Formula 1 2019: Who is ahead for the Australian GP?
Sky Sports F1's Karun Chandhok delves into the 8775 laps recorded at F1 Testing this winter to work out the pecking order heading to the March 15-17 season-opener in Melbourne...
Last Updated: 08/03/19 11:15am
I've really enjoyed my annual pilgrimage to watch pre-season testing this year.
As usual it's thrown up as many questions as answers but that is part of the fun and intrigue as we head into a new season. The paddock has been full of people trying to dissect short and long runs while applying all sorts of fuel and tyre corrections. Ultimately, as the saying goes, when the flag drops, the bull**** stops and it will all shake out when we get to Qualifying in Melbourne but in the meantime, I'm going to try and put some sort of order to the ten teams after testing.
The battle at the front
We once again seem to have two distinct classes, I think. Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull do appear to be in a class above the rest but the battle between them is going to be tighter than ever before. None of the teams have had a clean run through testing with Ferrari suffering some reliability issues, Mercedes lost time to an engine change and Red Bull had to contend with two sizeable accidents from new boy Pierre Gasly leaving them with a lot of damaged parts, especially with the gearboxes.
Every year I go and stand in exactly the same places trackside which gives me an opportunity to see year-on-year just where the battle lies between these teams, beyond just studying the lap times. Last year, Mercedes shied away from doing any form of proper performance runs on the softer tyres but the long runs showed quite clearly that they were ahead and when we got to Melbourne, Lewis duly took pole by seven tenths of a second.
This year it seems to be a different story, however, as the Ferrari certainly looks like the car to beat. Out on track, the car seems very forgiving to drive and I don't think that either driver looked like they were close to the limit. Watching at Turn Nine, it was mighty impressive on Vettel's performance runs how he was changing up a gear when turning in to the corner while most others needed to have a lift through there!
In the changes of direction through turns two and three as well as corners like 11 and 12, the Ferrari does seem more compliant and easy to drive. While the Mercedes clearly generates a good amount of downforce, it certainly seems edgier and harder work for the drivers.
On the long runs, there were a few occasions in turn 1 and turn 7 when the Ferrari drivers looked like they had gone in a bit deep or missed the line a bit, but the car seemed to allow them to gently bring it back in line by the mid-corner without losing a lot of minimum speed or being much later back on the throttle.
Ferrari seem to have improved the traction and power delivery as well. The Mercedes in previous years looked like a more planted car when the drivers were accelerating out of corners with any steering lock like turns 4, 5 and 12, but now the Ferrari seems to be a match for it.
Looking at the headline times, it does seem like the Maranello camp are about three to four tenths ahead of Mercedes. Comparing their race runs is certainly interesting as Charles Leclerc and Valtteri Bottas did a race sim around the same time on Day 7. Looking at the average pace across the 54 laps that they did, Leclerc was about 0.25 per lap quicker than the Finn.
Yes, we don't know what engine modes they had but the key point for me is that for a change Ferrari appear to be heading to the first race ahead of Mercedes, which we didn't see last year.
Where are Red Bull?
It's really hard to pick where Red Bull are to be honest as they didn't do any performance runs on the final two days due to Gasly's crash and a reliability issue for Max Verstappen. This means that we're having to turn to the long runs to try and work out where the team are and the consensus amongst a few team people I spoke with, as well as my long run analysis does seem to suggest that they are a tenth or two behind Mercedes, so certainly closer to the reigning world champions than they ended last year, but further behind Ferrari.
Let's keep in mind that in the last one-third of 2018, the Red Bull was a match for the Mercedes and Ferrari in terms of race pace. The key really is to see what happens when they all have to turn the engines up in Q2 on Saturday in Melbourne. I was reliably informed that Honda had found another couple tenths of horsepower in the Qualifying mode over the winter so added to the gains that they had with the version 3 engine, that could bring the Red Bull into play a bit more on Saturdays.
Out on track, the first thing you notice is that on power the Honda sounds audibly smoother than before, when they had this rough and raspy growl in comparison to the competition. Off throttle, they still seem a bit rougher than the Mercedes but the upshifts also certainly sound a lot smoother so clearly the synergy between Honda and the systems guys at Red Bull Racing is working well.
As we've grown accustomed to seeing, the Red Bull chassis is really hard to fault on track. The high rake means that in the medium and slow speed corners they're able to empower the front wing more than some others. When watching down at Turn One at the end of the long straight, you could visually make out that Max was able to go straighter for longer before turning more sharply into the apex than anyone else because the front end of the car is very responsive and the rear just pivots around without stepping out of line.
