Formula 1 finally returned from its end-of-season break this week with the first of two four-day tests at the Circuit de Catalunya.
Given that the off-season is always a difficult time for F1 fans to endure, seeing a brand new generation of cars take to the circuit for the first time was a prospect that many members of the F1 community had been eagerly anticipating. Unfortunately, reading too much into pre-season testing is a dangerous thing to do; the teams are all focusing on different areas of their overall performance, using different tyres, and running with different fuel loads.
While we will have to wait until the first race of the season to know for sure how the season is likely to shape up, there are as few tentative conclusions that we can draw from the first test.
The Mercedes machine remains well-oiled…
Anyone who was hoping that somehow the new Mercedes W07 would be a dud is, to be frank, likely to be disappointed. The new Silver Arrow logged an impressive 675 laps (1950 miles) around the Spanish circuit and proved that even that this early stage of proceedings, it is extremely reliable. For comparison, Toro Rosso were next best with 447 laps.
Mercedes chose not to reveal too much of their new challenger’s potential, running mostly on the medium tyres and doing long runs on high fuel, but Nico Rosberg’s observation that he was immediately comfortable in the new car is an ill omen for rivals of the German team. Rosberg went on to promise that there was more to come from Mercedes, a promise which seems entirely credible at this point in time.
…But don’t discard Ferrari yet
Ferrari’s 2016 challenger, the SF16-H, is an exciting prospect for fans of the Italian team, given that it is the first Ferrari to be created entirely under the watchful eye of talented technical director James Allison.
While both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen called the new car “a step up” from last year’s SF-15T, there must be some slight concern over the fact that the Scuderia managed to complete only 352 laps over the four days, which is only about half that of Mercedes. In fairness, the evolution of the SF-16H’s design, along with the comments of the two drivers, should mean that Ferrari have a good base to build on for 2016.
Topping the timesheets on three of the four days is good for morale, if nothing else, but whether the reported “step up” is enough to seriously trouble Mercedes remains to be seen, given that the German team remained well ahead of Ferrari towards the end of 2015, and certainly haven’t been standing still waiting to be caught by their rivals either.
A positive start for Haas
Haas, the newest addition to the Formula 1 grid, have been quietly confident that their foray into Formula 1 would start out more successfully than those of the three “new” teams that entered the sport in 2010.
While the team still face a long, uphill climb to reach the top of the Formula 1 mountain, it must be said that their first ever pre-season test went as well as could be expected. The Haas VF-16 logged a respectable 281 laps throughout the test, and apart from a broken front wing on the first day, the team can be pleased with their Barcelona outing.
This positive start, along with the fact that the reasonably experienced Romain Grosjean will be the team’s lead driver, means that Haas are as well-prepared for their official debut as any new Formula 1 team could hope to be. The second pre-season test, where teams tend to focus more on the outright pace of their car, should reveal more, but at this point in time, it is enough for Haas to know that their first ever car works and is reliable.
A solid foundation for Force India
Since the introduction of their B-spec car at Silverstone last season, Force India have found themselves enjoying life at the front end of the midfield, with third-placed Williams close, but just out of reach. In light of the positive end to their 2015 campaign, the team have chosen to evolve the B-spec VJM08 into their 2016 challenger, the VJM09.
While Nico Hülkenberg admitted that the team had probably focused more on their outright performance than other teams, the VJM09 seems a worthy successor to the car that finished 2015 so strongly. Force India have done well to push themselves forward from the back-end of the grid towards the middle over the past six or seven years, and 2016 might just provide them with the chance to take another step forward.
Do-or-die at McLaren-Honda
While most observers were happy enough to accept that fact that 2015 was effectively one long year of testing for the revived McLaren-Honda partnership, that defence has now well and truly worn out.
While Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso both seem mostly positive about the new MP4-31, the presence of reliability gremlins that limited the new McLaren to only 257 laps (including only 4 on the last day) will bring back painful memories of their disastrous 2015 campaign.
The fact that Honda replaced F1 boss Yasuhisa Arai with Yusuke Hasegawa after the second day of the test will not help to calm feelings of uneasiness regarding the team’s prospects for 2016. After all, why replace the leader of a team that had made great strides in the off-season and are set to challenge for strong results in the coming season?
The team’s claims of making significant progress over the winter break will have to be backed by results from the first race in Australia, or the long-term feasibility of the partnership will be in doubt. This is, well and truly, do-or-die time.
Mixed fortunes at Manor
The new Manor MRT05 seems to be a welcome lifeline for a team who teetered on the edge of disappearing from the grid for most of the 2015 season. A Mercedes engine and a new technical partnership with Williams is sure to bring some welcome performance to the last-surviving of Formula 1’s “new teams” from 2010.
German youngster Pascal Wehrlein impressed with a time of 1:25. 925 on soft tyres on the second day of the test, which is around 5 whole seconds quicker than the team managed during qualifying for the 2015 Spanish Grand Prix.
Less impressive was the first impression produced by the efforts of Rio Haryanto. The Indonesian rookie managed to lose control and spin on both of his days in the car. Furthermore, his lap times did not compare particularly well with those of Wehrlein, which, all considered, means that his first foray into Formula 1 was less successful than it could have been.
Finally, while the lap times from Wehrlein seem to bode well, it is important to remember that in F1, performance is a relative concept, and even a 5-second improvement in lap time will count for little if other teams have gained enough speed over the winter to remain entirely out of reach.