5 Things We Learned from 2016 Barcelona F1 1st Test
After nearly three months without Formula One (not counting Pirelli's tyre test), we finally got our first look at the teams' 2016 cars this week at the first pre-season test in Barcelona.
At this point, we'll give the obligatory caveat that it's unwise to read too much into testing times, with teams running different fuel loads, tyre compounds and test programmes throughout the week. But that won't stop us from drawing a few conclusions based on what the teams showed over four days around the Circuit de Catalunya.
Are Ferrari close to challenging Mercedes? Can Haas score points in Melbourne? Have McLaren and Honda finally gotten their act together?
Read on for our thoughts on these questions and more.
Mercedes Are Still Heavy Favourites
Ferrari may have posted some impressive times over the four days of testing, but Mercedes are still the team to beat.
Sebastian Vettel, driving the Ferrari SF16-H, had the best lap in Barcelona at 1 minute, 22.810 seconds. However, that time was set using the new ultrasoft Pirelli tyres. Mercedes, meanwhile, did not use any of the soft compounds during the test, according to Autosport's Ian Parkes.
Mercedes' Nico Rosberg did set the fastest lap of anyone on medium tyres, though, at 1:24.867. Last season, according to Pirelli, the soft and medium tyres were used about three times more than the supersoft and hard tyres—and the ultrasoft will likely be used least of all this year.
So putting in quick laps on the softest tyres doesn't necessarily tell us much. Rather, Rosberg's quick lap on the medium tyres, less than 0.2 seconds off his pole time on the same tyre compound at the Spanish Grand Prix last year, is more impressive.
And the Silver Arrows weren't even pushing for quick laps, aiming for distance and reliability, instead.
"Pounding round on mediums all day isn't always so fun!" Rosberg said, per a team press release, but the team completed 675 laps in four days, while only two other teams—Toro Rosso and Sauber—completed more than 400.
"The reliability of the car this week has been just incredible," said Rosberg's team-mate Lewis Hamilton in the same press release. "It feels strong, it feels solid, it just keeps going and going...I've never seen anything like it."
The two Mercedes drivers suffered just three DNFs all last season. With their bulletproof reliability looking set to continue, not to mention the carefully masked speed of the F1 W07 Hybrid, the Silver Arrows are definitely championship favourites again this season.
Haas Are for Real
One of the big questions heading into the 2016 season is the performance of Haas, the new American team.
Haas are the first new team to join the F1 grid since Virgin (now Manor), Lotus and HRT in 2010. The record of those three teams is not great, if we're being polite. Lotus and HRT are not even in the sport anymore and Manor have scored just two points in six seasons.
Haas are doing things differently, though, entering into a partnership with Ferrari and borrowing as much technology as possible from the Italian team. With that head start, Haas were expected to make a strong debut, but you can never be sure until you see a car on the track.
"The Haas model is clearly a very intelligent way of entering Formula One," said Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff last year, per ESPN F1's Laurence Edmondson.
That technical partnership, which included Haas' use of the Ferrari wind tunnel in Maranello, bore fruit in Barcelona. Esteban Gutierrez and Romain Grosjean were in the middle of the pack—13th and 15th, respectively—on the overall timesheet and the team completed 281 laps, more than McLaren and Manor.
Team principal Guenther Steiner was pleased with his team's performance. "In general the first test was a fantastic four days for us, we got a lot of running in which we didn’t expect because we are a new team, we are only four days old," he said, according to a team press release.
After just one test, it is already apparent that Haas won't be touring around at the back of the field, as the 2010 newcomers have since their arrival.
"Our goal with this car is to score points," Steiner said, per the BBC's Andrew Benson. It shouldn't take them long to reach that goal.
Manor Really Will Be Competitive
Speaking of the class of 2010, Manor are poised for something of a rebirth this season.
In 2014, the team (then known as Marussia) finally scored their first points, with Jules Bianchi's brilliant ninth-place finish in Monaco. But the Frenchman's ultimately fatal crash in Japan and the team's subsequent bankruptcy stalled any momentum they had gained.
After a season in limbo running year-old Ferrari engines, Manor are back with a new driver lineup and, more importantly, new Mercedes power units.
We should not expect miracles—Manor still have the smallest budget on the grid—but the team will improve significantly. Mercedes protege Pascal Wehrlein put Manor 16th overall in Barcelona with a time of 1:25.925, set on the second day of the test.
His team-mate Rio Haryanto's best time was one-and-a-half seconds off the pace of the next slowest driver, McLaren's Jenson Button, but that may be more a reflection of the driver's lack of F1 experience and the team's programme rather than the car's potential. After all, Haryanto was announced as Manor's second driver just four days before the start of the test.
In a team press release, chief designer Luca Furbatto explained:
At this stage we aren't placing too much emphasis on relative lap times; some teams explored the full soft tyre spectrum here but next week's programme is where we’ll start to look at more of the outright pace of the package. All in all we've made a good start but there's still a lot to do for Melbourne and into the early part of the season.
Even with the class-leading Mercedes power units, Manor won't find themselves on the podium in 2016, but a few points finishes definitely look within reach.
No Panacea for McLaren and Honda
McLaren may have produced similar lap times (at the top end, at least) and run a similar distance to Manor at the first test, but those results will be far less encouraging in Woking than in Banbury.
Despite optimism from Fernando Alonso, who said, "I think the target to have the best chassis is reachable—is very possible—maybe by the European races," per the official F1 website, the team still has to sort out both reliability and power issues with their Honda engines.
After a promising start, McLaren completed just 51 laps on the third day of the test and three on the final day.
Not only that, but the BBC's Andrew Benson wrote: "Honda is reputed to be as much as 100bhp down on the Mercedes—and seeing the McLaren rooted to the bottom of the speed-trap times suggests that's probably not far wrong."
Following a 2015 season that saw McLaren score just 27 points and finish ninth in the constructors' standings, there was hope that this year would be better. It might be, but that's only because things can't get much worse.
There Is Still Plenty of Potential in the Current Generation of Hybrid Cars
In 2015 pre-season testing at Barcelona, just six drivers clocked laps under 1:24.00, according to the official F1 website. Already, after just the first test this year, five cars have done so...and that does not include the two Mercedes, nor the two Williams drivers, who certainly could have had they unleashed their engines.
The point is that there remains a great deal of potential yet to be unlocked in the current generation of hybrid cars, even without the "three seconds faster" regulations being touted for next year.
Now, with the abolition of the engine token system, which restricted in-season development, the manufacturers will be able to squeeze even more performance out of their power units. While there are lots of complaints that the current cars are too slow and too easy to drive, the pole time and fastest lap at this year's Spanish Grand Prix might end up rivalling those of the 2013 race, the last year of the old V8 engines.
Of course, everyone wants to see not only faster racing, but closer racing. And we'll have to wait until qualifying in Australia on March 19 to get our first real clues as to whether there will be a closer battle at the top this year.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics are from the official F1 website.
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