Today sees the start of the second and final test in Barcelona before the start of the new season of F1.
And after a first week in which a picture began to emerge of which teams are looking competitive and which are not, this test should provide some clearer indications as the teams bring more advanced aerodynamics and other developments to their cars and push them harder for performance.
While it was clear enough that Mercedes remains the team to beat and that Ferrari has done a remarkable job to find speed in its car from last year to this with the regulation change, the great unknown in terms of potential race winners and title contenders is Red Bull.
That team will be under the closest scrutiny this week in Barcelona, as technical observers scrutinise the new bodywork for signs that Adrian Newey and his team have come up with something special to launch them into the title hunt.
Because last week they didn’t look that exciting. There were some real positives, like the clear sign that the Renault engine has made some progress, with straight line speeds improved in relative terms. But the lap times did not catch the eye and Ferrari looked the main challenger, with a car that it clearly fast and gentle on its tyres.
So this has led to speculation that Red Bull was simply clocking up mileage last week to prove the reliabiity and holding back its true aerodynamic package until this week, when it will find another second a lap.
Of course they will not be the only team with significant updates this week. The rate of development at this stage under a new set of regulations is very high and will continue to be so for most of the season, especially if we have a title fight between two or more teams, as everyone hopes. With the resources available to the top teams and the sophistication of the simulation tools the teams have these days, this season could see the highest rate of development.
It’s unlikely we will see a completely clear picture of outright qualifying pace this week and we know that Mercedes always has an extreme engine mode available for the decisive qualifying laps, something Ferrari has not been able to come up with in the hybrid turbo era. We will only see the true picture emerge in qualifying in Melbourne, China and Bahrain.
However, as a snapshot of where things ended up last week in the testing, looking at the comparable long run pace of the cars, this plot (click to enlarge) gives an idea. The lap time in seconds is on the vertical axis and the lap number on the horizontal. Basically, the lower down on the plot the lap times are, the faster the car. The difference between running at 80kg and 105kg is over a second, (which would lower the grouping down by a block.)
Hamilton’s pace advantage over Bottas is clear as is the consistency of the Ferrari runs.
There were not many race simulations last week. The decision to run Day 4 as a wet test caught a few teams out in that sense, not leaving sufficient time from initial runs on Day 1 and the unfolding programmes, to get around to a race simulation by Day 3. Both Mercedes drivers did one, with signs that they were working the tyres harder than Ferrari. Ericsson did a race simulation in the Sauber. Haas almost completed one.
Ferrari tended to do what looked like lots of medium-high fuel running in the afternoon but only one or two runs at really high fuel right at the end of each day – when they wouldn’t have had time to complete a race length anyway – so there is a question mark about whether they were running at the maximum fuel load 105kg or more like a baseline 80kg. (The same is also true of Red Bull)
If it was the full 105kg, then Ferrari are right there with Mercedes. We will find out for sure this week when they complete a genuine race distance run. But even if it was the lower figure, Ferrari is clearly looking pretty good.
Another key watch point this week will be the performance of Valtteri Bottas to his new team mate Lewis Hamilton. Last week in the longer runs Hamilton was clearly faster, while Bottas picked up his short run pace through the week so he will be looking to have a really strong couple of days in the car to boost his confidence ahead of the transfer to Melbourne.
Ferrari was second fastest and then there was a slightly bigger gap last week to Red Bull. These are the three teams that carried out all the Pirelli development test work last season on the 2017 tyres, so they also have that advantage over the others, even if the data from the tests was shared with all teams.
In midfield it looked quite close between Haas, Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso, with Renault in the mix as well. Williams had a difficult week with Lance Stroll’s accidents costing track time, while Toro Rosso also didn’t get much representative running and most of that was on the medium tyre, which is a lot slower than the soft.
Renault improved steadily as the week went on and will look to consolidate that this week.
Then at the back is McLaren and Sauber. All eyes will be on the McLaren garage and Fernando Alonso for signs of his intentions given the dire state of affairs with the Honda engine. Not only is it not at the level that had been predicted, it doesn’t appear yet to be at the level of the end of last season, while the other manufacturers have gained around 25-35hp over the winter.
Meanwhile after making a positive impression as a substitute last week Antonio Giovinazzi now drops back to the bench at Sauber as Pascal Wehrlein gets his first test for his new team. He missed last week as a legacy of an accident in the Race of Champions.
As for the look of these new cars, F1’s new MD of motorsports Ross Brawn gave the clearest hint yet, in an interview on F1.com, that he will be making moves to ban the ugly shark fins. He said they are “the unintended conseqences of new regulations. So over time we need to iron out the unintended consequences and get the things looking more pure.
What are you most curious to find out about at this week’s F1 test? Leave your comment below