Conclusions from F1’s second pre-season test

With the second Formula 1 pre-season test having come to an end, we take a look at a few things worth noticing over the course of the four days. 

The eleven teams who will make up the Formula 1 grid this year wrapped up their preparations for the season at the second of two pre-season tests at the Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona this week. While the first test, which took place last week, saw the teams focus mostly on reliability and data gathering, the second test was more performance-based, with all the drivers getting a turn to try out Pirelli’s softer compounds, including the all-new ultrasoft compound. Of course, the teams’ true performance will only become clear in Melbourne in two weeks, but there were still a few things worth noticing over the course of the four-day test.

Could Williams join the fight at the front?

Even before the new generation of F1 cars had turned a wheel, it was expected that it would fall to Ferrari to challenge the dominance of the all-conquering Mercedes team.

Over the course of the first test it became clear that Mercedes remain a formidable opponent, with the Scuderia quietly confident that their new SF16-H is a winner. Williams, for their part, had a quiet first test, bereft of any major headlines or any gushing praise from Felipe Massa or Valtteri Bottas about the new FW38. However, earlier in the week Williams Chief Test Engineer Rod Nelson declared that Williams would “slug it out with Ferrari”.

While Technical Director Pat Symonds has made it clear that team’s new car is an improvement in all areas, few would have expected such a bold claim from the Grove-based squad. Whether they can deliver on this confident claim remains to be seen, but with Ferrari under the impression that they can match Mercedes and Williams believing that Mercedes are far ahead but that Ferrari are within range, it is clear that someone, somewhere, has it wrong.

More of the same for Sauber?

Sauber have tried to downplay the late unveiling of their new C35 challenger, which only made its first appearance on the first morning of the second test, by hailing it as an improvement of the fundamentally well-designed but under-developed C34 from last year.

Of course, all the teams have been improving their cars, so this assurance from Sauber means little in practice. Furthermore, the arrival of Haas, the possible progress of McLaren-Honda and the ambitions of Toro Rosso mean that Sauber find themselves fighting against fiercer competition than last year. No amount of talk changes the fact that missing the first pre-season test is a less-than-ideal way to start the year.

While the C35 may be a competitive car out of the box, the attentions of the teams mentioned above, coupled with a limited development budget, may lead to the team slipping slowly towards to the back of the field, as they did in 2015.

The safety halo receives a lukewarm reception

As part of an attempt to provide the drivers with better head protection, the FIA has been considering the implementation of a partial cockpit enclosure commonly referred to as the safety halo.

In order to test the idea in practice, Ferrari sent Kimi Räikkönen out for a few laps with the halo equipped to his car. While the taciturn Finn was his usual indifferent self when asked for his opinion on the halo, the rest of the of the paddock have been more forthcoming with their opinions. Although Nico Rosberg, for one, approves of the halo, the likes of world champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hülkenberg have made clear their lack of fondness for the idea, while Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner has expressed concerns about visibility, given that the halo appears to obstruct the driver’s view at times.

In a sport as complex as Formula 1, pleasing everyone all the time is impossible. It is concerning, however, that several of the sport’s main protagonists are against the idea of the safety halo. While some may hold the position that aesthetics cannot trump safety in the sport’s list of priorities, it is important to remember that driving a Formula 1 car is an inherently dangerous thing to do, and that is unlikely to change.

Exciting prospects for Toro Rosso

As the junior team to Red Bull Racing, Toro Rosso has often found itself with limited performance, limited finances and inexperienced youngsters in the car. While the Faenza-based squad are still very much the smaller of the two Red Bull Organisation teams, there are several reasons for them to look forward to their 2016 campaign.

Talented youngsters Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz are both a year older and sure to continue improving. More important, perhaps, is the engine that will be driving the team’s 2016 efforts. After being stuck with a sub-par Renault engine in 2015, Toro Rosso have managed to obtain a supply of 2015 Ferrari engines for the 2016 season. While the 2015 Ferrari engine is unlikely to stand up well against newer power units, it is certainly a better engine than the 2015 Renault power unit was, and may even give the 2016 Renault engine a run for its money.

Technical Director James Key has been publicly enthusiastic about the performance gains offered by the switch to Ferrari power, and Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner has conceded that Toro Rosso may well start the season off as the stronger of the two Red Bull teams.

Overall, the new STR11 showed itself to be reliable during the first test, and the times delivered by Verstappen and Sainz on the softer compounds during the second test was encouraging. With good drivers, a good engine and good reliability to work with, Toro Rosso may just be able to make their 2016 campaign their most successful to date.

Back to earth for Haas

Haas made a near ideal start to their first-ever season in F1 by making headlines for all the right reasons during the first pre-season test: good reliability and good lap times from Pascal Wehrlein.

However, a variety of problems befell the team during the second test. On Tuesday, a fuel system problem limited Esteban Gutierrez to a paltry 23 laps. On Wednesday, turbocharger issues forced the team to call an early end to their efforts for the day, while Thursday saw Romain Grosjean cause no fewer than three red flags due to problems with the brake-by-wire system.  

After the highs of the first test, the second test may be regarded as a disaster by comparison. However, it is sure to keep Formula 1’s newest entrant grounded and focused, and the adversity they have face at the second test may just stand Haas in good stead going forward. This, after all, is how things go in Formula 1: one day up, one day down.  

Grumpy Driver, Grumpy Team?

2015 was not a good year for Fernando Alonso. After leaving a struggling Ferrari outfit for a new start at McLaren, the two-time world champion found himself at the wrong end of the grid in a car that seemed to be breaking down more often than it was working. A difficult start to pre-season testing meant that the second test carried extra importance for the struggling Woking-based squad.

Despite Jenson Button hailing the progress the McLaren-Honda partnership has made recently, Alonso admitted that they were behind where they had hoped to be. Further outbursts about Formula 1’s new “elimination style” qualifying format and a refusal to commit himself to staying in the sport after 2016 make it clear that Fernando Alonso is not a happy camper. While his mood will undoubtedly improve if McLaren end up having a successful 2016 campaign, his present behaviour may well point to a general sense of unhappiness within McLaren.

At any rate, as the 2007 McLaren team and the 2014 Ferrari squad will quickly concede, having an unhappy Fernando Alonso in the ranks is not a recipe for success.

Adriaan Slabbert