5 Things We Learned from Day 1 of the 2nd 2016 Formula 1 Pre-Season Test
It was always bound to be a matter of time, a question of when.
Mercedes have operated under the radar for much of Formula One testing, allowing their rivals to pursue fast times as the two-time world champions—safe in the knowledge they are fast enough—worked on making their W07 car reliable enough.
But shortly before lunch on the opening day of the second and final test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Spain, the act was dropped as Nico Rosberg helped himself to a set of soft-compound tyres and blew the opposition away.
His time of one minute, 23.022 seconds proved beyond doubt that Mercedes, for all of Ferrari's hopes and ambitions, remain the team to beat in 2016.
With a look at Williams' impressive performance, McLaren-Honda's recovery, the trials and tribulations of Haas and Manor, as well as Sauber's solid start to pre-season, here are five observations from Day 1 at Barcelona.
Mercedes Are Finally Beginning to Show Their True Pace
As their competitors chased table-topping times in the opening test, Mercedes were content to simply cover as many miles as possible, ending last week with 675 laps—228 more than their closest rivals—to their name.
The Silver Arrows were so committed to their program, in fact, that the team only ordered medium tyres from Pirelli, per F1 journalist Tobi Gruner, allowing their rivals to do the donkey work on the softer, faster compounds.
With just four days of testing remaining until the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, however, Mercedes had to run with a wider array of rubber this week and wasted little time in unboxing a set of softs on the opening morning of the final test.
On his very first flying lap on the yellow-striped tyre, Nico Rosberg posted a time of 1:23.022, which was just 0.212 seconds slower than the benchmark lap set by Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel on the new ultra-soft compound during the first test.
With the ultra-softs thought to be around 1.5 seconds quicker than the softs, Rosberg's lap only underlined the inherent speed of the W07 car.
As at the first test, where Mercedes decided to alternate their drivers for fitness reasons, the team again made a midday swap after Rosberg completed 82 laps in the morning, with Lewis Hamilton taking over for the remainder of the day.
The three-time world champion's afternoon got off to the worst possible start when his car stopped in the pit lane—the first notable problem Mercedes have suffered all winter—but Hamilton appeared to be on a very different program to his team-mate.
He finished with 90 laps and sixth place on the leaderboard, with his fastest time set on the trusty medium tyres, on a day Mercedes showed what they're really capable of in 2016.
Valtteri Bottas Is Showing What Williams Can Do
Like their engine suppliers, Williams also tend to give little away in the early stages of testing, preferring to keep things simple before dropping a bombshell lap time as the winter progresses.
The Grove-based team finished no higher than fourth on the timesheets on the four days of the opening test but began the second by reclaiming their now-customary top-three spot on the leaderboard.
After Valtteri Bottas completed his best lap of the morning with medium tyres, Williams became increasingly experimental and aggressive in the afternoon session, fitting softer and softer rubber to the FW38.
Bottas' initial soft-tyre time of 1:23.785 seconds around 90 minutes after lunch was—despite being 0.7 seconds slower than Nico Rosberg's effort on the same compound—good enough to split Mercedes and Ferrari, whose fastest time on the softs at the first test was remarkably similar.
The Finn went on to improve his time on softs and soon switched to the ultra-softs.
But despite the aforementioned time difference between the two compounds, Bottas' fastest time on the purple-striped tyre was only a 1:23.229—0.207 seconds adrift of Rosberg's time—suggesting Williams had plenty of fuel onboard.
Although they just missed out on topping the timesheets, Williams were among the six members of the 100 Club, with Bottas ending the day with 123 laps to his name.
The team's pace, mileage and reliability, on a day Ferrari suffered yet more technical niggles with Kimi Raikkonen, has raised a fascinating question with just three days of testing remaining: Are Williams now closer to Ferrari than Ferrari are to Mercedes?
McLaren-Honda Are Slowly but Surely Getting Back on Track
McLaren-Honda endured a test of two halves at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya last week.
After Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso completed a combined total of 203 laps on the opening two days, the team were restricted to just 54 across Days 3 and 4 as the team's reliability issues returned with a vengeance.
