that the various parts of the Ferrari aerodynamic journey seem to work, in other words it is not a turkey.
But that’s not to say that it is fast enough to compete with Mercedes, which has a very highly curated car and clearly a step on the engine too.
Today we saw Raikkonen go fastest on the first flying lap of a five lap run on soft tyres in 1m 20.960s. We could also see from the long runs that Raikkonen was comfortably in the 1m 24s and the car seems quite gentle on the tyres on race runs. There was a ‘cliff’ on the Pirelli tyres today, but it was less pronounced for Raikkonen than for Bottas on his race distance, for example.
Qualifying pace has been a real weakness for Ferrari and it will be very interesting to see where they are when they do their first qualifying simulation run in Barcelona.
Red Bull had comparable long run times with Verstappen so they look reasonably close. But all teams will have some major aerodynamic updates for next week’s test and Melbourne which could be worth up to a second, so it’s still way too early to say how the front three rows of the grid will look in Australia.
Incidentally a Technical Directive went out from the FIA to teams about the clever suspension systems that adjust the cars’ ride heights between corners and straights, which Ferrari has been questioning, as they aren’t up to speed on it. The TD featured some guidelines on how the systems will be evaluated during the season. Despite the clarification it seems that there is nothing at this stage for Mercedes and Red Bull to worry about unduly from this development.
However with the switch to the wider front and rear tyres there were signs during the mule car testing and again on day 1 in Barcelona that this would appear to have changed. Unlike the old size tyre, this wider format is a tyre dimension to which Pirelli can build a tyre that doesn’t suffer from temperature spikes and thus is very stable and robust.
On Day 2, however, when the drivers began to push a bit more, we saw some degradation and there was even a noticeable ‘cliff’ of performance, after which they needed to be changed as the margin to a new tyre was growing. This is quite encouraging and hopefully Pirelli has the balance right between a tyre to stop the drivers complaining about “not being able to push”, but with a small degree of degradation to keep intrigue in the strategy side of the races. What we must avoid is races becoming mostly one-stoppers, as in the Bridgestone days. The mechanics would be happy as these new rear wheels are 5kg heavier and that makes pit stops back breaking work.
In general we’d hazard a guess there will be one stop fewer at each venue than last year. On tracks where there is no degradation, cars will finish in car performance order as there are few things that midfield teams can do to get the likes of a Perez or a Grosjean ahead of the bigger teams, without using tyre choice and smart driving.
The signs are that the Renault engine is a good step stronger than last year’s motor. And Red Bull has demonstrated that through the speed trap on both days so far. It’s been a very long time since we saw Red Bull among the top three through the speed trap, but they have clearly more power and also a very efficient car aerodynamically. So it’s got plenty of downforce in the corners but without costly drag on the straights.
In contrast, the Toro Rosso looks a decent car, but it’s clearly draggy on the straights.
It’s very early days, but Mercedes is clearly still the team to beat. Ferrari looks good, especially on long runs and Red Bull has not shown its hand yet on lap times, but the corner speeds and straight line speeds indicate that it’s a competitive car.
Behind them we have what appears a reasonably tight midfield with Williams, Haas, Toro Rosso and Force India probably in that order, very close on pace.
Then comes Renault, with Sauber on its own at the back.
McLaren is a question mark because the tiny amount of running it has done has been with everything turned down for reliability reasons, so corner speeds, straight speeds are all down. Its too early to say that this is 2015 all over again for them, but there will be some anxiety in that team’s garage this week.
What do you think? What has caught your eye? Leave your comment in the section below