Formula 1 teams completed their shortest ever pre-season testing period yesterday, having run for three days at the Bahrain International Circuit.
However some teams clearly had more productive sessions than their rivals, and others looked noticeably more satisfied with how much progress they made in the build-up to the new championship.
As the only team which has changed power unit supplier since last year, McLaren arguably faced the most challenging off-season, yet perhaps also has the most to gain by switching to Mercedes’ multiple championship-winning motors. Like most of their rivals they also had to integrate a new driver, in their case Daniel Ricciardo.
The initial signs were encouraging for the team. McLaren were first to present their new car, the MCL35M and the first to run it in a filming day, at Silverstone.
Like several of F1’s leading teams they were at pains to disguise the areas of their car which had to change due to new technical regulations. Some rather crude ‘Photoshopping’ techniques were applied to early images of the car which appeared on social media.
One reason for this became clear when the car appeared on Friday. McLaren have a novel solution to F1’s new diffuser restrictions which, to the team’s surprise, none of their rivals appear to have sussed.
The car periodically headed the morning sessions in Bahrain. However their final tally of just under 1,800 kilometres was only the eighth-highest of the 10 teams, not what might have been expected for a team looking to ‘prove out’ the installation of a new power unit.
But according to technical director James Key the team completed all the running it intended to. “There’s no negative reason for the lap count we’ve got,” he said, “it’s more to do with the fact that we swapped drivers every day, which always has a little bit of a timing implication.
“We tried to split our time between data gathering, which can be time-consuming sometimes, and just sticking miles in the car. Of course you’d like to put a lot of miles on the car immediately. But if you do that you don’t necessarily get all these little tests done, which typically we’ve started our day with.
“So it has been planned. We, of course, would like to maximise mileage, but I think the programme we’ve had has ticked a lot of boxes that we needed to tick.”
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Any concerns Fernando Alonso’s jaw injury might compromise his return were swiftly dispelled as he tallied over 200 laps in a day and a half.
The eye-catching wide engine cover on the Alpine drew a lot of attention. Executive director Marcin Budkowski jokingly referred to the car being “body-shamed”. He said the A521 had been designed that way in order to reduce the size of its sidepods to improve aerodynamic performance.
He believes the midfield has closed up this year, though perhaps more in terms of Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams catching up than the middle group cutting their deficit to Mercedes and Red Bull.
Alpine “had an intense programme, almost trying to fit six days of testing into three,” explained Budkowski. “We achieved our target of 130 laps per day and found some decent performance improvements over the three days.”
While the team gave little indication of its ultimate pace, lapping some 1.9 seconds away from its 2020 best in Bahrain, Budkowski feels they had “a very solid test”.
Alfa Romeo looked like a contender for the team which can be most pleased with how its pre-season testing went. “I think 422 laps over three days is a new record for our team,” said technical director Jan Monchaux.
Having spent its development tokens on reworking the car’s nose, exchanging its bluff Ferrari-style design for a thinner one in the Mercedes fashion, the team also appears to have received a boost from Ferrari’s new power unit.
Raikkonen said there was a noticeable improvement from the motor and indicated the C41 is already quicker than the team’s 2020 car. Based on this, the team can realistically hope to rejoin the midfield after their disappointing result of eighth place with eight points last year.
It was clear after pre-season testing 12 months ago that all was not well at Ferrari, as the team was unable to improve on its best lap time from the previous season at the Circuit de Catalunya.
They went on to endure their worst campaign for decades. A loss of straight-line speed was a key weakness, which team principal Mattia Binotto was always at pains to insist was not simply down to their hotly-debated power unit but also the levels of drag the car produced.
Whatever the explanation, testing on Bahrain’s long straights indicated Ferrari have made gains in this area. Binotto even felt confident enough to say the team is no longer at a disadvantage on the straights.
On top of that, he added the car has “improved in many areas compared to last season”. The Tifosi therefore have ample cause to expect Ferrari’s target of returning to third place in the championship is realistic.
Uniquely, Haas has not only changed both its drivers for the new season, but picked a pair of rookies. There may never have been a more challenging time to do this, with only three days of pre-season testing available.
That said, Mick Schumacher has had several opportunities to drive Formula 1 cars through his membership of the Ferrari Driver Academy. Team mate Nikita Mazepin, meanwhile, has had an undisclosed number of private tests in a Mercedes.
Despite calling their new car the VF-21, Haas admitted they have only made minor changes compared to last year’s car, and not used either of their ‘development tokens’. It remains to be seen whether the particular problem they had with their rear suspension overheating in 2020 has been addressed.
They lapped well off the pace of the competition, more than a second away from the next-slowest car. Team principal Guenther Steiner has previously indicated the team will not develop the car significantly this year as it prioritises work on the 2022 chassis, but said there is more to come from the VF-21: “We just need to see that we find some more speed, but there will be something coming.”
If Haas are set to be rooted to the back row of the grid, Red Bull looked like they might finally be in contention for the front row again. That, of course, will depend as much on Mercedes as on them.
Verstappen said Red Bull had started testing better than previous years but rejected suggestions they could be the team to beat this season, stating Mercedes’ record run of seven consecutive championships makes them obvious favourites.
