Shortly before the end of pre-season testing for the 2017 Formula 1 season, JA on F1 decided to go trackside at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and take in the sights and sounds of the new cars.
Under bright sunny skies, from pitlane practice starts out on to the track’s rapid first sector, taking in explosive braking at Turn 10 and then up to the tight and technical final corners, here’s what we discovered during last week’s running.
Up close and personal
First impressions of the new cars are that they are stunning pieces of engineering – aggressive and artistic at the same time. Renault’s RS17 might have been hard to love from the launch and studio images, but in the flesh it’s a beauty – second only to the Toro Rosso STR12 in terms of livery.
The Mercedes and Ferrari demonstrate the sheer complexity of the new cars with intricate aerodynamic innovations evident from nose to tail on both the WO8 and the SF70H. Lewis Hamilton also provides an interesting snapshot into how the drivers are finding the wider cars as he clips a cone turning into his pitbox after an early Thursday morning run with one of his larger-for-2017 Pirelli tyres, which raises questions on whether we will see more contact and controversy over the course of the year.
As we work our way down the pitlane, many drivers pull over at the end to go through practice start procedures. Standing next to them just behind the wall – something that would not have possible without ear defenders pre-2014 – it was evident that the larger tyres could make for some exciting, wheelspin-heavy getaways this year. The McLaren, with all its difficulties with the Honda power unit (more on that later) is noticeably quieter than its rivals as Stoffel Vandoorne pulls away and heads out onto the track.
Not so different on-track
After reaching Turns 7 and 8 – a short walk uphill from the pitlane exit – we get our first view of what the new cars look like at full speed, going through a challenging section of the track. The Haas F1 and Williams’ cars of Kevin Magnussen and Lance Stroll are completing long runs and are clearly fat with fuel. The VF17 and FW40 appear sluggish and heavy as their drivers hit the gas and it’s hard to see them fighting the cars – overall, it’s a little underwhelming.
Moving onto the exit of Turn 5 – which overlooks Turns 1 and 2 – and some subtle differences become apparent. Stroll appears to be ever so slightly hesitant with the power out of the left-hander and is working hard at the wheel, which is not surprising as he ended Williams’ first test with a crash at this exact spot a week earlier. By contrast, Magnussen confidently plants his car exiting the corner, but both drivers produce very consistent lines.
The Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull later join the action and it’s clear when they are pushing for a hot lap and practicing for their qualifying simulations at the end of the morning as the cars appear more poised and aggressive.
Speed becomes apparent
Barcelona’s Turn 9, Campsa, is high-speed right turn the works the aerodynamics of the cars to the maximum. Here, now on super-softs, Vettel’s Ferrari is planted and stable, not a trace of a lift.
Ricciardo is similarly smooth on the medium tyres, although the harder rubber means he has to lift off a touch. Stroll is lifting too, as the Williams driver is still churning through his long run.
It’s midday by now and the sun is beating down – the perfect time for a qualifying simulation. But that’s not high on the list of priorities for McLaren, as, from a distance, we hear Vandoorne’s engine splutter and die on the run to Turn 1 and the red flags fly.
As the McLaren is recovered, we move on to the braking point for Turn 10. With just a few minutes left before the lunch break, it’s finally time for some qualifying efforts.
Vettel appears on the ultra-softs and the speed of the SF17H is immediately apparent. The four times world champion is pushing (he sets the fastest time of the day despite lifting off at the final turn), with audible and impressive tyre squash as he takes the left hander.
At this point, Ricciardo, still on the mediums, catches Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber and chases it for a few laps. Here we get to see what these cars will look like in something resembling a race situation, and it is impressive. If two cars lapping casually in testing looks more racy than last year, a full field of 20 cars charging down to Turn 1 in Melbourne is going to be quite a sight to behold.
McLaren misery continues
Vandoorne’s issue did not keep him in the pitlane for long and he quickly re-joins the action, lapping just in front of Hamilton’s ultra-soft-shod Mercedes.
But in the final moments of the morning session the MCL32 suffers what is later confirmed as an electrical problem and Vandoorne grinds to a halt in the giant run-off area behind Turn 10, and right in front of us.
As the red flags come out again – Hamilton is lucky to complete his qualifying lap in time although the stopping McLaren did briefly hold him up – Vandoorne climbs from his cockpit and jumps dejectedly from the front wheel. There’s an air of inevitability and frustration as car and driver wait for a lift back to the pitlane.
A long afternoon
After the flurry of action late in the morning – and some scrummaging practice at a packed Vettel media session – the afternoon running starts sedately, with few cars returning to the track in a hurry.
But when they do, it’s to concentrate on long runs, so we return to the pitlane to soak up the atmosphere.
A massive Ferrari banner is draped over the two tiers of the main Barcelona grandstand opposite the Scuderia’s garages, but Hamilton and Magnussen (and a solitary Australian flag for Ricciardo) have noticeable banner support too. After handing over the WO8 to his teammate Valtteri Bottas for the afternoon, Hamilton makes a brief appearance on the pitwall to check out the cars and wave to the fans.
As they work their way through race sims, many teams complete practice pitstops, and the larger tyres make hard work for the crews – the stops may well be a few tenths slower this season.
Out on the circuit, the notorious shark fins don’t look too bad – except for those on the Force India and Red Bull, which look atrocious. They’re harder to love at lower speed, but the Renault design has an attractive angle, which makes it look much more aquatic and aggressive than the others.
Towards the end of the afternoon, Bottas trundles through the pitlane and we’re struck again by the sheer complexity of the WO8. It’s a very good-looking car, although the presence of the double-decked T-wing sitting ahead of the rear wing somewhat spoils its flowing lines.
The next time the cars hit the track will be for practice in Melbourne – just 11 tantalising days away. Our analysis from Vettel’s race simulation from that afternoon has revealed that Ferrari appears to be right in the hunt with Mercedes, which hopefully means we’re in for an exciting 2017 season right from the off.
What do you make of our observations from trackside in winter testing? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JA on F1 Facebook page for more discussion.