The first official pre-season test in Barcelona concluded on Thursday, providing a glimpse of what to expect when the season proper begins in March. Although many teams shied away from showing their true pace, one gets an indication of how reliable (or unreliable) their cars are at this stage of the year.
We review the performance of each team, with tables at the bottom aimed to provide valuable information to the readers.
Mercedes appeared in the best possible shape in Barcelona, with a car that was virtually bulletproof. The Brackley-based squad completed 675 laps over the course of four days, or about 10 race distances. This sort of mileage would have set alarm bells ringing in other teams’ garages.
The team focused largely on long runs, never trying a tyre softer than the medium compound. Expect Mercedes to unleash their true pace next week, when the team will be compelled to try the ultrasoft tyre in order to submit their tyre choices for the Canadian Grand Prix.
"Of course I love to go really fast with low fuel, I am looking forward to that. Pounding round with mediums and a lot of fuel is eventually not going to be so exciting at the end of it! So I do look forward to taking away some fuel,’’ said Nico Rosberg, indicating majority or all of Mercedes’ runs so far were on full tanks.
Mercedes also drew attention for some radical designs on its car, including a new barge board and a new nose cone that features the now-familiar S-duct. The latter collects air from underneath the car and channels above it for aerodynamic effect.
Ferrari has set a highly ambitious target of knocking Mercedes off its perch this season. While the first pre-season test suggests it is some way behind Mercedes, it is clear that the team has made a major step forward on both the chassis and power unit front.
Speaking of mileage, Ferrari lodged 350 laps during the four-day test, about half of Mercedes and only ahead of Renault, Force India, Haas, McLaren and Manor- all of whom have had to face a tough winter due to varied reasons, with the exception of Force India. Vettel stopped at the end of day 1, while, more significantly, Raikkonen managed only four laps during the morning session of day three with fuel system issues.
Although the team topped the timesheets on three of the four days, with Vettel’s ultrasoft marker being the quickest combined time, the team acknowledges that it has a lot of work to do.
Kimi Raikkonen insisted that the SF16-H has a lot of potential that can be tapped, a news which will be welcomed by team’s chiefs and its huge fan base.
Toro Rosso seemed to be the surprise package of the first pre-season test at Barcelona.
The Faenza-based team has been working flat out over the winter to fit a 2015-spec Ferrari power unit on the back of the STR-11, following a late change of engine supplier.
As a result, not many were expecting Toro Rosso to rack up 490 laps over the course of the four days. The fact that the team is introducing a major upgrade to the next test is a sign of positive things to come.
Toro Rosso proved in 2015 that it has the right people to prepare a quick chassis. Maybe that’s why Red Bull is wary of its juniour team.
The 2016 Force India is an evolution of the B-spec VJM08 that scored consistently over the second half of the previous season. Force India has a strong base to work upon, and additional revenue from finishing in fifth place in constructors championship last year would allow the team to develop the car continuously over the course of the year. Although, you would expect some funds to be, rightly, diverted to the 2017 car when the sport introduces a major regulation change.
Coming back to the test, it appeared that Force India was chasing headline times, with Nico Hulkenberg going quickest on day three. His teammate, Sergio Perez, however, denied such rumours, saying Hulkenberg’s supersoft tyre laptime - set on a three lap run - was only three tenths shy of Vettel’s ultrasoft benchmark. Pirelli insists the gap between the two compounds is between 0.5 and 0.8 seconds.
Although it would be better to reserve the judgement until the second test is complete, it is fair to say that Force India will be knocking the doors of Williams and Red Bull this season.
Perhaps, the only downside of Force India’s four-day outing was lack of mileage, particularly for its race drivers. The Silverstone-based team let its juniour driver Alfonso Celis Jr do half the testing miles, presumably in return of a significant fee, limiting Hulkenberg and Perez to a single day each.
Much like Mercedes, Williams kept a lid on its pace, instead opting to complete aero work and race simulations.
Although Williams encountered technical gremlins during the last two days, including a system issue which restricted Massa to just 54 laps on the final day, overall, the car was reliable enough for 383 laps.
Williams, which will face a stern challenge to hold on to third place in the championship for a third consecutive year, is expected to trial its 2016-spec nose soon. Performance runs are also expected during the test second, which will give an indication of its relative performance.
One would hope that Williams would have sorted its operational issues and strategic errors that compromised its 2015 campaign.
One can derive few conclusions from Sauber’s first test outing with its 2015 car. What one can definitely say is that the team will start the year on the backfoot, as it would be limited to just four days of running with its 2016 car.
Having a 2016 Ferrari engine on the back will surely be its biggest strength, but it is likely that the team will receive upgraded spec units much later than the works team - and possibly Haas.
Considering how brand-new teams have performed in the past, Haas’ F1 debut was promising and largely a success. Although the team didn’t rack up as much mileage as it would have probably liked, it remained free from any major issues.
The only anomaly occurred on the opening day when the front wing on Romain Grosjean’s car collapsed, inflicting the team to ship a stronger one the next day.
It is difficult to determines where Haas stands in the pecking order and whether the team will indeed be able to score points this year. But what we know is that Haas is a capable outfit that has the potential to become a solid midfielder in coming years.
Renault made an inauspicious start to pre-season testing, with technical gremlins limiting it to just 79 laps during the opening two days.
However, the team quickly recovered during the second half of the test, with Kevin Magnussen lodging 153 laps on the final day, taking Renault’s total close to 350 laps.
Renault has a long term plan to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with it and the team has already written off 2016 as a transitional year.
Delays in negotiation between Genii Capital, former owner of the Enstone team, and Renault compromised the development of the 2016 car. Moreover, the RS16 was originally designed to run a Mercedes engine, leaving engineers with a severe headache to accommodate a Renault power unit in the same chassis.
One must also not forget that Renault needs to add more people in the team to grow itself into a full-size manufacturer operation. In the meantime, results on track will be anything but impressive.
Although we don’t how how much fuel they had on their car, Red Bull is infamous for concealing its true pace in testing. However, Daniel Ricciardo finished quite some way behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel on the ultrasoft tyre, suggesting the team has a lot of work to do before Melbourne.
Red Bull’s factory in Milton Keynes houses some of the best F1 engineers and the team is capable of building a strong chassis. However, the onus will again be on Renault to supply a powerful and reliable unit to their sole customer team.
An encouraging start to the season was overshadowed by severe reliability problems during the last two days, with Fernando Alonso managing a paltry four laps during the final day due to a cooling leak.
And although the test was marred by reliability issues, the team completed a successful filming day on Friday.
The news that Honda has replaced its much criticised F1 chief Yasuhisa Arai with Yusuke Hasegawa, someone with prior F1 experience, is welcomed by McLaren bosses who had grown frustrated Arai him last year.
While the worst is behind McLaren-Honda, the partnership needs to make enough progress this season to achieve its 2017 target of fighting for race wins and championship.
McLaren will be hoping that a new power unit, set to be introduced next week, will allow the team to make a significant step forward.
And finally, Manor seems to be in a far better shape than it was an year ago.
The chassis is completely new, and is powered by the pacesetting Mercedes engine. The technical partnership with Williams will also help team’s cause.
In Pascal Wehrlein, Manor has a capable driver that will be able to capitalise on any opportunity to score points. On the other side of the garage, Rio Haryanto needs to cut down on his mistakes and pick up the pace.
by Rachit Thukral