The talking points from the final winter test
Just how far ahead are Mercedes, where will McLaren be in Melbourne, and will winter testing ever please everyone?
By James Galloway and William Esler
Last Updated: 03/03/15 8:58am
Five discussion points from the final test of the winter as the focus now turns to Melbourne - and the first race of the 2015 F1 season...
Might Mercedes be even further ahead?
One of the problems with the shadow-boxing marathon that is F1 pre-season testing is that it’s initially easy to see things which turn out not to be real. Back at the start of February in Jerez and it was the early 2015 timesheet-topping form of Ferrari which was making all the headlines, whereas there were suggestions that Mercedes, whisper it, may have fallen into the trap of being too ‘conservative’ with the successor to the all-conquering W05.
The longer testing went on though, one inescapable reality beame ever clearer: the world champions remain by some distance the team to beat. The fact rivals are themselves already referring to a separate cluster of more evenly-matched teams behind the Silver Arrows is telling enough in itself.
"From a performance point of view, it’s clear that Mercedes is still ahead by quite a way, but right behind there is us, Williams and Red Bull, all very close," remarked Sebastian Vettel on the final day, while the use of adjectives such as “depressing” and “unbelievable” in reference to the W06’s pace from other rivals over the past week has underlined the sizeable gap which remains between the champions and the rest.
Not that any of this should prove all that much of a surprise. While Mercedes had already served notice of the W06’s potency with their pace on the medium tyres on the final day of the first Barcelona test, it was their eagerly-anticipated first run of the winter on softs in the second week when the task for the opposition became clear. Nico Rosberg’s fastest time of 1:22.792 wasn’t only jaw-dropping because it proved comfortably the quickest of the two tests, it was two tenths of a second faster than the next non-W06 best set by Williams' Valtteri Bottas when the Finn was running on the faster supersofts. If you factor in a conservative one second difference in tyre performance, and put aside any noticeable difference in fuel loads, that amounts to 1.2s advantage in Mercedes’ favour. The long runs also showed Mercedes to have a comfortable cushion.
The gap between the Mercedes and Williams in qualifying at the 2014 season finale was half a second and, on the evidence of the two Barcelona tests, it looks as though it will be at least that margin again come two Saturdays’ time in Melbourne.
Where does testing leave McLaren?
During the 12 days of pre-season testing, only twice did the faltering MP4-30 complete 58 laps or more in a single session - the distance of the Australian GP. The myriad of technical problems experienced by the reunited McLaren-Honda partnership across the three tests mean that, as things stand, the smart money would certainly be on one of Button or Alonso being the first to drop out before the chequered flag falls in Melbourne.
McLaren themselves have already attempted to manage expectations for the opening four flyaway races with Eric Boullier predicting that "by Europe we should be more competitive". If you take the basic timesheet from the final test as the vaguest of guides, when the MP4-30's quickest time of 1:25.225 was two-and-a-half seconds slower than Mercedes' benchmark, McLaren simply have their work cut out to get out of Q1 in Melbourne, although such is the way in F1 that the team will probably start to trim such a gap even before qualifying.
Still, as McLaren know only too well from last year when they claimed their only podiums of the year Down Under, one race certainly doesn't make a season and, despite all the winter setbacks, the prevailing mood inside the team remains one of longer-term optimism. Just take Kevin Magnussen's effusive remarks from his 39-lap maiden run in the MP4-30 on Day Three: "It’s a completely different car and doesn’t feel related to last year’s car at all. It’s just much more consistent, there aren’t as many surprises as last year’s car. When you drive it it’s much more predictable and driver-friendly. I really like it – it certainly seems like a good base for a really good car."
So, while extracting the car's full potential may take a little while, McLaren just might spring a surprise or two once the 2015 season hits its stride.
And where are Renault at?
After taking the blame for Red Bull’s fall from grace in 2014, the pressure is on Renault to deliver this year as rumours continue to circulate that the former world champions could switch supplier or even look at building their own engine one day.
Following the demise of Caterham and Lotus’ defection to Mercedes, Renault now only supply two teams. While that allows them to focus their development targets on what Red Bull and Toro Rosso need, it also limits their data gathering as they have only had two cars pounding around in Spain rather than four.
Renault’s Director of Operations Remi Taffin believes the team have halved their engine efficiency deficit to Mercedes. That's the good news. The worrying thing is that he isn't predicting any race wins until late in 2015. “We had a target to go on top of our gap so I am not going to display any numbers, but we have gone onto our target which was to halve the gap to Mercedes,” he said on the final day at Barcelona. “We tried to put ourselves somewhere to be closer to start the position and I think we will try to be closer at the end of the season when we will try to win races."
From trackside the Renault engine sounds notably ‘rougher’ than the rival Ferrari and Mercedes units and it must be daunting for Red Bull to head into the season knowing their supplier aren’t expecting to be competitive from the off.
How far will Force India slip backwards?
In the optimism-knows-no-bounds world of winter testing, it’s rare to hear a team publicly admit that they’re likely to start the new season further back in the order than where they finished the last. But, on the back of their best-ever season in 2014, that's exactly what Force India are expecting in the wake of their "cash-flow" issues of the winter. “Unfortunately we will make a step back,” Bob Fernley, their Deputy Team Principal, told Sky F1. “We will be behind at the start but hopefully we will reverse our recent trend and have a good second half of the season instead.”
In this particular case, the candid nature of the comments is not that surprising given Force India’s 2015 car only turned its first wheel on track half-way through Day Two of the final test. But although the car was late, the extra time the team's engineers have had on its development appears to have helped on the reliability front with the VJM08 completing an astonishing 365 laps in two-and-a-bit days of action – only 15 fewer than McLaren-Honda managed all winter.
Still, while reliability is one thing, performance is quite the other, and with their usual rivals much further ahead in honing their respective cars’ performance and set-up, it's hard to see how Force India are going to arrive in Melbourne as the sixth-fastest team. So how far will they fall? Well, with optimism high following their own move to Mercedes engines, Lotus are targeting a return to consistent Q3 appearances from the off in Melbourne, while even Sauber believe they can reclaim their habitual position in the heart of the midfield. Toro Rosso usually start seasons well too. The wild card, of course, remains McLaren and Force India may still fancy their chances of beating their long-time 2014 rival in Melbourne given that simply making the chequered flag could count for everything.
Can winter testing ever be perfect?
After last season’s expensive experiment of warm-weather testing in Bahrain proved short-lived, the Circuit de Catalunya returned as the host for the second and third tests this year. However, judging by some of the complaints from drivers in regard to the chilly weather conditions experienced over the past fortnight, you could be forgiven for thinking that F1 cars had never run at Barcelona in late February before.
While Jerez, the regular venue for the first winter test, is considered an anomalous track compared to those on the F1 race calendar, the sweeping, high-speed Barcelona remains the definitive test of a new challenger's aerodynamics, even if car behaviour can be affected by the cold conditions of early morning and late afternoon.
Ferrari’s James Allison, though, argued that teams could still understand the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of their cars: "Winter testing in Europe always asks slightly different questions from the car than you get when you’re in Bahrain: but it doesn’t turn night into day. Most of what the car really is is revealed here as much as on the other Grand Prix circuits during the year."
With testing outside Europe in any case now outlawed under the Sporting Regulations, the winter schedule will also be cut to just two tests next year, meaning that Barcelona could potentially be the only venue the teams get to run at before tackling the hotter climes of a late Australian summer.