Does Ferrari still have F1’s ‘worst’ power unit? Eight key questions for pre-season testing

2021 F1 season

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Formula 1’s shortest pre-season testing session beings tomorrow at the Bahrain International Circuit.

The 10 teams have just three days to ensure their cars are ready for the first race of the year. Here’s what’s at stake in the sole test for the new championship.

Does Ferrari still have F1’s worst power unit?

When Ferrari took a huge step backwards with their power unit last season, it didn’t just condemn the them to their worst championship performance for 40 years. It meant customers Alfa Romeo and Haas spent the season scrapping against Williams for rare points.

The team has produced a new power unit for the 2021 F1 season. If it shows signs of immediate gains, that could drastically alter the balance of power this year.

Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto spelled out his prediction for it at the end of last season. “I think that we will be back to being competitive as a power unit,” he said. “I think we will not be the worst in the field, that’s the feeling I got for the figures I’ve seen at the dyno.”

Bahrain’s long straights should help shed light onto whether that prediction has come true. The demeanour of the six Ferrari-powered drivers will no doubt tell us a lot as well.

Is Alonso fully fit for his return?

Injured Alonso didn’t participate in Alpine’s launch
All indications are Fernando Alonso had an extraordinarily lucky escape when he collided with a car while cycling in Switzerland last month. He spent a weekend in hospital and had to have surgery on his jaw, but his injuries were a lot lighter than they might have been.

Nonetheless, following his absence from Alpine’s pre-season launch event for its new A521, questions remain over whether he has made a full recovery, and whether any lingering pain might hinder his efforts to complete his testing programme.

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Have McLaren made a successful transition to Mercedes power?

Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Silverstone, 2021
McLaren were first to run their 2021 car
McLaren’s situation is unique, being the only team which has changed to a new power unit supplier during the off-season. This presented particular challenges in a season where car upgrades have been limited as a cost-saving measure.

It’s no coincidence the team was first to reveal and run their new car, maximising the time available to address any problems. If all has gone smoothly, and the Mercedes M12 power unit has been accommodated within the MCL35M chassis with few compromises, McLaren could reap a significant performance gain by switching to the world champions’ power units.

Has F1’s downforce cut been successful?

In order to prevent a repeat of the tyre failures seen at Silverstone last year, teams have been required to comply with new aerodynamic restrictions intended to cut how much downforce they generate.

The effects of the change may be less obvious around Bahrain’s stop-start configuration than Circuit de Catalunya, which was originally supposed to hold this test.

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Have teams avoided further Covid-19 disruption?

There were as many positive cases of Covid-19 among driving during the winter break as there were in the whole of last year’s championship. As the teams decamp to Bahrain for not just the season-opening test but also the first race of the new season, they will be anxious to avoid any repeat which would put them at an immediate disadvantage from the start.

Can the rookie class pass their first test?

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT02 livery launch, 2021
F1’s rookies will be under scrutiny
With testing cut to its lowest level ever, now is not the time for rookie errors. Spare a thought for Haas, then, who have entrusted their latest car to two first-timers – Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.

A third rookie, Yuki Tsunoda, has joined the field at AlphaTauri. While no driver can afford a slip-up with so little testing time available, the pressure is that bit higher for newcomers making their first impressions.

The same also goes for Roy Nissany, the only test driver confirmed as part of this week’s running, who will give the new Williams FW43B its debut tomorrow.

Does anyone have a surprise up their sleeves?

The emergence of Mercedes’ Dual Axis Steering system was the big surprise of 2020 pre-season testing. It’s been banned for the new season, and it’s hard to imagine anyone has devised anything as ingenious as this given how mature the current rules are.

But never underestimate the ingenuity of Formula 1’s designers and engineers.

Are Red Bull – or anyone else – a threat to Mercedes?

The final question has the biggest implications for the season ahead. Mercedes reasserted their domination of Formula 1 last year, and it may be wishful thinking to expect their closest rivals from the end of last year, Red Bull, to make serious inroads into their advantage in a year when development opportunities are so restricted.

But whether they have or not is a question we are likely to learn little about over the coming three days of testing. Both teams have been highly secretive about their latest designs. Expect them to continue keeping their cards close to their chests until qualifying for the first race of the year.

2021 F1 season

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 23 comments on “Does Ferrari still have F1’s ‘worst’ power unit? Eight key questions for pre-season testing”

    1. Yeah, I would think we can get some indication on how well the McLaren managed to integrate that engine – if they spend more time in the pitlane than out on track, it failed, if they run normally, that would be a success.

      And probably that Ferrari engine is a question that will be more or less answered at least for the insiders, we might get solid hints towards that for the media as well from reactions of the others.

