What we learned from F1 testing

Conclusions and conundrums from this week’s F1 action in Barcelona.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM.AU

It’s akin to training for a marathon by running 100-metre sprints; with 21 races, the 2016 Formula One season is the longest in the sport’s history, but with just eight days of pre-season testing available, the run-in to those 21 races is the shortest the sport has ever seen. Which made every lap even more important than usual at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona this week as the countdown to next month’s Australian Grand Prix picked up the pace.
A quick glance at the timesheets is a notoriously bad indicator of what might follow for the season ahead, so here’s what we know about who might reign – and who might feel the pain – after four days in Spain.

1. It’s still a Silver stampede
The only way Mercedes could have been more intimidating in Barcelona is if they had worked out a way for the theme music for ‘Jaws’ to be played as Lewis Hamilton rolled down the pit lane at 9am on the dot on day one. Hamilton got things off to a smooth start for the Silver Arrows, and they barely stopped thereafter – four days of near-faultless running produced few lap times of note as Mercedes resisted the urge to fit any of the softer-compound Pirelli tyres, but 675 laps in all between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg (228 more than any other team managed) told you all you needed to know. The German was eighth on the overall timesheets, Hamilton just 12th – but there wasn’t a single person in Spain who left the test with the impression that Mercedes still isn’t the team to beat after winning the past two titles. Rosberg confirmed there’s much more to come. “We haven’t shown our cards yet; we’re still holding back,” was his ominous assessment. Be very afraid …

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 22: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing drives during day one of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 22, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

2. Is a Bull bounce-back on the cards?

Pre-season testing hasn’t been a barrel of laughs for the Milton Keynes crew the past two years, but Red Bull showed enough in Spain that it can be in the mix in the fight for best of the rest behind Mercedes in the first part of 2016. A total of 369 laps between Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat was the fifth-most of the 11 teams in action, and Ricciardo set the fourth-fastest time of the test on day two using Pirelli’s new ultrasoft rubber. The new TAG-Heuer-badged Renault engine is earmarked for more improvement before Melbourne, and the new RB12 looks a treat aerodynamically, and was plenty quick enough through the long sweeps of the Circuit de Catalunya’s corners. Mark Hughes, one of the sport’s most astute pressmen, surmised that there’s “a lot of confidence from within about this car” at Red Bull. Time will tell, but the days of Ricciardo battling the likes of Sauber for a mid-points finish in Australia as he did to open last year’s season appear to mercifully be over.

3. Ferrari is legit
The Prancing Horse won’t be sneaking up behind anyone this season – a year after Sebastian Vettel stunned the F1 paddock by winning his second race for the Scuderia in Malaysia after Ferrari’s dire 2014, the team in red look to be Mercedes’ strongest challenger from day one this season. Four days in Barcelona produced the fastest time of the test (for Vettel), the third-fastest (Kimi Raikkonen), and plenty of upside. The car seems a step forward from last year’s, and Ferrari says it’ll bring an upgraded engine to Melbourne in three weeks’ time. Yes, those headline-grabbing times were set on the ultrasoft tyre, but the mood is one of optimism, and a quiet confidence. Even the typically taciturn Raikkonen gushed with praise about the SF16-H, which features much more white in its paint scheme than Ferraris from the past two decades. “I think the first feeling is quite nice,” said Raikkonen, which (for Kimi) counts as expansive analysis.

4. They don’t know, so you don’t either
Mercedes is mighty, Ferrari can fly, and Red Bull is charging on in the right direction. The rest? Harder to determine. Sauber spent all four days running its 2015 car, Force India topped the timesheets with Nico Hulkenberg on day three and split the Ferraris overall at the end of the test, and Williams opted for virtual anonymity while running only the medium-compound tyre and not chasing lap times. And then there was Toro Rosso, which ran a plain blue-liveried car that Carlos Sainz Jr said was predominantly last year’s STR10 “with parts of STR11”, but which team technical director James Key said was this year’s car with “two carryover bits” before the launch of the ’16 car at the second test next week. Whatever the case, the signs were positive for Sainz and Max Verstappen – only Mercedes did more laps than Toro Rosso, and bedding in a new engine partnership with Ferrari appeared smooth. With the team using the 2015 Ferrari powerplant this season, reliability will be a focus at the second test – points could be in plentiful supply early in the season if Toro Rosso can plug away and stay out of strife.

5. There’s noise, and then there’s noise
Forget what you’ve seen and concentrate on what you’ve heard. The sound of F1 since the change to V6 turbo hybrid powerplants in 2014 has been the cause for consternation, but Vettel feels the 2016 cars are louder than their predecessors, adding that “it now sounds a bit more like Formula One” after the first day of running in Spain. Williams tech chief Pat Symonds believes changes to the exhaust configuration of the cars this year should make them 10-12 per cent louder than last year, but while this year’s cars are undoubtedly more appealing to the ear, it was hard to hear them in Spain for all of the chat going on off-track about the future direction of the sport. An out-of-nowhere tweak to the qualifying procedure that could be in place as early as Australia in three weeks, talk of wider and heavier cars for 2017, cars potentially being anywhere between three to six seconds a lap faster next year … as always in F1, the volume of the off-track talk can drown out anything the cars produce on it. And to think the season hasn’t started yet …

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