Did F1 just waste a week? The circuit photographers may have captured many pretty pictures from Barcelona’s winter wonderland, but beyond that, very little was achieved during the first test. A green, newly resurfaced track – spliced with occasional wintry showers – truncated running on the first two days, before a dusting of heavy snow on Tuesday night put pay to any meaningful running on Wednesday.
This withstanding, on Thursday the reigning champion still did not miss an opportunity to fire a warning shot across the bows of his rivals with an impressive lap on medium tyres. How Lewis Hamilton and his rivals compare when softer compounds are fitted for the usual qualifying simulations promises to be the major narrative of the second test.
Elsewhere Toro Rosso will be looking to build on the deeply impressive reliability the Honda power unit showed last week to perhaps infuse a level of performance that has been equally elusive for the Japanese marque. Similarly, Sauber’s cautiously anticipated renaissance also appears unlikely unless it can show some speed in the coming days. This is Read Motorsport‘s essential spotter’s guide for the second and final test:
Beware of Mercedes on softer tyres?
Whilst Red Bull and Ferrari topped the times on the first two days of the first test, it was Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton who resolutely landed the heaviest blow. The reigning champion produced the fastest lap of the test – a 1m19.333s – at the end of a longer run on medium tyres; eclipsing Vandoorne who was lapping simultaneously on hypersoft rubber.
Will F1 have to duck and cover when Mercedes bolt on the softer compounds? Or do the rival teams still have plenty of performance in reserve? A cold track temperature and a lap time still half-a-second slower than best of testing from last year arguably indicate the latter.
A reliable Honda? A pacey Honda, even?
Even the most optimistic Toro Rosso personnel were surely going into preseason testing with trepidation over their inexperienced driver line-up and infamously unreliable new power unit supplier. And yet, quite astonishingly, Pierre Gasly recorded the highest mileage of any driver and Toro Rosso as a team topped the distance charts!
The pressing question must now be whether Honda’s reliability renaissance can translate into performances gains in the second test. James Key‘s suggestion that the performance figures “weren’t bad” wasn’t exactly a glowing endorsement.
Elusive speed at Sauber
Sauber’s performance was perhaps the most disappointing subplot of the first test. Despite an aggressive new aerodynamic platform being linked with a much overdue midfield revival, the C37 did rather tend to gravitate towards the foot of the times across the four days.
Perhaps more worrying was the fact that both Leclerc and Ericsson suffered multiple spins in a car that often looked rather ponderous on-track. However, the wintry disruption and slow lap times perhaps suggest that Hinwil still have plenty of performance in reserve heading into the second test. At least one decent flash of speed must surely be necessary to keep Sauber in midfield contention.
The SF71H unleashed?
Ferrari’s SF17H attracted a number of admiring glances during the first test for its balance and composure in the medium and high-speed corners. It also showed good speed: topping the times on the second day and closely mirroring Bottas’ pace during the wet-dry phase on Thursday morning.
However, the Ferrari did not produce a performance marker remotely equivalent to Hamilton’s test-topping benchmark. For a team that was fastest in testing last year, at a circuit where Vettel would have claimed pole but for an error in the final sector; most would expect the Ferrari to be capable of topping the test. Hopefully, for competition’s sakes, the Scuderia still has plenty of untapped performance to unleash in the second test.
Renault worries at Red Bull
The news that Renault, cognizant of the torrent of reliability woes the marque suffered at the end of 2017, will opt for a conservative development strategy in 2018, is already a blow to Red Bull’s title hopes. A Renault power unit with a rumoured 40-50bhp deficit to the Mercedes is not the ideal tool for a title assault.
And yet, even with such a deficit, Max Verstappen was able to score dominant race wins in Malaysia and Mexico last year. The Red Bull chassis promises to be just as potent this year: watch out for the RB14’s aerodynamic grip to shine out in the high-speed middle sector during this week’s qualifying simulations.
McLaren's testing curse
Does Honda make wheel nuts? McLaren might have waved goodbye to the Japanese marque, but unfortunately hasn’t been able to shake-off its apparent winter testing curse. A wheel nut failure would cut running short on Monday, an exhaust bolt failure curtailed Tuesday and heavy snow reduced Wednesday’s running to a series of installation laps.
Happily, Vandoorne would complete over 100 laps on Thursday, completing the day’s programme in the process; but McLaren remains markedly behind the curve on mileage. The team will hope to be able to raise its ceiling of performance in week two having already extensively run the softest tyre compound. Watch out for the MCL33’s eye-catching dynamic chassis through the circuit’s long, high-speed corners.
Going into a season where the fans have been promised two-stop races as the norm, it was perhaps surprising to see such little evidence of any appreciable tyre degradation at all during the first test. Admittedly, the track conditions were not exactly conducive to tyre testing, but even the hypersoft (a tyre that, given the breadth of Pirelli’s tyre range, probably ought to be rather like bubble-gum in texture) continued to produce personal bests for the McLaren of Vandoorne at the end of a longer run.
Should warmer track temperatures prevail in week two, it will be significant for the season overall to see whether Pirelli’s softer compounds produce the expected drop-off.
Reasons to return to Bahrain...
With the teams so unwilling to lap in the wet, and tyres so sensitive to track temperature, testing in Europe is beginning to look plain silly. Yes, the dusting of heavy snow was something of a freak occurrence, but even at the best of times, the track temperature in Barcelona testing tends to be way below anything the cars will experience during the season.
A return to Bahrain, additional logistical costs considered, is looking increasingly sensible. The data loss created by the weather disruption surely, this year at least, surpasses the extra costs incurred by travelling to the Middle-East. Any more adverse weather in the second test will surely be the final nail in the coffin for F1’s annual February visit to Barcelona.