Motorsport Week reflects on the main talking points and conclusions from Formula 1’s second pre-season test, ahead of the upcoming Australian Grand Prix.
Mercedes is clearly favourite for Melbourne – and 2020…
Sorry everyone. We’re not going to be outlandish and make a wild prediction to raise expectations. Mercedes looks to have the fastest package. Valtteri Bottas remained the pacesetter and given that his best time was some way off test one’s blinder the W11 has pace in hand. In race simulations Mercedes also had the quickest car by a margin best described as comfortable, if not utterly dominant. “It just feels like a continuation of what I drove last year,” said Lewis Hamilton, which is a worrying throwaway line for his opponents. Mercedes has historically played it cool pre-season but there is a buoyancy and freshness to Hamilton; he is not a fan of testing but was so enthused that for the first time in his 12-year career conceded that he wanted to keep driving. “I think our performance has been good in the sense of the amount of laps we’ve got, the mileage, and the actual processes and the things we’ve discovered along the way,” he said. “I don’t know where everybody else is, I think I understand the car well so I’m comfortable and confident in terms of getting in the car for Melbourne and knowing that I’ll be able to attack and extract the most from it.” Speaking on Thursday, Bottas said: “Overall it has been good, we’ve achieved good mileage, even if we didn’t hit all the targets we were aiming for. So, good mileage, but there’s still some fine-tuning to do on the set up.” Mercedes has a very fast car.
…But reliability remains a concern
Lewis Hamilton has taken pole position in Albert Park for the last six years and given the W11’s pace it would not be a surprise if he makes it seven. But will he finish the race? All is not completely smooth within the Silver Arrows’ camp. Hamilton’s running on Thursday was curtailed by an oil pressure anomaly that caused a power unit shutdown, while customer team Williams had its programme disrupted by a spate of engine issues. Williams used three engines (compared to just one apiece for Honda-powered Red Bull and AlphaTauri), having suffered an MGU-H issue and an oil leak, while another glitch hampered George Russell’s race run. Mercedes revealed prior to testing that it had encountered hiccups as it pushed the boundaries of its engine performance and the interruptions in Barcelona were far from ideal. “We clearly still have some more work to do on the reliability to get us up to the standard that we expect by the start of the season,” confirmed Mercedes’ technical chief James Allison. Hamilton, who has not suffered a race-ending technical failure since mid-2018, corroborated such thoughts. “It’s a concern yeah for sure,” said the reigning World Champion. “Normally in this pre-season testing we’re much more confident in the reliability so it’s not been perfect for us. I think we’re on our second engine already. It’s definitely not an easy or relaxed scenario for us but I have every confidence in the guys back in the factory that they will analyse and do the best they can in the next two weeks to make sure we start off on the right foot.” Could Mercedes’ biggest enemy be itself?
Ferrari is not yet ready to win
Ferrari departed 2019 pre-season in-form and then flattered to deceive. Ferrari leaves 2020’s pre-season playing down its expectations but this does not appear to be a game of canny tactics. The SF1000 looks unremarkable, particularly through slow-speed corners and, while its drivers have pointed to progress in some areas, the team boss has firmly played down its chances. “We’re not playing games, this is our true performance at the moment,” said Mattia Binotto, who conceded Ferrari has work to do in each area, labelling its current pace as “lower than six out of 10.” Binotto went on to comment that “I don’t think we’ll be in a position to win in Australia.” It is a stark statement but on the flip side Ferrari took until September to reach the top step in 2019… Ferrari had rapid straight-line speed last year but that often came at the expense of overall downforce, compromising its race pace and ultimate results. It has yet to unearth the right compromise with its SF1000. “I think compared to last year in sector three the car feels better but we also know it comes with a trade,” said Sebastian Vettel. “We are slower and still have some work to do on the straights as we are a bit draggy but we are aware of that and as we’ve said the objective was to put more downforce on the car.” The question is whether that philosophy change has worked. “We are aware and pushing as hard as we can to try to get rid of the drag and make it more efficient but we also believe come race day it will give us an advantage the way it is set up now so we will see.”