This characteristic of a sharp front end is something that suits Max's style. Right from his first season with Toro Rosso, I remember watching him at pre-season testing and marvelling at his ability to steer the car on the brakes on the way into the corner before opening the steering wheel up at the apex earlier than other people. This helps his rear tyre wear during the acceleration phase of the corner and is something that has been a real bonus for him when it comes to races where he needs to manage the tyres for long stints.
Gasly did seem less happy with the balance of the car than Max and the two accidents would have dented his confidence. He needs to somehow bounce back from these quickly when we get to Melbourne as he's in for a tough year against a Max Verstappen who is growing in confidence and maturity with every year that passes and is also keen to establish himself as a clear number one in the team for the future.
Separating the congested midfield
The midfield pack is as tightly knit as they were last year with Renault, Haas, Toro Rosso, McLaren and Alfa Romeo doing representative laps that were all within about three tenths of each other - a gap that could easily change the order based on engine modes.
I would say that I expect Racing Point to be up there too once we get to a race weekend. They were a bit behind the game during the opening week due to some reliability issues and then focused more on the long runs during the second week.
While Haas have had a few little reliability niggles, the car looks very quick and very stable out on track. Both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen did very strong runs on the C3 tyre on Day 8 which slightly slipped under the radar, and in fact, the fuel and corrected time put them second fastest on my list from testing. I don't think they will be ahead of Red Bull and Mercedes in Australia, but I would say that at this stage, just as they were last year, Haas look like they're the team heading the midfield pack.
During the opening week, Renault looked like they had slightly broken clear of the pack but as the test went along, the others seemed to catch up again. It will be interesting to see if that was because Renault had some issues towards the latter stages of the test (there were some rumblings in the paddock of a brake issue) or if the others simply gained more because they seemed to drop back a bit from Mercedes and Ferrari during the final couple of days.
Out on track, the Renault does appear to be running the front of the car very low to the ground and during certain runs, it seems like they're experimenting with the front ride height control as under load, the front wing endplates are nearly touching the ground. There's obviously been a push towards the Red Bull direction of higher rake and more front end bite in the slower corners. Looking at the turn-in phase at Turn One for example, the drivers looked like they had a reasonable level of confidence to attack the entry and the front of the car did respond well. Not quite as sharply as the Red Bull but certainly better than last year.
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Toro Rosso's long run pace looked very good. The closer technical collaboration with Red Bull is paying dividends in terms of reliability and it's meant that rookie Alexander Albon and F1's 'cat with nine lives' Daniil Kvyat have been able to do lots of laps and get up to speed. The Thai driver in particular has been impressive with his long run pace looking very consistent and he was also able to find good chunks of time when they give him a go on the softer tyres.
The Toro Rosso seemed happier on the C5 tyre out on track rather than the C4 and on the long runs, you can see it doesn't quite have the rear end stability and grip of the Haas or Renault but they have a good program of updates coming for the season so it's worth keeping an eye out for that.
Alfa Romeo started the opening week looking like they were going to be a clear fourth best but as the days have ticked along, it does look like they're going to be in the bunch with the rest of the midfield teams, as they ended last year. They've come out with an aggressive design and certainly in the fast corners up at Turn Nine for example, the car looks very hooked up. It didn't seem to have the same level of stability during the changes of direction as the other midfield cars. However, with their technical partnership with Ferrari, more money and an increased headcount, they should be able to keep pushing development.
McLaren seemed to confuse a lot of people this week as they did last year. The did some pretty strong headline times but at the end of the week, when you try and apply the fuel and tyre corrections, they seem to be in that midfield battle as well. If we're honest, that will be a step forward for McLaren who are looking to rebuild after a difficult season last year, where on occasions towards the end of the year they had the slowest car on the grid. A step back into the midfield and Qualifying in Q3 on occasion will be a sign of solid progress.
Williams arrived at the party late and unfortunately for them, unlike the Brawn in 2009 or the McLaren MP4/4 in 1988, they haven't shown signs of springing a surprise. The car does look like it's lacking grip and downforce out on track meaning that highly-rated rookie George Russell and F1's most popular returnee Robert Kubica could be in for a battle amongst themselves initially. If the team are able to bring some decent upgrades and make steps forward they could get back into that midfield battle but it will take a big push from the design team to find some downforce.
See you in Melbourne.
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