F1 testing: Barcelona talking points - what should we expect?
Ignore the health warning if Ferrari out-pace Mercedes, make or break for Alonso, Haas aim to hit the F1 ground running, and...
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 21/02/16 3:26pm
Can Ferrari overtake Merc at the front?
Looking at winter testing time sheets is like eating chocolate in January: you know you shouldn't but you just can't help yourself.
And, like the extra chocolate binge, it's an activity which should also come with a mild health warning because the fastest lap charts in winter testing are notoriously misleading. Sauber topping the winter charts in 2012, anyone?
Yet timesheet scepticism is valid only up to a point. Despite the health warning, the small print buried in the numbers can be highly revealing. For instance, the scale of McLaren's problems was instantly apparent in testing 12 months ago when the newly-launched MP4-30 was a staggering 30 km/h off the lead pace in the speed-trap charts. And the amount of laps a team completes can often be as significant as the times they set. "To turn up and do 157 laps on the first day is taking the mickey," complained Red Bull chief Christian Horner after Mercedes' ultra-successful launch of the W06 in Jerez last January. "What was more frightening is they were doing pit-stop training," concurred McLaren's Eric Boullier.
And sometimes, the fastest lap chart really does provide an accurate portrayal of the early state of play. Mercedes were consistently fastest in pre-season running at Bahrain in 2014 and led the field last year even after only running the slower medium tyres. They then proceeded to win 16 of 2015's 19 races. Take note, then, if Ferrari do end Barcelona testing just ahead of Mercedes.
Make or break for Alonso?
Could the stakes be any higher when Fernando Alonso tests the new McLaren-Honda?
The Spaniard's first run in the MP4-31 has assumed the status of make-or-break ever since team boss Ron Dennis admitted the former world champion could take a sabbatical in 2016 if the new McLaren-Honda package fails to deliver.
"I have an open mind to anything - and some of the ideas have involved those sorts of considerations, sabbatical years," said Dennis in November. "When we have to take the decision we will take it together. At this moment of time our drivers for next year are Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button."
Since then both Dennis and Alonso have been at pains to downplay those remarks but it's a story which has refused to go away - and may very well return with a vengeance this week if the MP4-31 fails to impress.
"I'm pretty sure that if Alonso sits in that car at the first tests of next year and it isn't any faster then he won't be too interested in doing another season," opined Sky F1's Martin Brundle two months ago.
The critical moment has now arrived.
Haas need to make it count
F1's 2016 schedule has been built around two points: the shortest ever 'winter season' of testing and the longest ever actual season with a record-breaking 21 races on the calendar. The corollary is that every hour of track running will be precious to the teams at the Circuit de Catalunya - and every niggle will have a hefty price to pay in lost preparation.
The pressure to be quick out of the box will be most keenly felt at newcomers Haas. The team have made a series of optimistic predictions for their debut season, including a points finish and Q2 appearance in Australia. Now they must match words with deeds and their lap tally this week will be highly instructive.
On the first day of F1's new turbo era at Jerez two years ago the teams collectively failed to complete 100 laps while the newly-reforged McLaren-Honda partnership completed a mere 79 over the first four days of pre-season running 12 months ago. If Haas' lap count reaches three figures this week then they will deserve to be taken seriously.
Have Renault fixed their faults?
As the first tests of 2014 and 2015 immediately exposed the inadequacies of Renault's V6 engine, it follows that Barcelona 2016 should reveal, either partially or conclusively, whether Renault have closed their power deficit to Ferrari and Mercedes.
The irony is that in the process of saving Lotus from the brink Renault have almost certainly weakened the team's track potency by taking out a Mercedes engine and replacing it with its own works unit.
The deficit is unlikely to have been bridged over the last three months, but with Renault's own name above the door, the team's determination to realign F1's balance of power has become self-evident. That said, it's not only Renault who need Renault to deliver. Albeit unbranded, Red Bull will continue to run Renault engines in 2016 and their hopes of a successful 2016 are dependent on their suppliers making a powerful breakthrough. "How good is the engine going to be? That's the question," remarked Daniel Ricciardo last week.
Baby steps for Manor?
While Haas are launching their first ever F1 car, the sense of a new beginning will also be prevalent at backmarkers Manor as the team unveil their first new car in two years.
With a class-leading Mercedes engine underneath the bodywork, not to mention a raft of high-profile new recruits in the garage, Manor are a team to keep an intrigued eye on this year. Could there be a twist in the usual tale at the back of the grid? Of the 11 teams on the grid, only Sauber, racked by financial strife, have failed to prepare their new car in time for the Barcelona test and were Manor to make strides at the start of 2016 then the Swiss outfit appear highly vulnerable.
The first Barcelona test starts on Monday February 22 and the Sky Sports F1 Digital team will be providing live commentary from dawn until dusk on all four days of both Barcelona tests while Sky Sports News HQ will also deliver live updates from trackside.
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