Could Formula 1 be poised for a close three-way fight between Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull in 2018?
In truth, the first pre-season test offered little definitive indication either way.
Testing is, as F1 itself is prone to remind, a notoriously unreliable barometer of the true pecking order before any new season.
And this week’s test in Barcelona was particularly untrustworthy.
In addition to all the usual caveats about unknown engine settings, fuel loads and performance goals, the winter chill which descended on the Circuit de Catalunya, effectively reducing the event to a three-day test after Wednesday was all-but written-off, made any close reading of the results especially hazardous.
Simply put, track conditions — «like an ice-skating ring,» in the words of one driver — were too cold and too unrepresentative of what awaits beyond March 23 for any meaningful performance comparisons to be drawn.
But the test also wasn’t short of clues.
There was an ominous feel to the lap, the fastest of the week and unarguably the event’s most significant single act, which world champion Lewis Hamilton bolted in at the end of Day Four. And set on medium tyres, the Mercedes was two tenths up on the best Ferrari could produce even after running on the softs.
Day Four: Hamilton surges to fastest time
In normal circumstances, the next line would state that tyre corrected Hamilton’s 1:19.333 was the best of the week by upwards of a second. But Barcelona Test One was a test like no other in recent memory with track temperatures so low that the medium tyre was very probably the fastest available.
The fastest laps of winter testing
|Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||Day Four||Mediums||1:19.333|
|Sebastian Vettel||Ferrari||Day Two||Softs||1:19.673|
|Stoffel Vandoorne||McLaren||Day Four||Hypersofts||1:19.854|
|Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes||Day Two||Mediums||1:19.976|
|Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull||Day One||Mediums||1:20.179|
By the end of next week’s test, for which warm weather is forecast, the benchmark figure could be the low 1:17s.
Now we just have to wait and see who gets there first.
If Mercedes are the favourites, how far behind are Red Bull and Ferrari?
One useful yardstick at this time of year is to focus on the lap count rather than lap times.
And it was here that genuine cause for predicting a close campaign could be found with Mercedes completing 306 and Ferrari 298. Both cars were reliable, both looked good on track.
Still, few could argue with the contention of both Red Bull boss Christian Horner and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel that Mercedes are «the favourites» heading into the new F1 year. «The car has been reliable, reasonably swift and the handling has been ok,» said Merc technical chief James Allison.
F1 testing: The fastest laps so far
But if Mercedes are still ahead, the question is how far behind Ferrari and Red Bull might be.
While Test One offered little scope for meaningful analysis, the body language of both teams at Barcelona was interesting to note: assured and confident at Ferrari, almost belligerent at Red Bull as the team aim, in Horner’s words, to be the new season’s «disrupters».
More importantly, there’s no impression this year — as there was twelve months ago — that the team are currently on the backfoot, although Max Verstappen’s trip into the gravel on Day Four was far from ideal.
Where do McLaren fit into the picture?
Heading into week two of testing, McLaren’s position in the pecking order remains harder than most to glean.
Behind the big three but in a fight with Renault to be the best of the rest? At this stage, that’s as good a guess as any other.
Two relatively minor snags — a loose wheelnut which sent Fernando Alonso spiralling spectacularly into the gravel on the opening morning and a broken exhaust clip worth £2 which kept Stoffel Vandoorne in the garage all afternoon on Tuesday — left the team a long way short of their 100-laps-a-day target before over 150 were achieved on Day Four.
The car’s pace was equally difficult to fathom after McLaren opted to set their quickest times on the softest tyre available — the supersofts for Alonso on Day One and the hypersofts for Vandoorne on Tuesday and Thursday.
But in the grand scheme of McLaren’s attempt to clamber back to the front of F1, all that really mattered this week was the seemingly-successful acclimatisation of their new Renault engine to the MCL33. «So far so good,» said Alonso. «The car and engine was running fine. There is huge potential in the McLaren-Renault team.»
The car, and its pace, at this point is secondary with McLaren admitting prior to Barcelona the MCL33 will be refitted with a full upgrade package when it arrives in Melbourne.
Honda ready to spring a surprise?
The surprise of the test, meanwhile, was the Toro Rosso-Honda which ran reliably throughout and set the most amount of laps of any car. On occasion, it was quick too.
Where, McLaren might well ask, was this level of performance in the previous three years?
The most laps completed per team after Day Four
|Team||Number of laps|
«It’s gone really well. Performance-wise, we have some GPS tracers which we can overlay from our competitors and it looks ok,» Brendon Hartley told Sky Sports.
Alongside the apparent struggle of Sergey Sirotkin at Williams, the near-anonymity of Force India, and the seemingly-impressive debut of Charles Leclerc when measured against Sauber team-mate Marcus Ericsson, it was just another point of interest in a test which offered plenty of questions but few clear-cut answers.
Test Two should expect an interrogation.
How to follow Test Two on Sky F1
|Tuesday March 6||Sky F1 digital live blog, SSN updates||9pm: Paddock Uncut||9:15pm: Ted’s Notebook|
|Wednesday March 7||Sky F1 digital live blog, SSN updates||9pm: Paddock Uncut||9:15pm: Ted’s Notebook|
|Thursday March 8||Sky F1 digital live blog, SSN updates||9pm: Paddock Uncut||9:15pm: Ted’s Notebook|
|Friday March 9||Sky F1 digital live blog, SSN updates||9pm: Paddock Uncut||9:15pm: Ted’s Notebook|
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