After saying that, Verstappen got back in his car and set the fastest time of the test. “We’ll find out for sure in a couple of weeks in Q3 where we really are but in general I would say the car feels good,” he admitted after completing his final run.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign from Red Bull was that the RB16B appears to be less lively at the rear than its predecessor, a characteristic Alexander Albon only seemed to come to terms with at the final race of last year.
Sergio Perez has taken over from him since. He and his team mate ran identical programmes on Sunday, yet Perez’s lap time was 1.2 seconds slower. The rapidly evolving track conditions in Bahrain will have played a role in this, though Perez indicated it will take him five races to get the best out of his new car and team.
The whole package ran reliably, including Honda’s latest power unit. This was originally scheduled for introduction this year, postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic, then brought forward again after the manufacturer announced it will leave F1 at the end of the year.
Rookie Yuki Tsunoda put in an impressive performance on the final day, swapping fastest lap times with Verstappen. But sharp-eyed observers noted he was opening his DRS earlier than ordinarily permitted on the main straight, the usual restrictions on its use not being in force for a test, which probably bought him a few tenths of a session.
Nonetheless AlphaTauri ran strongly and Pierre Gasly completed the most laps of any driver. He is convinced the team is going to the new season in better shape than it did 12 months ago.
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According to George Russell, Williams have prioritised maximum downforce with their FW43B, even if it comes at the expense of the car’s performance in windy conditions. The car looked a handful at gusty Bahrain, but they hope it will come into its own at certain venues this year.
Williams was the only team to use a test driver in Bahrain. Roy Nissany ran on Friday, meaning its race drivers had just one full day each to prepare for the new season. Both covered more than two race distances per day, however.
“It’s definitely positive that the car was reliable,” said Russell. “To finish first, first you have to finish. We saw it last year in Austria, only 11 cars finished. I’m not saying that’ll be the same case again but if that was the case of any races, I think we’re a very good position to be one of those cars.”
Naturally, he is reading nothing into the fact he ended testing just 0.092 seconds slower than Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes.
“I can be pretty confident to say that come two weeks’ time I won’t be,” said Russell. “We’re all doing our own programmes, we’ve all got our own agendas and I think other teams have got sandbags to come off.”
Last year this team, then known as Racing Point, set tongues wagging with its ‘pink Mercedes’. There were no eye-catching lap times from the rebranded green cars this year, partly because the AMR21 spent a bit too much time in the garage. Gearbox and turbo boost pressure gremlins were blamed – both seemingly related to Mercedes-supplied parts.
“We have a lot of tyre sets that we didn’t use just because we didn’t run,” said Sebastian Vettel, who was disappointed to lose vital laps he needed to acclimatise to his new team. He covered the fewest laps of any race driver in the test.
“Maybe it’s the age, maybe it’s the experience, but probably 10 years ago I would slightly panic now,” he said. “But then again if I were to panic now, would it help? Probably not.
“So we’re just trying to do our thing and use the time we have. We still got some running and for me, it was super-useful the laps today. So it could be could be worse. It could be better, but it could be worse.”
Vettel says he’s in the same boat as Perez when it comes to playing himself into a new team. The lack of mileage won’t help. How this team stacks up against the newly Mercedes-powered McLaren, whose testing went more smoothly, will be fascinating.
As for the fight at the front, Vettel has more experience than most when it comes to reading the runes after testing, and is certain Mercedes will be in the frame.
“It’s probably fair to say that Mercedes didn’t have the mileage miracle that they had in the last years,” he said when asked who has the fastest car at the moment. “But then again, I’m sure that they will be alright at the first race. And Red Bull is doing what they are supposed to do, challenging. So I think it will be either Mercedes or Red Bull.”
For those hoping to see the all-conquering Mercedes go up against some serious competition for a change, their troubled start to pre-season testing offered some cause for optimism.
Having decided against completing a filming day before testing started, they lost time with a gearbox problem on day one. Nor did Mercedes, which has dependably been the busiest team in testing over resent seasons, rack up mileage at their usual rate once the car got running.
It was a surprise to see them at the bottom of the mileage chart come Sunday evening. That said, the figure needs to be put in correct perspective: Mercedes’ 1.634 kilometres was just over one race distance shy of the field’s average of 2,012km.
Perhaps more concerning for the team was the balance exhibited by its W12, which both drivers complained about. All teams have had to adjust to new regulations cutting back on the rear floor, diffuser and brake duct winglet dimensions. This may have affected Mercedes to a greater degree than their rivals.
The team has not followed the ‘high rake’ aerodynamic philosophy preferred by the likes of Red Bull, with a sharply inclined ride height intended to maximise the performance of the front wing. Perhaps it is feeling the loss of rear downforce more keenly than other teams. Hamilton, who had a session-stopping spin on Saturday, indicated he sees a link between the new regulations and the change in his car’s handling.
The team’s trackside performance engineer Andrew Shovlin acknowledged the car’s lack of pace compared to several rivals, especially Red Bull, on Sunday evening. “We’ve planned a programme of work to try and understand some of our issues and will be leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to find some more speed over the next ten days,” he said.
In previous years, Mercedes have demonstrated an enviable ability to introduce complex upgrades to their car, either during testing or mid-season, and unlock their potential quickly without falling prey to the kind of correlation problems their rivals experience from time to time.
Are they planning to do the same on the eve of the 2021 season? Will their filming day in Bahrain tomorrow be the first time they run such an upgrade?
F1’s pre-season ‘testing war’ may not be over yet.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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