FIA statement sends mystery and intrigue through paddock
There were 10 minutes remaining across the six days (and 48 hours) of track running when an email dropped from the FIA. No-one had been expecting it. The content, and wording, was rather remarkable. “The FIA announces that, after thorough technical investigations, it has concluded its analysis of the operation of the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 Power Unit and reached a settlement with the team,” read the statement. “The specifics of the agreement will remain between the parties. The FIA and Scuderia Ferrari have agreed to a number of technical commitments that will improve the monitoring of all Formula 1 Power Units for forthcoming championship seasons as well as assist the FIA in other regulatory duties in Formula 1 and in its research activities on carbon emissions and sustainable fuels.” The timing was especially convenient, given that Ferrari had finished its media activities for the week, while the thin-on-the-ground details only led to further speculation. Through the latter stages of 2019 there were regular accusations that Ferrari had found a clever way of circumventing the regulations by duping the fuel flow sensor, thus enhancing the performance of its power unit. Ferrari, it must be said, always strenuously and assertively denied it was cheating. The anger harboured by the usually calm Binotto post-Austin, following Max Verstappen’s direct accusation, was palpable. Ferrari was fined in Abu Dhabi for giving a misleading fuel reading pre-race but it asserted it was a mistake unrelated to those accusations. Friday evening’s surprise statement, and the insinuations reading between the lines, only raises more questions that won’t be answered until Melbourne – and that is if the relative parties don’t, as they likely will, shut up shop. A can of worms has been ripped open.
Red Bull feels it is in the mix
Red Bull had a slightly perplexing second week of testing. Verstappen finished just 0.073s down on Bottas’ best time, and did so on the C4 tyres, though also had a few more spins than might be expected. “I am not worried at all,” said Verstappen, regarding the spins, attributing them to conditions. Verstappen was coy on whether he felt Red Bull had a race-winning package; never usually the most expansive with his answers he commented that “We had a good preparation, that is very important from our side, and I hope it is enough to be competitive in Melbourne.” Team-mate Alexander Albon, entering his first full season with Red Bull, expanded slightly further. “The positive thing is that we know the direction that we are happy with,” he said. “Loads of things we are working on during the end of last year and coming through to this year, we seem to have got the car in the right direction. So it is a good base especially coming into the start of the year. Of course upgrades will be coming through, through the year especially during the early phase of it. So everything is quite positive.” Red Bull feels it has ironed out some of the RB15’s weaknesses with the RB16 while the second year of its Honda partnership undoubtedly gives the team a stronger footing. Whether that car can be a regular Mercedes-beater is another matter.
Racing Point tipped to front the midfield
Racing Point turned up in 2019 with a ‘vanilla’ car and began the year slowly on account of its mid-2018 takeover, but 12 months on the picture could not be more different. Its RP20, an imitation of last year’s title-winning Mercedes W10 (prompting the nickname Tracing Point), was rapid out of the box and team figures genuinely believe that they can lead the midfield this year, even if finishing fourth may depend on whether Lance Stroll can pull his socks up. Sergio Perez was beaming about the team’s RP20, reckoning he has never had such a competitive package with which to start the campaign, and was cautiously optimistic over prospects if it can sustain development between now and Abu Dhabi. “The car is working well,” said Perez, who will surely be sniffing a podium if half a chance arises. “There are good things, good signs… I think this will be the first time we can start a season strongly.” Even the usually subdued Stroll had a spring in his step, declaring it his best pre-season, and reckoning the RP20 is a competitive package. Rivals have taken note. “The Racing Points have been very quick, the whole two weeks,” said McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr. “They hit the track and they did a 1:17.3, and since then, they haven’t improved much. But [that time] on the first day impressed all of us, and they are going to be quick, very quick.”
