A cold February in Barcelona and a fifth espresso by 10am can mean only one thing… pre-season testing. The winter war.
This time last year we were in Bahrain as the F1 teams struggled to make five minutes without a red flag as the all-new for 2014 power units went through their first baby steps on track. Fast forward to 2015 and it was like a different sport had arrived in Spain. The number of session cessations per day last week amassed those more likely to be seen in an hour in 2014. Indeed, but for McLaren and Honda, running into triple digit lap counts seemed not to be too arduous an ask for anyone.
The headlines, of course, were made by the now Mercedes-powered Lotus team, which took over from Ferrari in Jerez as the squad which most regularly topped the timesheets, and by the still confusing final day incident involving Fernando Alonso which may yet see him miss the final test this week.
That final test will be key in the teams’ preparations for Australia with many bringing major upgrades and all hoping to begin honing qualifying and race set-ups. Of course it will only be on Saturday afternoon in Melbourne that our questions are answered, but thus far, here’s what I made of the week in Spain.
Mercedes AMG Petronas
Even with one driver nursing a cricked neck and the other bogged down with a high fever, the pace of the car was breathtaking. It was the sheer effortlessness that driving it seemed to require, coupled with how bolted to the track it appeared, that was impressive. When one then factors in the laptimes it was running under such apparent ease, one can only draw the conclusion that Mercedes has not simply maintained its advantage but increased it.
On day two, Lewis Hamilton began a race sim at the same time as Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian was on the medium tyres, with Hamilton on the hard. The world champion’s laptimes were consistently a second a lap faster, although both pitted at around the 20 lap mark to change rubber, suggesting that the Mercedes would be more than a match for the Red Bull if pacing a run to ensure their tyres go longer.
On the final day Nico Rosberg’s best lap was around a quarter of a second shy of the best time of the day set by Romain Grosjean. Where everyone has reason for concern, however, is that Grosjean’s lap was set on the supersofts and Rosberg’s on the medium. With an estimated delta of anywhere up to two seconds between the medium and the supersoft, it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out that Mercedes holds a clear advantage.
One wonders how great that advantage could be, if and when they finally crank it up.
Infiniti Red Bull Racing
When one considers that this time last year Red Bull and Renault were struggling to get three laps out of the RB10, their 2015 pre-season schedule has given them far fewer headaches. That’s not to say it’s been plain sailing, far from it, but the issues which so blighted their 2014 preparations have been nowhere near as evident.
With race sims already in the bag, Chrsitain Horner’s trainers were seen tapping his stool rest not once on the pitwall… a clear sign that all is well. Ricciardo seemed confident but not overly so, due more in part to the pace of Ferrari and Lotus than over any undue negativity as to the job done by his own outfit.
When one considers the woeful position Red Bull was in this time last year, and the season they ended up pulling out of the bag, it would be foolish indeed to overlook the importance of a promising pre-season programme on the team’s chances in 2015.
Martini Williams Racing
Day three in Barcelona was spent doing, as Alex deLarge in A Clockwork Orange might well have described it, a bit of the old In-Out, In-Out. Williams dedicated an entire day to pitstop practice with both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas taking half a day to do nothing but perfect stopping on their marks. It was pitstops which often let Williams down in 2014 so it was good to see them taking the time to regiment the crew. But it was desperately impressive that they should give over one whole day of the middle test to it, and a reflection of how far the team has come.
Speaking to Bottas, I asked about his initial impression on driving the car for the first time in Jerez. Valterri gives away little, but his excitement was instantly evident. A wide smile cracked his face. “It’s good,” he beamed. About as close to punching the air and giving you a hug as you’ll get from the Finn. And it looks great on track too. Assured.
Williams wasn’t ready to win last season, with both the squad and the drivers admitting that they were, at times, overly cautious. Austria was a win for that went begging, but the mentality at the time wasn’t right. They weren’t going for the win.
All of that is different in 2015. Of all the teams on the grid other than the world champions, Williams is the one which at this stage perhaps feels the most confident. It has consistency from 2014 and a car which is a logical development from the season before. For the first time in a decade it is going into the season with a winning mentality, where success is not simply hoped for, but realistically expected.
It’s all change at Ferrari, and from the Marlboro smoking, scarf wearing charisma bomb that is Maurice ArriveWell to the four time German world champion at the wheel of his cars, there’s a renewed vibe of positivity at the Scuderia.
Jerez shocked the form book, but we all know times don’t mean a thing in the winter world championship. It’s the level of consistency, reliability and the positive noises coming out of every other team on the grid about the scarlet cars, however, that writes the true story. The SF15-T is poised and purposeful and looks phenomenal on track, particularly in the corners and on application of throttle. Even Raikkonen, who so struggled with last year’s charge, looks at home.
For Raikkonen 2014 was about a lack of confidence on the brakes. For Vettel, it was uncertainty on the throttle. The SF15-T appears to have both areas nicely tidied up. On the design side, Simone Resta will have the benefit of a legendary mentor in the shape of Rory Byrne, whom Arrivabene has convinced to return to the fold.
Could it be that this is finally the year that Ferrari turns things around? If you’re Fernando Alonso you’d be spitting…
Which brings us to McLaren.
