The new season could be a race in three, the midfield battle will be ferocious, and it might pay to be the tortoise rather than the hare in Australia.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
For a sport that criss-crosses the globe for 20 high-profile races over eight months, Formula One’s pre-season – all of eight days of on-track running at the same venue in a two-week window – seems remarkably inadequate.
But that’s how the giants of the world’s most visible motorsport category prepare for the season that’s ahead of them, and after two four-day tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, we have a reasonable indication of who’s hot and who isn’t, and who can make the long flight to Australia for the opening race of the season with confidence, and who knows that time is running out to get their 2017 championship campaigns on the right track.
With a little under two weeks to take-off – well, until the lights go out at Albert Park at 4pm on Sunday March 26 to commence the campaign – here’s what testing in Spain has told us to expect for the season to come.
Nobody wants to be the favourite …
This is a Formula One staple. Some teams show pace, then immediately hose down expectations. Some hold something back, and then get nominated by another team (usually the one at the top of the timesheets) as the favourite anyway. Others hint at big developments in the pipeline between the final test and the first race in Australia, intentionally placing a giant asterisk on their pre-season form. And so it goes, year after year.
Were Ferrari, who topped the testing timesheets with Kimi Raikkonen on the final day (with a lap of 1min 18.634secs, 3.366secs faster than Lewis Hamilton’s pole time for Mercedes at last year’s Spanish GP, incidentally), holding something back until the eighth and final day of testing?
Hamilton felt Ferrari were “bluffing” early in the final week in Spain, and Raikkonen himself said he could have gone faster on the final day “if we wanted”. As much as that may be game-playing by the Finn, keep in mind his best lap came on Pirelli’s supersoft compound tyres, not the theoretically faster but less durable ultrasoft most other drivers set their fastest time with.
How much does Mercedes still have in reserve, given the dominance the Silver Arrows has enjoyed over the rest for the past three years? And will Red Bull turn up in Melbourne with an aerodynamic upgrade that could vault it ahead of both of its rivals? Truth is, nobody really knows; all we do know is that teams will do and say anything at this time of year to avoid coming to Australia with a giant target on their backs.
But there’s an early-season pecking order
What order the afore-mentioned teams end up in after Australia – and beyond, which is one question that could have more than one answer – remains to be seen. What we can say with some surety is that it’s these three teams at the front of the field, and then daylight to the rest. Haas team principal Gunther Steiner told reporters in Spain that he felt Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull were 1.5 seconds per lap clear of the chasing pack, a gap he feels “will not get smaller” as the season develops.
Based on that, are we in for a two-tier F1 this season, where, barring incident or accident, it’ll be nigh-on impossible for the rest to break into the top six placings? Initially, it could seem that way. Some variety at the very front – remember, Mercedes has won 51 of the 59 races since F1 ditched normally-aspirated V8 engines for their 1.6-litre V6 turbo cousins three years ago – would be nice, but what might be nicer is a no-holds-barred fight in the midfield between Williams, Steiner’s Haas outfit, Force India and Toro Rosso, with Renault likely just behind that quartet. The battle for the back-end of the points promises to be entertainingly manic, and will surely ebb and flow between the various circuits.
Oranges and lemons
Notice the two teams we didn’t mention above? One is Sauber, which seems likely to trail the field for the time being, its closest rival from last year (Manor) lost to the sport altogether. Which leaves McLaren, and the less said about its testing disaster the better. The Honda-powered team managed just 425 laps across the eight days – bear in mind Mercedes did 1096 between Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas – and when the McLaren managed to stay on track long enough between breakdowns, Stoffel Vandoorne (17th overall) and Fernando Alonso (18th) were nowhere on the timesheets, the car over 25km/h slower than Bottas’ Mercedes benchmark down the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s main straight.
“No reliability and no power” was Alonso’s damning summation of Honda’s powerplant, while his inflammatory comment to Spanish media – “the team are all ready to win except Honda” – will only add to the tension as the team heads Down Under. When you consider that neither McLaren driver managed to run more than 11 consecutive laps in testing, the chances of either orange-liveried car circulating past the halfway stage of the Australian GP look to be remote.
Everyone gets along – for now
Ah, the pre-season, where teammates pose for jokey photo shoots, everyone has kind words to say about their rivals … other than Alonso/McLaren (for obvious reasons), there was a lot of love in the air in Spain last week. After three years of tension within Mercedes as Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continued their two-man fight for the world title without having to factor in the rest of the field, Rosberg’s replacement, Bottas, has already made his mark on the three-time world champion.
“I feel we already have a better working relationship than I ever had with any teammate I had before,” Hamilton told formula1.com, adding “what I so far like about working with Valtteri is that it is all to do with the track, what we do on the circuit, and not outside – there are no games, there is complete transparency.” Bottas is certainly less likely to wind Hamilton up as much as the razor-sharp Rosberg did, but the cynic in us suggests that won’t last too long, particularly if Bottas gets the upper hand early on. It’s a working relationship that will be watched with interest
Australia will be a car-breaker
Want to finish with some early-season points? Make sure you finish in Australia. The first race of the year soon weeds out the teams who have sacrificed reliability for speed, and when you factor in that the Albert Park circuit is atypically fast for a street track and has concrete walls at every turn – and that the lap will be faster than ever thanks to the new-for-2017 machinery – and simply lasting all 58 laps in Melbourne could help a lower-order team snatch a hatful of points.
Remember what Sauber did in Australia two years ago, starting the 2015 season with 14 points between Felipe Nasr (fifth) and Marcus Ericsson (eighth) after not scoring a single point the year before? Just 11 cars finished that day, and there’s every chance that could be repeated in a fortnight’s time.
The likes of Sauber, Renault and perhaps Williams rookie Lance Stroll could be well advised to concentrate on keeping the car on the black stuff and reaping the rewards. Simply finishing could be enough to score.