Formula 1 slashed its pre-season testing programme to just a sole three-day gathering at the Bahrain International Circuit, which will host the first event of 2021 next weekend. MotorsportWeek.com was there, on-site in Sakhir, as we briefly round up how each team fared across the course of the truncated pre-season test.
Best Time: 1:30.025 Time Rank: 5/10 Laps Completed: 304 Lap Rank: 10/10
The reigning World Champions had one of their least productive and underwhelming displays of any pre-season period in the hybrid era. Not only did they finish at the foot of the lap charts – on 304 compared to 422 of joint leaders AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo – but there was a reliability setback (gearbox) that robbed the team of a whole morning, a seat change – when Lewis Hamilton realised alterations made at the factory did not translate to real feel – and several moments and off-track excursions that indicated all is not well with the rear of the W12. Only a fool would even dare to write off a team that has re-written the history books in Formula 1 but this was the first time in years that the champions looked genuinely in trouble.
“I’m still not 100 per cent happy with the car as you would never be this at this early stage of a season,” said Valtteri Bottas. “Yeah, we keep working, we keep trying to get the balance better and get the car behave nicer and hopefully that way, be faster.”
“We made some improvements but it’s still not where we want to be,” said Hamilton. “I can’t pick out any one area, it just feels globally through the lap that we need to improve.”
Trackside engineering chief Andrew Shovlin reinforced the fears: “We’ve made a bit of progress with the balance on higher fuel and the car was more predictable but we can see from the data we’ve collected over the last few days that on race pace, we’re not as quick as Red Bull,” he said. “The lower fuel work was a more confusing picture, we didn’t gain enough and we need to go and look at our approach as far too many cars were ahead of us on pace today. We’ve had issues in recent years with pace in winter testing and managed to make good progress before the first race but we may have our work cut out this time.”
Best Time: 1:28.282 Time Rank: 1/10 Laps Completed: 369 Lap Rank: 7/10
This was an eye-catching test for Red Bull Racing in its quest to finally unseat Mercedes at the top of Formula 1’s pecking order. Max Verstappen started Red Bull’s test in near-perfect fashion, setting the fastest time on the opening day of running, while completing the most mileage. The only minor blot on his copybook was a spin through Turn 2 though it was inconsequential in the whole scope of the day. New team-mate Sergio Perez got his first full day in the RB16B on Saturday though had a scare in the evening when part of the engine bodywork detached at high speed as he ducked out from the slipstream of Nicholas Latifi’s Williams. The second Red Bull has lacked results in recent years, both in the hands of Pierre Gasly and Alexander Albon, and new recruit Perez urged caution given the lack of test time, suggesting it would take the first five races to get up to speed.
“I still have a lot of things to learn in the car, to get the maximum out of it,” Perez said. “But I mean, the best I can do is just to be patient, and take the first races as they come. I will get more on top of things in the team. For now, I just have to be patient, and together with my engineers, we just have to keep working very hard.”
In the hands of both drivers the RB16B looked relatively settled and Verstappen even had pace in hand to understeer wide on Mediums but still go fastest on Sunday afternoon – before improving faster on Softs to clock the quickest overall time of the test.
“I think we can say it has been a good weekend but of course that doesn’t give you any guarantees and all teams are doing different programmes at testing,” said Verstappen. “We’ll find out for sure in a couple of weeks in Q3 where we really are but in general I would say the car feels good and I’m looking forward to going racing.”
Best Time: 1:30.144 Time Rank: 7/10 Laps Completed: 327 Lap Rank: 8/10
McLaren was one team with slightly more elements to tick from its checklist on account of its switch to Mercedes power for the 2021 season. It had a positive shakedown in mid-February at Silverstone but the test provided a first real push of the MCL35M. It was a smooth three days for the team, even if the mileage wasn’t monstrously high, with Lando Norris able to outline guidance compared to the Renault-propelled MCL35, as Daniel Ricciardo focused on getting up to speed in his new surroundings. The team also captured the eye with the rear diffuser of the MCL35M over the length of the strakes, having attached them to the centre of a lengthened floor, suggesting McLaren may have uncovered a loophole in the regulations.
“We struggled with a few things which is, in a way, bad and good,” said Norris. “You never want to run into issues, but it’s good we’ve learned about the car and have time to address it before we come back for the race. So, positives and negatives, but all in all it’s a positive, and this is exactly what we’re here to do during the test.”
Ricciardo added: “I’m really happy to have got it done reliably with no real issues or concerns, it’s been a really smooth three days. I’m really thankful to the team, both here at the track and back at the factory, for putting together a good car for these days at the test. They’ve really made me feel at home, so I’m feeling comfortable.”