As reported by Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble, Honda has introduced its definitive 2016 power unit for the second test, and that—in addition to a revised engine cover and a new fuel courtesy of Mobil 1, which had been in development for six months, as Button told Sky Sports' live blog—seems to have done the trick.
Without a timed lap to his name on the final day of the first test, Alonso completed 50 in the morning session, with his best lap of one minute, 25.252 seconds, which was set on the soft-compound tyres, good enough for third—third!—on the lunchtime leaderboard.
The morning, though, was not without a slight drama after Alonso stopped at the pit exit after his MP4-31 suffered what the team's official Twitter account later confirmed was nothing more than a "small telemetry glitch."
Despite the relatively minor nature of the problem, it was not until around an hour of the afternoon session had passed that the Spaniard returned to the track.
The laps kept on coming, though, with Alonso finishing with 93 laps and third place on the timesheets having had another soft-tyre run toward the end of the day.
His fastest time of 1:24.735, however, was a huge 1.713 seconds slower than Nico Rosberg's pace-setting effort on the same compound and only 0.101 seconds quicker than Kimi Raikkonen's best time on mediums, proving McLaren still have a long, long way to go in terms of outright pace.
Reality Bites Hard for Haas and Manor
Perhaps the biggest feel-good stories of the first pre-season test concerned the two "customer" teams on the grid.
After almost two years of waiting, the Ferrari-affiliated Haas outfit finally rolled their car out on to a Formula One track and performed like they always belonged there, while the rebranded Manor Racing—now under the umbrella of Mercedes—finally looked like a credible team after six years of trying.
Yet just as both teams looked set to ramp up their pre-season preparations, they were hindered by the kind of teething troubles they should have had last week and completed fewer than 50 laps on a day no fewer than six teams passed a century.
"A small oil leak in a difficult-to-get-to area," as reported by Manor's official Twitter account, meant Rio Haryanto—who spun twice in consecutive days during the first test—was restricted to just two installation laps before lunch.
For a team who completed just 254 laps, the fewest of any outfit, at the first test, such a long delay was hardly ideal, and although Haryanto recovered to finish the day with 44 laps, the rookie was cut adrift at the bottom of the timesheets.
His fastest time of 1:27.699 seconds on medium tyres was a full second slower than Esteban Gutierrez's quickest effort on the same compound.
Gutierrez himself completed 23 laps in the opening phase of the morning session, but a "fuel system issue," as confirmed by Haas' official Twitter account, meant the Mexican didn't appear after lunch, with the team throwing in the towel with almost two hours remaining until the chequered flag.
This F1 business might not be so easy after all.
Sauber Have Made a Solid Start with New C35 Car
Just how costly would Sauber's decision to delay their new car prove to be?
Would the Swiss team be capable of emulating the 2015 exploits of Force India, whose new car didn't appear until the final test but still allowed them to claim a best-ever finish of fifth in the constructors' standings?
Or would they head in the same direction as the 2014-spec Lotus outfit, who opted to miss the first test and spent the entire year paying for it, slipping from fourth to eighth in the championship?
With Sauber among the least resourceful teams on the grid, and the number of pre-season tests reduced to two in 2016, the general consensus was that they were in danger of a season of struggle, despite Felipe Nasr's insistence that a late start was not "a big problem," per Motorsport.com's Jamie Klein.
But the early signs suggest Sauber will have no trouble at all when it comes to getting up to speed after a highly productive first day with the C35.
Nasr took to the track within the first 10 minutes of the morning session—not always the case for a team with a brand-new car—and despite not setting a lap time for almost an hour, the Brazilian completed 42 laps in time for lunch.
The C35 continued to run faultlessly in the afternoon as Sauber found time for a little pit-stop practice before Nasr ended the day with an admirable 103 laps to his name.
For a little context, Force India's overdue VJM08 car completed 73 laps on its first day of testing a year ago.
Timing and tyre data used throughout sourced from the Sky Sports' live blog, the Autosport Live Twitter account, the official F1 Twitter account and Jonathan Noble's first test roundup on Motorsport.com.