McLaren confident but not buoyant
Can McLaren keep hold of fourth? That remains its ambition – for 2020 at least – and the team is remaining optimistic but cautious, particularly in the wake of Racing Point’s pace (as explained above), while Renault is also expected to be in the mix. Sainz Jr. confirmed that “we’ve added some good downforce to the car, and we are happier here than we were 12 months ago,” which is a positive observation, even if every team has found more speed, given regulatory stability. “The car feels much better, especially in sector one and two, we tend to look very good, we are very well balanced, the last sector [on Thursday] looked a bit better but still our weakness and something we need to keep working on.” There have been no complaints on the engine side either, another encouraging development, which is also a boost for the factory team. Lando Norris, entering his second season, concurred with Sainz Jr.’s observations. “We have strengths and weaknesses, but the weaknesses are quite obvious to us so we need to work on them before Australia, before we can be very confident in ourselves,” he said. “But there are other things we are confident in, made good progress in over the winter, so I’m reasonably happy with what I could achieve and from what we could achieve as a team.” But even if McLaren does not have the fourth-fastest package, its operational strength – and driver line-up – acts as a feather in its cap.
Alfa Romeo and Haas playing catch-up
It may not be a surprise, given stable regulations, that the teams which finished eighth and ninth in last year’s Constructors’ Championship are chasing those that classified fourth through seventh. Neither the Alfa Romeo C39 nor Haas’ VF-20 caught the eye through the two weeks of testing, even if tester Robert Kubica fronted Wednesday’s session. Antonio Giovinazzi conceded he was “not 100 per cent happy” though felt the car was easier to drive than its predecessor. Kubica was encouraged that all three drivers were supplying similar feedback and that Alfa Romeo was responsive to such requests. However, the race runs did not suggest that Alfa Romeo is about to make a leap. Kimi Raikkonen’s thoughts remain unknown given that he did not attend either of his scheduled media sessions. Haas has typically run well at Barcelona in pre-season testing but it has been very subdued this time around, while Kevin Magnussen’s race simulation on the final day was stymied by a clutch issue, leaving it down on data compared to the ideal scenario. Given that Haas’ 2019 problems were concentrated on in-season development, and use of the tyres in race trim, it would be remiss to make any definitive conclusion on whether it has made the necessary step. After all, it led the midfield in Australia last year…
Williams remains slowest, but won’t be embarrassing
Williams’ 2019 pre-season was embarrassing at best and a complete disaster at worst, and it set the tone for a year in which it underperformed horrifically. One year on and the team is in a brighter position as its FW43 is undoubtedly a step forward, is far more compliant, and has given the squad optimism that the changes it enacted during a brutal self-assessment have yielded the desired dividends. Williams fans can be sure of a better campaign but expectations should remain low. The team has been keen to stress on numerous occasions that it is only in the first step of its recovery and that it still has a long road ahead before it finds itself back to where it feels it belongs. “I doubt we’re in a better position,” said sophomore George Russell, whose lap in the 1:16s put Williams on the radar. “I think realistically we are still the slowest car, and we’re not going to get carried away with ourselves, but we’ve definitely reduced the gap. That’s sort of all we could have hoped for over the winter, and we’ll go to Melbourne and see. Don’t expect to see us in Q2, Q3 sort of thing. We’ve definitely improved, but expectations are all under control.” Rookie team-mate Nicholas Latifi has so far acquitted himself well, getting up to speed and forging relationships with engineers, and should pose more of a threat compared to Robert Kubica.
Coronavirus leaves F1 paddock with uncertain schedule
The impact of the Covid-19 outbreak has had an effect throughout the world and Formula 1 – which has a history of pressing on regardless – is not immune. As governments and authorities impose stricter checks, or restrictions altogether, the travel companies have had a frantic time re-arranging flights and schedules in order to mitigate the effect on the Formula 1 paddock. It feels inevitable that at some stage, given the global manner of Formula 1 and its personnel, that someone will pick up Covid-19. Teams, especially those based in Italy – where the European epicentre has been concentrated – have taken additional precaution. AlphaTauri has stopped some who operate in the ‘red zone’ from visiting its Faenza factory, and advised some VIPs against travelling to Barcelona testing, and Ferrari closed some of its facilities, but the fluid nature of the situation means planning for all eventualities is an impossibility. The FIA is continuing to monitor the situation while teams will act on the advice of both the governing body and its respective government. How, where, when, and what happens across the coming weeks is unknown. Bahrain has still blocked all flights to and from Dubai, a major connecting hub for airlines, and which the majority of the Formula 1 paddock will transit through en route to the second round. As it stands the first team personnel, along with the air freight, will make its way to Melbourne from Wednesday, arriving Thursday.