Best Time: 1:30.460 Time Rank: 9/10 Laps Completed: 314 Lap Rank: 9/10
At the venue where it claimed a long overdue win as Racing Point, the Aston Martin era began in relatively subdued fashion. In a test where reliability issues were few and far between Aston Martin was struck by two relatively major problems. There was a gearbox issue on Saturday morning that effectively wrecked Sebastian Vettel’s running while the four-time champion’s final stint in the AMR21 was undone by a loss of boost pressure. It meant Aston Martin only narrowly avoided finishing at the foot of the lap charts while Vettel in particular was hampered as he gets up to speed in his new surroundings. The AMR21 being stricken during the final segment of the last test day also meant there was no representative qualifying simulation. Nonetheless Vettel, having changed red for green, was sanguine about his and Aston Martin’s predicament.
“I think there’s still a lot that I can improve, there’s still a lot that we can improve, we have to learn obviously a great deal about the car still when it comes to set up and so on,” the German said. “But I think everyone is in the same position – with only three days of running it’s impossible to get everything in. I think for us the first couple of races, especially for me, will be a steep learning curve but we’ll take it from there. The first race is the first race and if it happens the way it is planned there’s another 22 after so there’s plenty of time in a busy year.”
Best Time: 1:30.318 Time Rank: 8/10 Laps Completed: 396 Lap Rank: 4/10
The biggest takeaway from the opening test regarding Alpine was the size of its airbox, with Executive Director Marcin Budkowski joking that the constant jibes about its width were akin to body shaming. The A521 itself underwent several changes throughout the course of the test as Alpine evaluated a raft of components as part of an extensive run plan. But Budkowski affirmed that Alpine had ticked all of its boxes without encountering any significant problems.
“There’s always stuff you’d like to do, more aero test, more tyre test, more bits to try, but we kind of crammed five days of testing into three, and are pretty much there,” he said. “There’s always things you leave but they’re lower priority ones. We’ve learned a lot this week, have gained performance, and I’ve been super impressed at how the track [personnel] and factory have worked together in the last few days.”
Fernando Alonso returned to competitive Formula 1 action after his two-year spell out of the championship and did not appear to be remotely troubled by his recent jaw injury.
“He was straight away quick, reliable, giving amazing feedback and that’s what you expect from Fernando,” confirmed Budkowski. “He was with us a bit last year, was in the test in Abu Dhabi, so he was integrated with the team already, has done some simulator stuff too. He’s on top form.”
Best Time: 1:29.611 Time Rank: 3/10 Laps Completed: 404 Lap Rank: 3/10
Ferrari set the third-best time during pre-season testing, courtesy of Carlos Sainz’s late time, though its overall display was relatively so-so. There was nothing hugely striking but equally nothing hugely disastrous. Straight-line speed was a brutal weakness for Ferrari in 2020, with its performance especially dire at venues where it had thrived the previous year – including testing venue Bahrain. But it was buoyed by its relative progress through the three-day test.
“When we were here last year in Bahrain for the race and for qualifying we’ve been very slow here on the straights – we didn’t enter into Q3 and we were very distant from pole,” said team boss Mattia Binotto. “Now if I look at the first days I think at least on the straights the speed is alright. It doesn’t seem to be such a disadvantage as it was last year. We know it’s not only power, it’s the drag of the car as well – as we often said last year – but let me say that both of them contributed in improving our speed on the straights and today we feel it is not anymore a disadvantage.”
Ferrari also focused in getting Sainz up to speed in red and Binotto was overall positive about the week’s developments.
“It’s normal that now the atmosphere is certainly better [than 2020],” he said. “But I think with Carlos as well he’s fitting very well. They are two young drivers – experience but young – they are fitting well not only on track but as well outside of the track and I think the entire atmosphere is great.”
Best Time: 1:29.053 Time Rank: 2/10 Laps Completed: 422 Lap Rank: =1/10
AlphaTauri’s AT02 was solid throughout the course of the three-day test as Pierre Gasly effectively took on greater leadership responsibilities to guide the team’s direction. The team tied Alfa Romeo for overall mileage and Gasly was effusive over the progress.
“It’s a lot better than where were at the same time last year in Barcelona after the same amount of time,” he said. “I’m really happy.”
Rookie Yuki Tsunoda acquitted himself well even after setbacks that blighted his running on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, including a fuel systems fault, a DRS issue, a problem with his pedals, and a suspected loss of power. Part of the issue with the pedals was the height differential between Tsunoda and Gasly, with the diminutive Japanese racer one of the shortest drivers in history. AlphaTauri was wise in running Tsunoda in old machinery at Imola and Misano during the winter in order to facilitate the step to Formula 1 and his Sunday afternoon pace was especially eye-catching.
