The cautionary proverb about the perils of reading anything into testing is always relevant but especially so given the rain, freezing temperatures and heavy snow of Formula 1‘s latest winter adventure. For a batch of 2018 challengers that will spend the year in the comparably tropical and temperate surrounds of the world’s racetracks, four days spent in the grips of a vicious Siberian cold snap were tantamount to useless.
However not useless enough to perturb ravenous F1 journalists from dissecting the sketchy amount of running. Whilst Wednesday’s heavy snow resulted in a farcical wasted day, in a number of crucial respects, the truncated test continued to produce a number of intriguing headlines and a number of surprises. These are the six main headlines from F1’s visit to Barcelona’s winter wonderland…
The Mercedes is as fast as you’d think
All of the muted top teams enjoyed their moment in the sun during the four days, with Aston Martin Red Bull Racing‘s Daniel Ricciardo fastest on the first day, Scuderia Ferrari‘s Sebastian Vettel quickest on the second and the McLaren F1 Team‘s Stoffel Vandoorne atop the timing pages for much of Thursday’s running. But it was the reigning champions who landed the hardest blow. Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport and Lewis Hamilton shot to the head of the times in the closing salvos of Thursday afternoon – some of the only constructive mileage in the entire test – with a lap that ominously came at the end of a longer run on the medium tyre (versus the hypersofts on Vandoorne’s McLaren).
This not only indicated just how durable the allegedly softer Pirelli‘s remained but also vindicated Mercedes’ status as preseason favourites. However, the Ferrari especially had looked to have latent balance and composure on-track, and given that Autosport‘s Gary Anderson had predicted qualifying sim efforts in the 1m16s range, it would be premature for Mercedes to get too excited about Hamilton’s 1m19.333s.
The ever-dependable Honda…?
With an inexperienced driver line-up and burdened with F1’s unofficial ‘punchline power unit’, most were expecting Barcelona to be a confirmation of a tricky season ahead for the Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda team. Even the most optimistic team spokesperson was surely expecting the test to come with Honda’s traditional veneer of frustration. And yet, quite astonishingly, Pierre Gasly recorded the highest mileage of any driver, and Toro Rosso recorded the highest mileage of any team!
Yes, James Key‘s suggestion that the performance figures “weren’t bad” isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement, but the team’s outlook certainly doesn’t look as bleak as predicted. Indeed, compared with the relentless cycle of Renault failures at the end of 2017 – resulting in Franz Tost‘s frankly inevitable outburst at the Brazilian Grand Prix – 2018 looks to be starting on a much stronger footing for the Faenza-based team.
Sauber’s elusive renaissance
In contrast to Toro Rosso’s better than expected performance, the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team was perhaps the main disappointment in Barcelona. The newly unveiled C37 had attracted many admiring remarks, noting an aggressive departure from Hinwil’s previous offering, more advanced aerodynamic concepts and an innovative cooling system in and around the sidepods. The most complex looking chassis Sauber had produced for five years, a brand new Ferrari power unit, an associated financial deal with Alfa Romeo and a hotly-tipped young rookie looked the ingredients of a likely return to the midfield.
However, despite recording more than 280 laps (putting Sauber fourth in the mileage stakes), the Sauber duo ended the test propping up the order in the timings, with both drivers having suffered multiple spins. However, whilst the car looked rather ungainly at times on-track (the Haas appeared similarly afflicted), the weather disruption and the team’s markedly slow lap times perhaps indicates that Sauber is yet to do any real performance runs.
The end of the Martini mystery
The Williams Martini Racing driver saga has long felt like a story with missing plot-lines. However, in announcing the end of its deal with the Grove-based outfit, Martini inadvertently made Sergey Sirotkin‘s selection much more understandable. Whilst it remains unclear whether Martini’s exit was a contributing cause or effect of the Russian’s deal, Pascal Wehrlein‘s failure to make any appreciable impact on the seat is now easier to comprehend. Initially blocked on age grounds by Martini and without the backing to act as an insurance policy with Martini eyeing up the exits – in that respect, Wehrlein has now been a victim of financial poverty across not one, not two, but three teams.
Sirotkin’s SMP Racing backing may primarily be a strengthening beam for a team facing a precarious financial future, but that does not detract from Sergey’s generally impressive debut week as an F1 driver. On-track, he lapped quickly in the wet on Thursday morning, closely mirroring the pacesetting McLaren of Vandoorne. Off-track, he has impressed the team with his technical knowledge, and in the media, he has been quite exceptionally candid, even going so far as saying, “If I do a s*** job I’ll be the first to say.”
Shortage of wet weather testing?
The track on Wednesday morning may well have resembled the Swedish Rally more than preseason testing, but by midday, the snow had melted enough for race direction to deem the track safe for wet tyre running. And yet, but for the occasional installation lap, the teams preferred to stay in the warmth of their garages and waste what could have been some constructive wet weather running. Given the multiple red flags and fears over the safety of the full-wet tyre raised by the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix, surely such water-logged conditions could have been very useful for tyre development.
Yes, at this early stage in the season parts are scarce, and the teams are under no explicit obligation to help Pirelli alleviate its wet tyre concerns. Equally, the conditions could have been an opportunity to steal a march on the field in the likely case that F1 races in the wet at some point this season. For the smaller teams especially, a car that can be the class of the field in the rain is surely an invaluable opportunity. On a circuit with so much run-off, it is truly vexing why so many teams have such an aversion to lapping in the wet. They certainly can’t complain about a shortage of wet weather testing.
Testing in Europe is silly…
There is a reason why the first race of the European season isn’t scheduled until mid-May, and it is the same reason why testing in Europe in February is plain silly. Yes, the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ has rendered this year’s testing conditions especially farcical, but even at the best of times, the track temperature has been far, far colder than anything the cars would experience during the season. The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya might be an especially good layout for testing – with an eclectic mix of fast, medium and slow speed corners – but it is not much use in such wintry conditions.
That is precisely why F1 went to Bahrain when faced with the imposing task of bedding-in a recalcitrant batch of brand new hybrid powertrains in 2014. Yes, holding preseason testing on the Middle-Eastern circuit comes with additional logistical costs, but surely it is no more than the money F1 has wasted this cowering in the garages. The cost of a trip to Bahrain is, realistically, the cost of a representative programme of preseason testing. Just as F1 dropped testing at Jerez because of the abnormally abrasive surface, surely it is now time to abandon testing in Europe altogether.