What did the first test week teach us?

With the first week of the tests behind us it is, finally, time again to write relevant Formula One related articles. No more wasting time on historical features. 😉
Of course I know that the tests count for little, but the little there is can be analysed anyway. Lap times count for nothing, after all ‘who has what fuel load’ is an unknown fact for us. The same goes for the programs teams plan; Is it pure aerodynamic work (one thing we can recognize due to the flowviz and huge racks), or do they concentrate on long runs? But with these new regulations in place it is safe to say that this season is highly anticipated. More than usual perhaps. And one thing the new rules did, is change how the cars look. We’ve welcomed back the shark fins, wider tires, barge boards, etc. Also I’ve noticed an increase in cars with an aggressive rake. Something that has been seen on the Red Bull cars last year has affected the whole field today. But, as ever in F1, there are many interpretations of the new rules. Where Adrian Newey went for the clean, smooth look at RBR, Ferrari went for the unusual look (those sidepods…). Mercedes went radical by using every bit of space for a flap or a wing of some sort (I loved their open shark fin by the way).

So first things first: they promised us cars that would be more of a challenge to drive. Therefore it’s only reasonable to ask that to the drivers. According to Lewis Hamilton they absolutely are. He went on record to say that these cars are the most difficult to drive, of his whole career! Not only because of the increased speed, but also because their nature of handling at the limit. “The cars are more aggressive. They don’t warn you, they bite. When the rear breaks out, they’re a lot harder to catch back than they have been in the past.”

lewis-day-one

‘Comeback kid’ Felipe Massa agrees with his colleague. “While they don’t slide about as much as last year, they do have the tendency, on the limit, to lose all grip. Without any warning!” Lance Stroll can only say ‘amen’ to that. He might not be the only one to lose the car at some point (ask Lewis), however he is the only one that lost it three times.

stroll

Which brings us to the next question: Are the tires at fault? Well, I’d say no. Why? Because unlike last year we haven’t seen the need to ‘spare’ the tires for the next two laps after either a fast lap or a spin. That’s stepping up your game, I guess. I know it’s unfair towards Pirelli to look at their tires that way, after all they only did what the FIA asked of them. But still…

First figures suggest the soft compound would, after 20 laps, only be 1.5 seconds slower than fresh rubber. As we all know the tires used to last for a good minute or so last year (mildly overreacted by me, but you catch my drift). But here (last year) in Barcelona they were a full five seconds slower after 20 laps. This all indicates that the tire compounds have become harder if you compare them to last years version. This test I haven’t seen anyone go for the hard compound. Ferrari did seem to prefer medium (and did a lot of laps on one set).

Because of the new ‘safety’ feel these tires have, teams are hopeful that Pirelli allows them to drop the prescribed tire pressure. And they are hopeful Pirelli will opt a lot more to bring softer compounds to the races. However at this moment Pirelli states that they want more time to think about it. They say that the cars are driving in cooler circumstances than usual, at the moment. Plus the cars are expected to develop a lot more over the coming week(s), and Pirelli thinks they will be two or three seconds faster than they are now. Until then they are keeping their save approach.

Which brings us to the question are the cars faster? Once again I have to answer affirmative. Yes, they are. Valtteri Bottas lapped a 1:19.705 on day four of the first test week. Last year it was Kimi who was fastest during the winter-tests with a 1:22.765. At the moment Pirelli reckons the times will drop, at this weeks test, to 1:18. Mercedes engineers are a bit more reluctant to this time, they figure a 1:18.5 to 1:18.7. Still, it would be a four or five second gap to last years time.

vettel-raikkonen-750x400

As it seems today, Mercedes is still the team to beat. But the tifosi’s are hopeful that their team made a big leap forward. Their engine was one of their troubles last year, which was shown throughout the year. The other was their gearbox, which gave them headaches early on that year, in Barcelona. What the tifosi’s can take from this years tests, is that it seems Ferrari have closed a big part of the gap to Mercedes. In top speed they were (a tiny bit) faster. In lap times they were a tiny bit slower. But on the harder compound. Sadly, as stated before, lap times, in tests, mean little. As we do not know all inputs (Both Merc and RBR engineers believe Ferrari did their timed laps with very little fuel loads). Yet, my heart is filled with hope. Let the battle begin!

Somehow it did seem that Red Bull was the slowest of the three, lapping 1 second slower in most timed runs. Only exception seemed to be their long runs. But now there are already rumors of big updates coming for Red Bull (and Mercedes, and Ferrari). Biggest problem for RBR however is stil Renault. The car spend a lot of time in the garage and is said to drive around with a tuned down engine. All hinting at a V6 with issues. Nevertheless, Red Bull did find itself topping the top speed list. Perhaps not all is lost?

Engine-wise it seems the ones with massive problems last year are still at it. Honda, and McLaren, had a hopeless test week. Alongside Honda it was Renault who took it upon them to begin from scratch for this years engine. And unfortunately both engine brands were the ones with big troubles. Not only McLaren’s car was constantly felt up by mechanics (sounds dirty, doesn’t it?), but also Toro Rosso’s car felt the grabbing hands of their grease monkeys. But can I just add what a staggering beautiful car they built? The car looks a lot like a Mercedes but their livery is what seals the deal for me. Clean, simple, old skool.

The Renault car, which looks awesome too, also had a lot of time in the pit and a lot less outside of it. Problem for the Renault team is that they do not have one Mr. Newey. Where the smoothness of the RBR car could even things out, a bit, Renault seemed off. Until the wet morning of day four, but that was just the Hulk showing off why he is considered a great rain driver. On the other hand RBR is suspected of gaining a lot (perhaps too much?) through their suspension system. Will the new rules in this area decide that 2017 will only be a two horse race, instead of a three-way possibility?  It is said that Mr. Horner is lobbying fiercely against the new clarification of said rules. So he might think they will.

Let’s hope for us they won’t. But if I’m completely honest a battle between two teams would fill my heart with joy already. Somehow a battle between two drivers of different teams always felt better than one between team mates. Tomorrow week two of the tests will start, and after that it’s only a two week countdown until Australia!

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