      For the rest, I really look forward to seeing some of these cars “out in the wild” but doubt we’ll get much conclusive evidence on the form of the others, apart from probably a jump in form of all Ferrari engined teams.
      Well, and I fully expect Mercedes to confidently rack up the laps and set some telling times to make us focus more on the midfield battle already.

    2. It must be a very interesting job, being a Formula 1 designer. They must spend days reading the rule book over and over again, trying to find a loophole. Then, if they find one, they have to decide whether or not it is worth developing it, knowing that there are either:
      1. It will be banned instantly and they will only get to use it for a couple of races.
      2. It will be allowed, and it is an improvement, but every other team will have copied it within a few races so the advantage doesn’t last very long at all.
      3. It won’t be an advantage at all.
      4. Very occasionally, it might be something that doesn’t get banned, and takes the other teams a long time to copy, meaning that it does give a significant advantage. I am hoping that a team comes up with one of these tomorrow, although preferably not Mercedes, and if it was any team it would most likely be Mercedes.

      1. And obviously it costs a lot of money, usually, to develop a new F1 design (like DAS).

        1. @f1frog There’s another option which is that they take said idea and go to F1/FIA ahead of time to make sure it will be legal before they spend too much time and money on it.

          1. @robbie that is a sensible thing to do, but it doesn’t stop other teams from copying the design so I wouldn’t say it is a separate option.

            1. @f1frog Well really little can stop any team from copying a design if they think they can make it work on their car and think it’s worth it, and being pro-active by going to the FIA first ahead of spending much time and money is a separate point and a main one that you hadn’t mentioned. It is what teams do very often. There’s innovation and all that entails, and there’s the inevitability that other teams will suss out what you’ve done and decide to copy or not.

              DAS at Mercedes became apparent last year in testing when on-boards showed their steering wheel moving, but it is not like that surprised anybody and other teams had been considering doing that too but didn’t see it as worth the cost for what they deemed was a relatively small benefit.

              Anyway I’ll be surprised if there are any big and surprising innovations given the similarity over the cars to last year, other than as Fry talked about yesterday regarding the floor work and the area around the rear, and I would think much if that will be quite visible and easily copied as he said, but then it is the matter of teams deciding if it is workable and makes sense for them to do it without having to rework the front wing etc and cause a snowball effect.

    3. Don’t think the test will tell us anything useful. The test results have no bearing on the season results. I think last year Mercedes had two cars. They tried the one during testing, but when the season started they raced a completely different car to the one they tested with. So the testing told us nothing about the Mercedes car. No way any other team can compete with a team that can afford to design and build TWO completely different cars in one season and then select the best car out of the two.

      1. No, they did not – the car they used in testing wasn’t “a completely different car”. It had some upgrades that were specific for high altitude races like Austria, but it was not as dramatic a change as you think.

        Equally, it’s wrong to claim that only Mercedes does that – so did Red Bull and Ferrari, and both of those teams have done that for ages. In fact, pretty much every team brings updated cars to the first race.

      2. I completely disagree after last years 1st morning of pre-season testing I wrote a comment where I accurately predicted the peking order.

      3. I’m not saying they necessarily did that, but it’s no doubt an interesting theory!

    4. The main teams are usually desperate to tell us how poor they are, Toto is the best at it. Mercedes can be 2 seconds quicker than anyone else and still be telling us that the Williams pose a risk!

      However, given the sheer embarrassment that Ferrari experienced last year at being so poor in the power unit department, I’m sure that if their PU is a significant step-up, then they’ll sound more positive. The customer teams will also give a good indication how the PU performs compared to last year, it cost them dearly last year.

    5. Does Ferrari still have F1’s worst power unit? Too early to judge. The first race weekend at the latest gives a better idea.

      Is Alonso fully fit for his return? Probably, yes. I believe so.

      Have McLaren made a successful transition to Mercedes power? I doubt they’d make a considerable gain in performance as the Renault PU hasn’t been bad power-wise in the recent past either. Time will tell, but I reckon the side effect of having to spend both tokens on the PU integration might hinder performance, at least initially.

      Has F1’s downforce cut been successful? Time will tell.

      Have teams avoided further Covid-19 disruption? Hopefully.

      Can the rookie class pass their first test? I’m hopeful they can.

      Does anyone have a surprise up their sleeves? Maybe.

      Are Red Bull – or anyone else – a threat to Mercedes? I doubt. Most likely a similar story to last season.

