What we learned from F1 testing in Spain

The new cars look the goods, lap times aren’t everything, and there’s nowhere to hide as a rookie when the eyes of the world are watching …

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

Formula One arose from its off-season slumber in Spain this week, where the 10 teams gathered for the first of two four-day tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya to prepare for the season ahead.

New drivers were unveiled, revamped liveries (both good and bad) were seen in action for the first time, and the usual pre-season secrecy and subterfuge were on show as teams kept a wary eye on the opposition while running through lengthy job lists ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in just three weeks’ time.

Concrete conclusions are notoriously difficult to ascertain after four days of testing (‘Ferrari faster than Mercedes!’ screamed one headline on an F1 website that should know better after day two), but we did learn plenty in Spain over the four days that sets the scene for what’s to come.

They’re the fastest F1 cars ever …
Compared to their predecessors, this year’s F1 machines look mean, fast and awesome, the unsightly shark fins employed to maximise the new aerodynamic regulations notwithstanding. But how do they perform? The changes in speed through Barcelona’s two signature corners – the never-ending right-hander of Turn 3 and the sharp right of Turn 9 heading onto the back straight – were noticeable, and while the drivers were far from “destroyed” physically as Force India’s Sergio Perez predicted before the test, they were worked hard, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton noting the “bumps and bruises where I’ve never really had them before” after the second day of running.

The fastest lap time of the test (a 1min 19.705secs by Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas on day three) was significantly quicker than Hamilton’s pole position time (1:22.000) at the same circuit for last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, and tyre supplier Pirelli reckons a 1min 18secs lap could be possible at next week’s second pre-season test as teams turn up the wick ahead of Australia.

World champion Nico Rosberg, who retired from the sport after winning last year’s title, was licking his lips over the challenges awaiting his former colleagues. “They look absolutely monstrous, very, very aggressive,” he said of the new cars after watching the action on day three. “The drivers are loving it, and I think this year they will be proper gladiators out there, with these cars, because the cars will take them to their physical limits. We might even see drivers losing race wins because of just being ‘game over’ physically – and that’s what we need.

But can they pass one another?
Er … This has the potential to be the elephant in the room. F1 pessimists would warn with all the extra downforce provided by the wider 2017 cars, plus stronger, more durable tyres from Pirelli, races could turn into one-stop precessions where the car behind will never be able to mount a serious challenge on a rival in front. Higher downforce makes it harder for a car to follow a rival in high-speed corners, as the trailing car loses front grip in the wake of the car in front.

After two days on track in Spain, both Hamilton and Williams veteran Felipe Massa commented that the new aerodynamic regulations may have created a problem, Massa adding that the extra downforce was nice “for the drivers, but for the show, I don’t know.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who set an overtaking record in F1 last year with 78 passes in 21 races, was less concerned, as you might expect. “It’s alright. I think it’s the same as last year,” he said after his first outing on track on day two. “It’s felt really similar. You have more downforce, you are going a bit faster through corners, so that cancels out a bit. I think it should be pretty similar, but we just have to wait and see. Hopefully we won’t need to overtake …”

The stopwatch isn’t everything …
Verstappen’s comment was made in jest, but while Red Bull didn’t look to be the outright leader in terms of lap time in Barcelona, they’ll certainly be in the conversation from Melbourne and beyond.

Labelling teams as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ after four days of running, including the final day on an artificially-soaked track for Pirelli to test its wet-weather rubber, is foolish in the extreme, but what we can ascertain is that Mercedes aren’t going anywhere, and that Ferrari have started 2017 strongly, a year after the red team was left red-faced when very public predictions of being in the championship fight fell flat.

Mercedes and Ferrari were the only two teams to rack up 2000km-plus of track time across the four days, which left Renault driver Jolyon Palmer slightly envious. “I can’t understand how they’re doing so many laps,” the Briton said. “That’s impressive, especially when not only us but you look at the rest of the field, really, and everyone’s doing 50 or 60 laps in a day.”

Mercedes may have topped the times overall, but Ferrari’s workload – its drivers managed over 100 laps on three of the four days – definitely raised eyebrows.

But some are in trouble
Who’s at the other end of the scale, and who has a mountain of work to do before the second and final pre-season test next week? McLaren endured a rough run in Spain, the team losing the best part of the opening two days with engine gremlins, leaving a grumpy Fernando Alonso to comment “I have three days to prepare for a world championship, it’s not an ideal situation,” after his first day was compromised. Also filed under ‘tough start’, Williams – and more specifically, rookie Lance Stroll, who crashed on his opening day of running. The 18-year-old Canadian then binned it twice on day three, damaging the team’s chassis to such an extent that it couldn’t be rebuilt overnight, which deprived Williams of any wet-track running on the final day.

F1 emerges from the dark ages
For those of us who remember seeing vision of pre-season testing was a matter of scouring YouTube for badly-shot fan videos the next day before the sport’s gatekeepers had them removed, the first test of 2017 was quite jarring. F1’s official channels were dragged kicking and screaming into the social media age last year, with (gasp) actual on-track vision and paddock access available digitally for those who couldn’t be trackside or in the closely-guarded inner sanctum.

With Liberty Media taking over the running of the sport and Bernie Ecclestone being edged into the background, it was no surprise to see the restrictions of the past loosened, but seeing teams being able to post vision of the test on their social media accounts was quite the revelation, and very well received. What’s more, that the change came about because the commercial rights holder contacted the teams to encourage them to shoot short-form video for their own purposes represented a seismic shift to the norm. Will it continue? That remains to be seen, but the sport’s new marketing chief, ex-ESPN marketing guru Sean Bratches, flagged the changes that are afoot in an interview with Autosport.

“Every single thing that we’re doing has to pivot around the fan,” Bratches said. “The fan is at the centre of all our theses in terms of driving this sport because if we’re doing the best job we can serving fans, both the existing fans and the new fans, that’s a win. We have big events 20 times every single year in 20 different countries and there’s an extraordinary opportunity to detonate the fan experience in a very positive way.”

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