Who shone, who shocked and who sandbagged across the first four days of the 2019 pre-season in Barcelona last week.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
Formula One teams with fast cars that want to look slow. Teams with fast cars who do little to mask their speed. Teams with middling cars and scarce sponsor stickers who make surprise appearances at the sharp end of the timesheets. Teams struggling to put a car on track at all … As the 2019 F1 pre-season roared into life at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona last week, it was easy to see all 10 teams were present (eventually, we’ll get that that); what was harder to ascertain was which teams fell into which of the afore-mentioned categories. Ask said 10 teams for their views, and you’d get 100 different answers …
The annual F1 ‘phoney war’ of testing is unique; for what is effectively pre-season training in any other sport you can think of, conclusions are drawn and assertions are made on things even the teams themselves don’t completely understand yet. The raw stats tell us one thing; how those stats were achieved and why carries more weight as the clock ticks down towards when it all matters for real for the first time, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
Over four days at Montmelo, a new-look F1 emerged from the fog that provided a dramatic backdrop to the start of each day of running; the cars themselves looked different with aerodynamic tweaks including a wider front wing compared to their predecessors, and the driver line-ups were cause for more than a few double-takes, just two teams retaining the same pair of pilots from last season, and four outfits jettisoning both drivers after the 2018 campaign.
Add three rookies into the mix (Alexander Albon at Toro Rosso, George Russell at Williams and Lando Norris at McLaren), and the annual ‘school photo’ at Albert Park in a few weeks’ time will look jarringly different to the one that preceded it.
Halfway through the February testing phase for 2019, what do we know about the season set to take off on March 17? A little, and a lot. Here’s six snippets to consider.
1. What the stopwatch said …
Testing, we’re always told, isn’t always about the stopwatch … but to paraphrase the old saying, if winning isn’t important, then why do we keep score? Both Renault and Toro Rosso would likely concur, with both drivers from each team ending up in the top five on the overall timesheets after four days.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg set the best time of the test (1min 17.393secs) on the final afternoon, with new teammate and star signing Daniel Ricciardo ending up fifth overall, just 0.4secs slower in his first official outing for his new squad.
Between the two yellow fellows? Albon, his teammate Daniil Kvyat, and Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen, not a sentence you would have expected to be writing when the pit lane went green at 9am on the first day.
Signs of speed are one thing in testing, but reliability might be more important – and on that front, Ferrari packed up at the end of day four in a class of one, Sebastian Vettel (303 laps) the busiest man in Barcelona for the week, and new teammate Charles Leclerc (295) sitting right behind him on the most laps list.
Ferrari’s 598 combined laps were well clear of the next-best return (Alfa Romeo with 507), while at the other end of the scale, Williams managed just 88 laps between Russell and F1 returnee Robert Kubica, its FW42 car not ready to run before the afternoon session of the first day, a predicament deputy team principal Claire Williams called “embarrassing”.
Russell and Kubica, unsurprisingly, were the two slowest drivers for the week in Spain, meaning there’s little sign last year’s wooden-spooners in the constructors’ championship are set to improve in the short-term.
2. … and what those numbers told us
So it’s set to be a Renault vs Toro Rosso fight for this year’s world championship, is it? Much as Australian F1 fans wouldn’t mind that, let’s pump the brakes. The devil in the details of the top (or bottom) lap times can be found in what tyre compound each driver set their benchmark time on, with Pirelli bringing five different specifications of tyres to Barcelona.
Thankfully for common sense and to end the endless confusion about tyre names (supersoft, hypersoft or super-duper sticky softy-softs, anyone?) that have been a feature of F1 coverage for the past few years, Pirelli’s tyres in Spain were simpler to understand. The C1 tyre was the hardest available, the C5 the softest. Pirelli’s data revealed the C2 tyre was 0.6 to 0.7-seconds faster than the C1, with similar gaps between each compound up to the one-lap qualifying specials that were the C5s. Early indications suggest the gap between the fastest and slowest tyres in the range could be over three seconds per lap.
So back to that list of fastest laps … and while reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton was seventh overall for Mercedes, he was the fastest runner on the C4 tyre, setting a 1:17.977 on the final day that was 0.584secs behind Hulkenberg’s best time of the test on the stopwatch, but, arguably, faster given the rubber he did it on.
Vettel, eighth overall, was less than two-tenths behind Hamilton and on the even slower C3 rubber, as was teammate Leclerc in ninth as Ferrari elected not chase a headline time late in the test.
