The talking points from Barcelona
Ferrari, Lotus and Verstappen continue to impress, but there's an ominous warning in the lap times from Mercedes
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 23/02/15 8:11am
Just how much are Mercedes holding back?
Don’t be fooled by Mercedes' failure to top a timesheet so far this winter. As Sebastian Vettel told reporters at Barcelona, the world champions are “still the team to beat”. Although Mercedes have devoted the first eight days of winter testing to honing their new car’s reliability, there’s already been tell-tale indications about the ominious potential of the W06 - starting with the lap of 1:24.321 by Nico Rosberg on the final afernoon which, while not the fastest lap of the test, was very arguably the lap of the week.
Despite running on the medium compound, Mercedes’ tyre of choice throughout, the warning was writ large as the W06 matched best Red Bull and Ferrari produced on the softs and lapped within half a second of Romain Grosjean's benchmark time for the test, a 1:24.067, when the Lotus was armed with supersofts.
It’s a guessing game until Melbourne, but the best bet at this stage is that the Silver Arrows still possess several tenths over the chasing pack.
The week's fastest laps:
Romain Grosjean, Lotus, 1:24.067, Supersofts, Day Four
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, 1:24.321, Mediums, Day Four
Pastor Maldonado, Lotus, 1:24.348, Supersofts, Day Three
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, 1:24.574, Softs, Day Two
Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 1:24.584, Softs, Day Two
Felipe Massa, Williams, 1:24.672, Softs, Day Two
Sergio Perez, Force India, 1:24.702, Supersofts, Day Two, 2014 car
Max Verstappen, Toro Rosso, 1:24.739, Supersofts, Day Three
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:24.923, Mediums, Day Two
Daniil Kvyat, Red Bull, 1:24.941, Softs, Day Four
Why are under-prepared McLaren so confident?
While McLaren have insisted there was nothing untoward in Fernando Alonso’s crash on the final day, dismissing speculation their driver may have fainted at the wheel of the MP4-30, there must be concern about the health of their hypochondriac new car.
Having effectively sat out the Jerez test, when the MP4-30 could barely be cajoled into leaving the team’s garage, their lap count made only modest gains in Barcelona. After Alonso’s accident brought McLaren's participation this week to a premature halt, their tally for the year stands at 203. Mercedes have nearly five times that count.
The shortage has become so dire that even if – and it’s a big 'if' at this stage – McLaren enjoy a productive test next week at Barcelona, they will still arrive in Melbourne under-prepared.
Yet despite the team itself admitting as much, and the MP4-30 still being untested at full power, McLaren remain publicly and privately adamant they will come good. “I don’t know how long it is going to take but we will win,” Alonso predicted on Friday. “We are not in for another tough season – that is definitely not the case,” concurred Jenson Button a day later. “We are not going to have a race-winning car at the first race, but we might have one at the last race.”
The confidence, in the face of such a frustrating winter, is almost unnerving. And it begs an obvious question: just what do McLaren know about their car that the rest of us don’t?
Ferrari may be the new best of the rest
When, in the pessimistic early weeks of 2015, a Ferrari insider all-but ruled out a title challenge from the Scuderia this year, the maths was as starkly simple as it was persuasively prohibitive.
Ferrari had ended 2014 fully two seconds adrift of Mercedes. As the Maranello insider mournfully mused, although Ferrari might be able to claw back half of that deficit, Mercedes were themselves bound to find another half a second between seasons. Whatever way it was counted, the numbers just couldn’t add up to a title tilt.
Or so the argument went before testing began and, almost without warning, the SF15-T suddenly leapt out of the traps.
If, in the words of Nico Rosberg, the SF15-T’s pace was “eye-opening” in Jerez, it was positively head-turning in Barcelona. Although their Day Two effort on the soft compound didn't compare as favourably, the Day One lap of 1:25.167 set by Kimi Raikkonen wasn’t merely good enough to have claimed pole position at the 2014 Spanish GP but it was fully two seconds faster than the best lap set by a Ferrari last May at the same circuit. And there was devil in the detail too because Raikkonen was running on the mediums. Factor in the one second of pace that, in theory at least, that would be gained on the soft compound and all of a sudden the maths takes on an altogether more promising equation.
Nobody should expect Ferrari to lead the field when the season starts. They still appear to be at least half a second behind Mercedes. But don't be surprised if there's only a Silver Arrows in front of the SF15-T in Australia.
Have Renault already put Red Bull on the backfoot?
In the smoke-and-mirrors world of F1, even the most disarming of statements can contain hidden meanings. So when Red Bull boss Christian Horner confirmed to Sky Sports that Renault intend to hold back a few of their engine-upgrade ‘tokens’ until later in the season, the disclosure was instantly leapt upon as confirmation that the new Renault engine is – relatively speaking – a dud.
While nobody knows that for sure, and nobody will know that for sure until Australia, there’s been scant encouragement in the timesheets for the former world champions. Daniel Ricciardo may have led the way on Day Two, but he did so when running on soft tyres. Few in the paddock would have failed to note that Hamilton, using the one-second-a-lap slower medium compound, was less than half a second behind the RB11. The car might be in disguise, but the reality looks clear: the revisions planned for the final test are urgently required.
Verstappen is living up to the hype
The boy is doing good. Seemingly totally unfazed by the fuss his appointment to a full race seat at the age of 17 has generated, the Toro Rosso youngster followed his impressive debut in Jerez with another accomplished performance in Barcelona. Verstappen’s haul of 200 laps even included the sixth-fastest time of the week. More importantly, it didn’t include a single discernible mistake. This could be the start of something very promising indeed.