The team may be trying to put a positive spin on things, but if we are being honest, Jenson Button’s suggestion that the team could potentially win a race in 2015 seems, on present form, to be fanciful at best.
The thing is, when the car is working it’s not all that bad. On soft tyres it can set the pace of those on track at the same time. But for one lap. Its inconsistency in reaching that target however is staggering. One lap on, one lap way off, then one back towards competitiveness, then in. The car never ran, at least on my count, into double digits on a single run in Barcelona.
There is a very long way to go until the team will be anywhere near able to run a race distance. Let alone at a competitive pace. But this should come as no surprise. Think about the problems everyone had this time last year… Honda are at that stage of their development and understanding. But while the likes of Mercedes and Renault had four teams with whom to discover issues and iron them out, Honda has just one. Its chances of getting on top of its problems is thus only 25% of that afforded to its big rivals one year ago. It was always going to take time.
Then there was Sunday’s incident with Fernando Alonso. Rumourmongers and conspiracy theorists are having a field day with talk of noxious fumes from batteries, an electric shock in the cockpit… yet all at a point on the track where we have seen other drivers lose it and end up in the inside wall. Just last year Maldonado did exactly the same thing. Only the team and Fernando know what happened, so for the moment all we can do is wish the Spaniard well and take the team on its word.
Losing Alonso for the last four days of the testing programme will hurt the team if it happens, but in Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne they have two more than capable deputies. Jenson Button, however, will be eager to drive every day. His feedback on engines and his ability to draw out drivability has always been one of his strongest assets. Never has it been needed more.
Sahara Force India
Two tests down and we are yet to see Force India’s 2015 car. It’s not easy to put a positive spin on that.
Things had all seemed so good just a few weeks ago at the team’s launch in Mexico. New sponsors, new confidence, a lovely new livery… it would just have been nice to see it on the new car.
But speak to either driver and you get genuine positivity. Even away from the track, away from the press officer’s dictaphone and the PR speak, the boys feel good and will tell you that this is the kind of hurdle that the team can overcome.
Force India pounded around Barcelona last week with their old car. And with due purpose. Tyres have changed once again in 2015, and Force India took the opportunity to make the most of using a car with which they had reams of data on the old tyres. By running direct comparisons between the data gathered last year and that gathered last week, Force India thus may well enter the season with perhaps the best understanding of Pirelli’s 2015 rubber. For a team which has so often taken an alternate race strategy to success, such an understanding could form the basis of even bolder strategic calls in 2015.
The team can ill afford a further delay on running its new car, and will have to hope that the confidence of its drivers in its ability to turn things around is not misplaced.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
The youngest driver line-up in the sport has started with absolute purpose and determination. The focus possessed by both Sainz and Verstappen is desperately impressive, as has been their fitness and ability to stick to the programme and get the job done. Only an off on Sunday blotted Sainz’s copybook, but other than that it was another positive week in Spain for the team.
Drawing focus onto just the Red Bull teams seems to have done Renault a power of good, and the Toro Rosso ran with little trouble. It’s another one of those cars that looks solid and has taken a great step forward from last year. How true its pace is will be the ultimate question.
But what of the biggest question, Max Verstappen? There are very rare occasions in this life when your brain consciously tells you to remember the moment you are in. I have that almost every time I speak to him. Watching him drive sends shivers up my spine and makes me grin like a child.
The fact is this guy is either going to be on his arse by the age of 20, or he’s going to change everything.
I firmly believe it will be the latter.
Lotus F1 Team
The shift from Renault to Mercedes power has paid immediate dividends for Lotus. Reliable, consistent and fast, almost every driver you speak to in the paddock will tell you that the Enstone team is going to be a challenger this year.
Seeing the team so far off the pace in 2014 was an undeniable disappointment after their 2013 campaign and the rate of development and exceptional promise shown by Romain Grosjean. Alternating success with failure seems to be the Frenchman’s tour de force in motorsport, however. F1 debut in 2009, kicked out in 2010. GP2 Champion in 2011, chastised in F1 as a danger in 2012. Lauded in 2013, nowhere in 2014. As such, 2015 has got his name written all over it.
Maldonado will have to iron out his wild sides which all too often can hold the team back when it should be pushing forward, but the basis seems good. With the world championship-winning power unit in the back of their cars, there can be little excuse, and they know it.
The E23 looks so much better than its predecessor on track, and that is reflected in the skip in the step of its drivers off track. While nobody is getting ahead of themselves, there’s a good vibe down at Lotus.
After the worst season in the team’s history, things can only get better for Sauber in 2015. And with a much improved Ferrari engine in the back of the car, testing has started off well.
Again, the car looks quite together with minimal fuss and, just as with the big sister team, affords confidence to the drivers through the corners. The times look good and both Nasr and Ericsson insist Sauber are not going on glory runs in a bid to land sponsors.
On paper the team has the most underwhelming driver line-up in the field. That both are confident points are possible is thus a positive for the team in a season when it needs to rebuild on all levels for the future.
Lay of the land
As I see it, this is where we are:
Williams marginally ahead of Red Bull / Ferrari
Toro Rosso / Sauber
Give it two weeks and I’ll be proved spectacularly wrong.