Elsewhere, Alfa’s Antonio Giovinazzi was 11th overall, but less than a second behind Raikkonen on a tyre two steps harder, an impressive start to his first full F1 season. And lurking in 15th and 16th of the 20 race drivers who participated in the test? Red Bull Racing pair Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly, neither of whom set a fast time on anything other than the middling C3 tyre.
The numbers don’t lie, but sometimes they can conceal the truth behind them …
3. The eye test can override the data
Sometimes it’s good to ignore the numbers for a moment and let your eyes tell you who is fast, who is pushing and who is sandbagging in pre-season testing.
Standing trackside, it was noticeable how planted Ferrari looked out of the slow-speed corners, the SF90 jumping out of the big stop at Turn 10 at the end of the back straight like a scalded cat as much as a Prancing Horse.
Mercedes looked mega when its drivers pushed in the high-speed corners, but the team admitted its drivers were more focused on gathering long-run data than really stretching the legs of the W10.
Red Bull’s RB15 had a distinctive bark emanating from its new Honda engine and looked planted in the sweeping curves that define the Circuit de Catalunya, while Raikkonen and Giovinazzi took very different approaches to achieve the same goal, the Finn’s consistency of car position contrasting starkly with the Italian’s more flamboyant style.
Ricciardo’s signature late braking, while nowhere near its Red Bull race-winning pomp yet as he beds into his new surrounds at Renault, was on show from the get-go, while Albon was keen to find the limits in the Toro Rosso in his first pre-season test, the Brit impressing more by the day after a shaky start when he dropped the STR14 in the gravel on the second morning.
4. The fight at the front might not change …
So what are we to make of the pecking order after four days of running? Mercedes and Ferrari look set to pick up where they left off at the end of 2018 as the sport’s two fastest teams, but in which order?
Avoiding pre-season favouritism is as much of a sport as F1 itself, so when Bottas said after his final stint in the car that he felt Ferrari was “a bit ahead” of Mercedes after four days in Barcelona, Leclerc was quick to hose that notion down, suggesting the Silver Arrows had much more to show.
“The performance has no sense for now because it’s testing, they are not pushing and we are not either,” the Monegasque driver shrugged.
“We don’t know how much the others are sandbagging. We’ll see at the first race.”
Leclerc is right about that, but right now, that race might start with a Ferrari or two on the front row of the grid, even considering Hamilton’s incredible qualifying prowess in Melbourne, where he’s started on pole for the past five years.
And what of Red Bull? Team principal Christian Horner was delighted with the progress the team made over the four days as the marriage with Honda got off to a reliable start; only three teams (Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso) did more laps than Red Bull’s 475, and those laps largely went off without a hitch other than Gasly clouting the wall at Turn 13 on the second day and costing the squad an hour’s worth of track time.
5. … but the midfield will swing wildly from race to race
Behind the top three teams and down to Williams in a clear 10th place in the pecking order for now, assessing who sits where in a massed midfield pack is much harder to ascertain after most teams had their moments in Barcelona.
We’ve mentioned Renault and Toro Rosso; elsewhere, McLaren finished second on the first (Carlos Sainz) and second (Norris) days, the young Brit ending the test 10th overall. And while Haas had its fair share of reliability woes for minor technical issues, there’s pace in the VF-19 when it works, Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen both enjoying top-three times on the first two days.
Alfa, with its distinct front wing design that turned heads, looks set to make a step after leaving the Sauber name behind this season, thickening what should be a lively midfield brew.
6. The new aero rules are a work in progress
Will the new wider front wings and more simplified rear wings for 2019 slow the cars down as intended and make overtaking easier? On the evidence of the first four days of the pre-season, it doesn’t look likely.
“There’s too many smart people in this sport to make the cars slower,” Ricciardo laughed after his first run in the RS.19 with other cars on track to follow.
“The lap times are still fast – the front wings look a bit more basic, but there’s still a lot of load being produced. I hope we can follow (other cars) closer, but for a feeling, if I didn’t know there was a new front wing on the car before I got in, I couldn’t tell.
“The way the cars develop over the year … they’ve had a few months to develop over winter, so even if you lose a bit there, you’re going to gain elsewhere. They (engineers) will find ways to make the front wing work even better.”
The Circuit de Catalunya, for all of its benefits as a testing venue with good weather in the northern hemisphere winter, isn’t the best track to assess if a change instigated to increase passing will work, given the annual procession that the Spanish Grand Prix typically is most seasons. Until we get to some different tracks with different characteristics, the jury will remain out.