Formula 1 Testing: Who’s looking good for 2015?

Jenson Button in the Mclaren-Honda at Jerez

Jenson Button in the Mclaren-Honda at Jerez

Do you expect a Ferrari on pole position with a Sauber for company when the Formula 1 season kicks off in Australia in March?

No. Frankly, neither do I. But that’s what the early indications suggest after the first four days of testing for the F1 2015 season, held over the past four days in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.

Of course, the first test for new cars with revised regulations is not really about speed – it’s about testing components, aerodynamics, engines, energy recovery systems, braking performance, finding weak points and so on. So the headline ‘fastest laps’ are not really meaningful, and won’t be until probably the third test is held in Barcelona at the end of the month. This comes just a fortnight before the first race of the season in Australia will answer everyone’s questions.

These are the average of speeds from all laps across the four days of testing:

1 Ferrari 1:23.873
2 Red Bull 1:25.214
3 Williams 1:25.286
4 Mercedes 1:25.309
5 Sauber 1:26.053
6 Toro Rosso 1:26.105
7 Lotus 1:26.564
8 McLaren 1:28.382

Italian engines are definitely improved

The significant news is that Ferrari power units (also in the Sauber cars) are pushing them around the circuit faster than they did last year, and going through the speed traps just as quickly as their competitors. Commentators speculate that the Maranello engineers have found an extra 50 horspeower over last year, and also expect to add another 30 more before the season kicks off.

Generally, the Ferrari was sent out on shorter runs of ten laps, whereas the Mercedes was going for 40-lap stints, so assuming it’s carrying less fuel, it’s of course going to be faster. But what can’t be argued with is this: The team’s average lap time over the whole test was 1.5 seconds quicker than anyone else’s. So those engines, and the car, are very strong, with Kimi Raikonnen making very positive comments about the handling of the car. Kimi is known to like a car that is pointy at the front, and turns in to corners well, which last year’s car did not, so it looks like Ferrari, after a disastrous 2014 where they failed to win a race for the first time since 1993, are starting to pull things together.

The elephant on the track

Of course Mercedes, who dominated last year, and won both drivers and constructors championships hands down, won’t have spent the winter doing nothing. The ominous sign for the rest of the field was the fact that they put over 150 laps in on their first day, and even started doing test pit stops, showing a level of predictability and confidence that nobody got close to throughout the four days of testing. As Christian Horner of Red Bull commented, they were “taking the mickey” turning up and putting in that many laps.

They did have some problems with reliability, but still overall put in the most laps, which is probably the most important element of these tests – gathering the maximum data and testing the equipment in order to make improvements before the first race of the season. And despite Ferarri seeming to have gained power and pace, don’t expect that the Mercedes units will not have done the same.

Red Bull in disguise

Red Bull

Daniil Kvyat in the heavily disguised Red Bull

Everyone was intrigued by the livery of the Red Bull – using a ‘dazzle’ camouflage paint scheme to confuse the prying eyes and lenses of the competitors about the true shape of the car and the aero features. One thing that did jump out was the infra-red cameras mounted on the wing mirrors pointing squarely at the front wheels to monitor tyre temperature cycles during a race.

The car looked good but did not perform reliably, and there is still be a concern that, powered by Renault, along with Toro Rosso, they may have the least effective engine on the grid. But the Red Bull was the only car aside from a Mercedes to win a race last year, and they will be looking to add to their tally of three wins last season. They also had a very troubled time in testing last year and then recovered well, so although they won’t be delighted by this first test, they’ll not be as disheartened as they were a year ago.

McLaren have teething troubles with Honda power units

The legendary pairing of Honda power and McLaren technology dominated Formula 1 in the late eighties and early nineties to win four successive championships, and so there was a lot of anticipation about how the car would perform, as well as excitement about the return of Fernando Alonso to the team.

But, not very surprisingly, the first few days were fraught, seeing very few laps being completed as the team struggled to get the power unit and car to talk to each other.

Honda are of course a year behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault who have had the experience of building and running engines for an entire season. And during testing in 2014, all manufacturers had very similar initial problems. But things improved for the last two days for McLaren, allowing more respectable running distances, although lap times were off the pace of the rest of the field, with the exception of one lap where Alonso’s first sector was fastest, and he matched the pace of the Mercedes of Rosberg running at the same time. The overall slow pace suggests either a very conservative power setting or a lack of power. Having listened to the sound of the engine and watched a few laps, I think it’s the former – petrolhead insiders at the circuit were suggesting that the Honda engines were generally turned down to half power.

Sandbagging from Williams?

The Williams team improved vastly in 2014 from the year before, and during testing kept a fairly low profile in terms of laps times and lap totals. They just quietly got on with things, put in respectable mileage, and had no major dramas.

Although their team arrived a day and a half late, having expected they might miss the test entirely, the Lotus drivers seemed pleased by apparent improvement in the performance of the 2015 car, which is now powered by Mercedes engines. Having said that, last year’s car was a total dog, so anything is likely to be an improvement.

Toro Rosso’s all-rookie line-up of 17-year old Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. performed for the first time, and the car was far more reliable, putting in a lot more mileage than its sister team Red Bull.

Force India say that it is unlikely that they will have their act together in time for the second test period in Barcelona in 2 weeks time, and instead will aim to turn up at the third and final test at the beginning of March. However, there are still rumours circulating of financial difficulties at the team which may be affecting their ability to deliver the car to the track.

Marussia may be resurrected, albeit they would need the other teams to agree to their running a 2014 pec car in the 2015 season. Financial backers appear to be waiting in the wings, so the team may join the grid, albeit they will have to do some hiring as former employees have been hired by other teams since their demise at the end of 2014. One of Marussia’s drivers, Jules Bianchi, remains unconscious in hospital with severe head injuries following a horrific crash at the Japanese GP last season.

So in summary

Ferrari are looking much better, Mercedes are ominously reliable, Williams are quietly getting on with things, Honda have a lot of work to do with McLaren, and the Lotus seems much improved, but it’s still very early days. Real pace indications from race-length simulations will probably only come in the last test in Barcelona.

  • The next test takes place from February 19-22 at Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona, followed by the final test at the same venue from February 26 – March 1st. The Formula 1 season begins with the Australian Grand Prix from March 12-15.

 

 

 

 

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