“I already had good confidence in a Formula 1 car, controlling the car and also changing all the switches on the steering,” said Tsunoda. “So, coming to Bahrain, that made it easier to focus just on the 2021 car, because we have to do a lot of laps to get the experience with his 2021 car.”
Tsunoda also suggested his rapid rise, from Formula 4 to Formula 1 in just four years, has helped his transition, having had to learn various tracks, systems and cars in different categories with limited track time. AlphaTauri’s test couldn’t have gone much better.
Best Time: 1:29.766 Time Rank: 4/10 Laps Completed: 422 Lap Rank: =1/10
Alfa Romeo was almost anonymous during the early stages of the test – though that’s just the kind of territory ideal for a Formula 1 team. Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi added the required mileage to the C41 and team boss Frederic Vasseur was able to keep abreast of matters from afar after his positive Covid-19 test. Räikkönen had a brief spell atop the overall timesheets on Sunday afternoon, before being shuffled down to fourth, but the overall mileage was the most impressive aspect of the team’s test, tying AlphaTauri’s 422-lap tally. Ferrari’s updated power unit too was a boon for Alfa Romeo.
“We got all we came here for and now we just have to see where we are when we’re back here racing,” said Räikkönen. “Times in testing don’t mean anything and, right now, we don’t know how all the other teams are performing. But we know how our car does, and feeling wise, it is better than last year. I guess we are faster than at our best at the end of 2020, but whether that translate into a better performance in the races, that we will have to see.”
Technical Director Jan Monchaux was also cautiously upbeat. “The results are encouraging but we’re not getting carried away: we know there is still a lot of work to do,” he said. “We feel ready to start the championship and we feel better prepared than last year. The car was reliable throughout the week and we improved on the weaknesses we had in 2020.”
Best Time: 1:31.531 Time Rank: 10/10 Laps Completed: 394 Lap Rank: 5/10
Every Formula 1 team in Bahrain wanted running but being the only squad to field two rookies this was of greater importance for Haas. Matters started badly when a hydraulics problem on the opening day forced a gearbox change, limiting running for reigning Formula 2 champion Mick Schumacher. However the situation improved thereafter and on Saturday Haas completed more mileage than any other team, before racking up the laps once more on Sunday. Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin have low expectations for the coming campaign and are taking it step by step. Both were mature, methodical and conveyed their understanding of the situation. Haas was off the pace, by far the slowest team, but pure speed was not the priority for a team likely to be plying its trade at the back.
“We are not looking so much at the pace,” said team boss Guenther Steiner. “For us it is more about the learning. So would not say if I was impressed or not impressed, I’m quite neutral on that one, for me the most important thing is that they learn all the processes and procedures. That they don’t anything wrong, that they don’t crash or anything like this. I was impressed by that. They are two guys that we can build on for the future.”
“I’d say we’re happy with how the test has gone,” added Schumacher. “Day one was obviously a bit of shame as we lost opportunities for running but we’ve caught up.”
Best Time: 1:30.117 Time Rank: 6/10 Laps Completed: 373 Lap Rank: 6/10
Williams has had Formula 1’s wooden spoon under lock and key for the last three years but 2020 marked the first step of its recovery after the nadir of 2019. Dorilton Capital has invested where it feels necessary and is regarding the transformation of Williams as a long-term prospect. On-track well-funded test driver Roy Nissany got a whole day behind the wheel of the FW43B on Friday before sophomore Nicholas Latifi drive on Saturday, and George Russell on Sunday. The biggest drama were the two spins that befell Latifi on a windy middle day – he was able to recover on both occasions – with Russell setting the FW43B’s best time, a few tenths down on likely 2021 rival Räikkönen. However Russell joked that he was also “a tenth behind Hamilton and I can be pretty confident that in two weeks’ time I won’t be!” But it was the sensitivity to the wind that was both a positive and a negative for Williams, with its FW43B particularly susceptible owing to the team’s decision to chase peak downforce.
“We knew this would be the case but these conditions have just highlighted and brought out the worst of the car,” said Russell. “In some aspects it is good because that’s given us a very good data set to go at. If we had a three-day test where the conditions were perfectly still, as they never really are, and it only brought out the best of the car, we’d be sat here with a false sense of optimism. When there’s a bit of wind that’s when our car is very poor. The positive is there is a fast race car in there. Unfortunately it’s almost out of our hands when we can excel.”
“The initial signs are that the car is as we expected, so no surprises so far,” said team boss Simon Roberts. “That is a good place to be.”