    6. No.
      Yes.
      Yes.
      Yes.
      No.
      Yes.
      No.
      No. (please prove me wrong)

    7. Does Ferrari still have F1’s worst power unit? Too early to judge. The first race weekend at the latest gives a better idea.
      No.
      Is Alonso fully fit for his return?
      Yes.
      Have McLaren made a successful transition to Mercedes power?
      Yes, but i don’t think they will be further up
      Has F1’s downforce cut been successful?
      Yes.
      Have teams avoided further Covid-19 disruption?
      No.
      Can the rookie class pass their first test?
      Yes, it’s not that hard just making their rounds.
      Does anyone have a surprise up their sleeves?
      Yes, Red Bull and Mercedes will be probaly increase their lead on the rest.
      Are Red Bull – or anyone else – a threat to Mercedes?
      Maybe, They (Red BUll) will be beter off then last year as they bring the old car from the last race with them.

    8. I think the last question should be will Red Bull make a crap start to the season like the have for the past 6 years or will they actually get it right?

      1. @dbradock I want to be offended on RBR’s behalf by your use of the phrase ‘crap start to the season,’ but you’re not wrong. Well of course they’ve been great compared to most others, and of course they should be doing even better, and of course Mercedes is a mega team to match let alone beat, but yeah it sure would be great if they are about to come out of the blocks this season much closer to Mercedes from race one without having to figure out the car so much. I’m sure many people are thinking, saying, and hoping for the same.

        1. Yeah I thought about it being a bit harsh, but being a Dan Ric fan and seeing his body language early 2017 & 2018 I could just hear the “oh crap here we go again”

          You’re right of course that they’re still way ahead of the others, but it’s frustrated the hell out of me, and at least 1 top driver, that the cars are so nuanced it takes a big part of the season to get it to its full potential.

          I understand that they were let down by the PU big time, I guess in times past they’d managed to work around that, but I think that since the hybrid era, even they have struggled and have in effect tried too hard to overcome it with their chassis to the point it’s brought this situation about.

          Here’s hoping…..

          1. @dbradock Yeah here’s hoping for sure. Not much more we can do from our armchairs, but the fact is, the ability to integrate pu and chassis has been crucial in this hybrid chapter, and RBR spent the first half of it as a customer of weak Renault pus, and now they should be stronger than ever with the continued time they have had with Honda in what is the closest factory type setting they’ve enjoyed, albeit a much shorter stretch of time than Merc and Ferrari have enjoyed.

            And with them presumably learning what their problem was with the car last year, and Honda fast forwarding their 2022 plans to this year, I think there is much to be hopeful for, in spite of their falling short up to now. They certainly aren’t dwelling on the past.

    9. Alonso is either not running or run on painkillers.

    10. I’m thinking Ferrari will have improved their pu, but if anything only relative to what it was, and may only match or surpass Renault, but I don’t think they will be at Honda and Mercedes level.

      I think FA will be fully fit for the season start and for testing as well.

      I think Mac will be adapting just fine to the Mercedes pu but there should be some teething issues, and there is the reality that they are a customer, not an in-house factory works outfit, so that puts them on their hind foot. But it seems a no-brainer that they will be better off than they were with the Renault, but again, given some time.

      I think F1’s downforce will have been cut by the reg changes but that most of that will already be clawed back by the top teams and will be by mid-season by the others, which is what Brawn predicted anyway, and which still makes them fine in terms of how much they will be stressing the tires.

      The covid question, not sure. The rookies question we’ll just have to see. The surprises question as well we’ll just have to see but I’d be surprised if there are any earth shattering developments given the obsoleteness of this car.

      As to RBR or anyone else making inroads on Mercedes? The Honda pu sounds like it could be promising, and of course they ended last season on a high, so here’s hoping they are relatively more improved than Mercedes and anyone else.

      I do wonder though if, given that there are only these three days of testing, we might actually be gleaning more about the teams placings than is usually the case. Do they really have time to sandbag? And as usual it is not like no information whatsoever will be gleaned from testing. There will be hints of performance and reliability realities, and there will be comments made by drivers, and the F1 media will be digging for everything they can find out too. So no I don’t buy into the concept that we will have to wait until qualifying in Bahrain to learn ‘everything.’ I think we will know or highly suspect at least some things from these next three days.

      1. Pretty much nailed it @robbie

    11. In order to prevent a repeat of the tyre failures seen at Silverstone last year, teams have been required to comply with new aerodynamic restrictions intended to cut how much downforce they generate.

      Because that’s the logical solution? Get ten teams to change their car designs rather than making some stronger tyres?

      1. @david-br Yeah it does seem crazy but their stronger tires were awful otherwise and were rejected and I’m assuming what that meant then was that it was better to take some floor away from the teams and perhaps stir things up a bit that way, and have Pirelli move on to the 18” tires and test those with what time there is. The balloon tires are soon to be obsolete anyway so there was no point spending the end of last season testing tires that were already known to be terrible, and now they can work on the next gen with the 9 teams that have agreed to supply mule cars. I thought I had read though that at least this year’s tires were tweaked a bit too, but not sure on that.

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