Preseason testing in Formula 1 is really not that different from the preseason in any sport: there’s plenty of information to be gleaned in bits, but attempting to draw sweeping conclusions is usually a futile exercise. This past weekend’s testing session in Barcelona was more revealing than most, though. Here are a few things that stood out to me after four eventful days:
Ferrari has improved considerably
Note how I didn’t say something stupid like “Ferrari is back.” The likelihood that Maranello has totally bridged the wide gap Mercedes established last year is small, at best, but it is clear that they worked hard in the offseason. Kimi Raikkonen was second-fastest on each of the first two days. His new team mate wasn’t quite as quick on days three and four, but Vettel racked up 181 laps in those two sessions, indicating that they are working as hard on reliability as on pace.
Ferrari has adamantly refused to revise its stated goal of two race wins for the season, but it is clear that things are going well. Of course, we will never know fuel levels and what tweaks were made to airflow and suspension geometry during each lap. We don’t see the telemetry data between the different aero packages and tire compounds. What we do see is a quietly confident team, driven to improve and fronted by two supremely talented drivers laying down consistent, quick laps. That has to be a little bit worrying to the rest of the field.
Lotus has regained some of the ground lost last season
Romain Grosjean posted the fastest lap of the weekend on day four, using the soft compound tires (and likely a very light fuel load) to great effect, which obviously caught everyone’s attention. Lotus, though, also had a surprisingly positive weekend overall. Pastor Maldonado was at the top of the time sheet in days one and three as well, and the team covered some measurable mileage with no major failures.
Strong showings in quick laps and excellent reliability all weekend have to be seen as great signs (and a huge relief) to a team that struggled mightily with both last year. Though no one said so directly, it was clear that Lotus benefited a great deal from the switch to Mercedes power. Without reading too much in to it, based on the two testing sessions in the books, I look for Lotus to be back up to competing for the top half of the field this year.
Lewis Hamilton is human… or is he?
Proving that even the best conditioned driver in the world is still vulnerable to the same diseases as the rest of us mortals, Hamilton withdrew due to illness after only a few laps on day one. He then returned to lay down 89 laps on day two in a solid middle-of-the-pack showing, then pacing to third-fastest on day three. He may not actually be a machine, but he proves his grit every time he gets in the car.
McLaren is likely going to struggle out of the gate
Remember when LeBron James “took his talents to South Beach” in 2010? All the hype about what a great combo he, Chris Bosch, and Dwyane Wade would make? If so, then you also probably remember that for the first half of that season they struggled with consistency while trying to make all the individual cogs work together. It took some time to establish a team chemistry. A similar challenge seems to lay ahead for the freshly remarried McLaren/Honda tandem. Despite their rich and successful history, in practice this is a brand new relationship, and it shows each time the new car takes to the circuit.
Jenson Button had the MP4-30 as high as second-fastest in the early part of day one, but things quickly went south when a seal on the hybrid powerplant failed, forcing his retirement. Honda announced that a redesign of the failed part would not be available until day three, meaning Alonso would likely face a similar problem on day 2. Though he completed 59 laps, things were clearly not gel-ing yet. Day three saw continued powertrain struggles.
The weekend only got worse for Alonso, though. On day four, after only 20 laps, he suffered a crash between turns 3 and 4, ending his day and landing him in the hospital with a concussion. That has to be a frustrating start to his renewed relationship with McLaren.
A lot of pieces, both human and material, have to come together for this team to get back where they want to be. Time and patience may be the only way that happens, but the former is running short.
Other items of note
- Red Bull and Toro Rosso both showed flashes of quickness, but seemed focused on reliability, a major issue for the Renault-powered teams in 2014. Both squads logged a high number of laps, indicating progress has been made on that front.
- Williams also showed promise. Filipe Massa was within .1 of the top spot on day two and the team was able to get a good deal of testing data from all its drivers, including newcomer Susie Wolff.
- Test driver Pascal Wehrlein proved how strange F1 can be when, after Hamilton retired, Mercedes called him back from testing with Force India to fill the seat. He finished the day in a completely different car than the one in which he started.
Barcelona will host the final test session in several days’ time, from February 26 to March 1. What do you think we will see?