It doesn’t seem that long ago that Valtteri Bottas was taking the chequered flag at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. It was the culmination of an incredible season with more twists and turns in the title race than the Monaco race track. However, like a Formula One car, the series never sits idle for very long. It was not long before the teams were full steam ahead on designing and manufacturing the cars that will contest the 2018 season. And now, on an unseasonably cool week in late February at that Circuit De Catalunya in Barcelona, those new machines were being put through their paces in the first 4-day test. But what can we glean from this test? Who looks like a frontrunner and who is chasing the pack? Is Hamilton on course for a fifth title? Is Vettel going to wrestle that tile back into his and Ferrari’s hands?
As most F1 fans know, trusting test times as a barometer for potential Championship positions is futile. For a start, during testing, no one, apart from the specific teams, has any idea what amount of fuel every player has on board. On top of that, very few teams run on the same tyre. The outright fastest times of the week are a testament to this uncertainty.
Rather menacingly for fans and teams alike, Lewis Hamilton set the fastest lap of the week with a 1:19.333 on the medium tyre. Next best was Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with a 1:19.673, but that was set on the theoretically quicker soft tyre. Rounding out the top three was McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne with a 1:19.854, but that was on the theoretical quickest of all the tyres: the hyper-soft. Not exactly a controlled test of overall capabilities.
With Hamilton quickest by 0.3 seconds to Vettel on the slower tyre, it looks like another Mercedes walkover could be on the cards. But apart from the fuel levels and tyre types, the weather was the major factor on why this testing was all but a washout and all times have to be taken with a lorry-load of salt. Usually, temperatures in Barcelona in late February are around the mid-teens centigrade. This week, however, temperatures struggled to get out of single figures, and snow rather than sunshine was the order of the day. Getting a representative time on any tyre was difficult simply because F1 cars and tyres are designed to work in far higher temperatures than they were subjected to this past week. Only on Thursday afternoon did the more typical temps of 15C reach the track and that was when Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton jumped to the top of the leaderboard. One day’s representative running means nothing to anyone, least of all the teams.
Instead, generally speaking, the teams look to the first week of testing as an elongated shake-down session. They look to get as many laps in as possible to hone areas of the car to suit each driver. They look to iron out reliability wrinkles and check to see if their major changes that looked good on the computer screen work in real -life conditions. Speed is not really an important factor.
So rather than looking at the lap times, it is more useful to look at the laps completed. And incredibly, it was Torro Rosso, now powered by the perennially unreliable Honda engine, that completed the most laps. 324 laps was the final number, and that will give a real boost to Honda, who since they reentered F1 as an engine supplier has continuously been on the back foot at the start of the season thanks to unreliability in testing. It seems likely that if they had to, Mercedes and Ferrari could have completed more laps than the 306 and 298 they completed respectably, but that takes nothing away from a Honda engine that has been much maligned since its return.
Where Torro Rosso was reliable, big sister team Red Bull had a few issues. Thier opening day was fine, but throughout the rest of the week, small gremlins made themselves noticeable and curtailed valuable testing time. Still, Ricciardo did manage to set a top time of 1:20.179. The time is just under 0.9 seconds slower than Hamilton’s, but crucially it was set on the same medium tyre, leading some to suggest that while Red Bull aren’t quite up to speed with Mercedes, they could have Ferrari in their crosshairs.
The rest of the top ten times went: Haas (Magnussen) 1:20.317 (super-soft), Renault (Hulkenberg) 1:20.547 (medium), Williams (Stroll) 1:21.142 (soft), Toro Rosso (Gasly) 1:21.318 (soft), Force India (Ocon) 1:21.841 (soft) & Sauber (Leclerc) 1:22.808 (soft).
Looking at those times, Renault seems to be the team that could break out of the pack with Hulkenberg’s best time less than half a second behind Red Bull on the same tyre. They also managed to complete more laps than the Red Bull giving them valuable working data.
If I was going to read anything out of this first test it would be that Mercedes is the team to beat, but they are the de facto team to beat after last season anyway. Red Bull and Ferrari seem closer to each other than they do Mercedes. Renault, should their engine be up to snuff, could cause Red Bull a headache. McLaren, who had some reliability problems, don’t look as good as they or I thought they would be with the same engine as Red Bull and Renault. Honda’s reliability is a source for optimism but let’s see if it can last in competitive circumstances. And the big losers seem to be the team that finished in fourth place in the Championship last season: Force India. They only completed 166 laps and had the second slowest time of all. An inauspicious start indeed.
One major thing to take away from the first test above all that I have just said is that it is just the first test. Things can and will change, and we will only know the true ability of each car on Saturday 24th March, when the first qualifying session of the new season begins.