In earlier unrestricted times, Formula 1 preseason testing was by definition, more of discovering what didn’t work than what did; breaking things delivered more usable race craft knowledge than perfect runs. The aim was to develop a matrix of “what ifs” and “if-thens”…so in the heat of the championship battle, a team would have a known setting solution for every situation, be it cold monsoon rain, stifling dry heat, or Q3 “finding the last tenth” dramas. Those days disappeared with cost curbs and 2014 hybrid power units.
As with last year, the 2015 F1 preseason had three prescribed test weeks, with no outside private testing allowed. All those “what ifs” and “if-thens” needed to be discovered and added to the matrix in only 12 days; falling behind was at their peril.
Last season proved that reliability, more than sheer pace, was the key to victories. The delicate hybrid units (PU) that provided steady power for the entire distance won (read Mercedes). Thus, for 2015, long runs are key to establishing the matrix; setting up the car to be in-sync over a set distance with steady power, on any tires, and at the most reliable pace. Therefore, the more testing miles on the package, the better.
Who had the best plan for this season?
Fans can no longer complain that the new F1 cars are “slugs”; the redesigned cars are much faster than last season. The pole time in Barcelona last year was 1m25.232s and Nico Rosberg set a 1m22.792s on Day 2 of the final test. The difference is part engine power gains (perhaps 80hp for Mercedes) and redesigned Pirelli tyres now estimated at between two and two and a half seconds per lap quicker.
As was evident last year from the first turn of a wheel, Mercedes F1 remain in a league of their own. Mercedes only used 1 engine for the 12 days of testing, logging over 6000km; equal to 20 race distances or four times more than the required 5 races per power unit for 2015. Ominously, Mercedes’ pure raw pace is still to be revealed as the team tested on heavy fuel loads. Further, their fastest times were established on medium compound tires as the team concentrated on running the tyre which will be the most common tyre used throughout the season.
While Williams still seem to lack proper rear downforce teammates Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas are only a second behind Mercedes, and last year Williams’ engineers out-developed everyone; a giant killer is lurking here.
Ferrari look like a new team and should; nearly everyone from 2014 was replaced. Their PU development has made quantum leaps. The result, at least in testing, is a car that can match Williams’ pace, and have, with Vettel and Raikkonen, two talented drivers itching to restore their reputations. They will try to shoulder Williams aside for the podium all season long.
Renault fell short of developing their PU upgrades to match Mercedes so, it will be a replay of 2014 for Team Red Bull once again; they will challenge on tight, bumpy raw downforce circuits, and fall behind at circuits with long straights. Still they are miles ahead of where they stood at this point in the preseason last year, and in Daniel Riccardo, they have a tiger ready to pounce on any opening.
The order after Winter testing is: Mercedes; Williams; Ferrari; Red Bull; Toro Rosso; Sauber; Lotus; Force India; McLaren (still unknown); and Manor (doubtful).
As the youngest driver in F1 history, Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen calmly got down to business in testing, not putting a wheel wrong and quickly dominating his teammate Carlos Sainz. That Verstappen has already been fitted for a seat in the sister Red Bull RB11 should concern Sainz, but absolutely chill Red Bull number two, Daniil Kvyat, who absolutely must excel against Verstappen. The seventeen year old is already seen by trusted F1 observers as an exceptional talent for the future.
In testing, Mercedes’ Rosberg still has the measure of Hamilton over one lap. Will Hamilton consistently find that extra percent of race pace in 2015? And with Mercedes again at the front, who will be able to handle the season long pressure of a probable driver’s title?
For a team that seemed to be unravelling at every seam in the off-season, Ferrari have obviously gained surprising speed, reliability and esprit d’corps. Could Fernando Alonso have missed the signs of that improvement, or were those signs obscured to make a place for Sebastien Vettel?
While the Mercedes team has gotten faster, the Mercedes-powered Lotus and Force India cars couldn’t match the Ferrari-powered Sauber and surprisingly the Renault-powered Toro Rosso.
McLaren/Honda. First it was their Fernando Alonso signing drama, then his teammate lottery soap opera. But all paled in comparison with the utter failure of the car’s Honda PU in testing. The MP4-30 ran as many laps in 12 days of testing as Force India’s VJM08 covered on the final 2 1/2 days of their new 2015 car; McLaren only achieving 800km or so which is under 50% of Red Bull’s disastrous 2014 testing total. The drivers remain optimistic about the chassis balance and poise, but Honda had the entire 2014 season to observe and re-engineer before their entry this season. Honda seems to have forgotten there secrets you can’t learn on a dynamometer (read Renault).
Finally, as if things couldn’t be more dire, Fernando Alonso suffered a puzzling crash at the end of the second week and had to sit out the final week’s testing. But, it turned out that was only half the damage. It was eventually revealed that Alonso had suffered memory loss following the impact, and would also miss the season-opener in Australia. He would instead need to wait for a medical evaluation to return, hopefully in Malaysia.
The overall MP4-30 ‘size zero’ bodywork package is gorgeous to gaze upon, but McLaren are 12 months behind with the Australian Grand Prix’s FP1 in less than 11 days time. Just finishing the first race looks doubtful. The team believes they will eventually become competitive when the European leg of the season begins in May, and with McLaren’s resources, they just might rise from the ashes. Realistically however, it seems 2015 will be a full season test session for the McLaren/Hondas as they perfect their package for 2016.
With Mercedes’ executive chairman, Niki Lauda, setting the tone, expect his dictum that “one win’s at the slowest speed possible, while putting the least amount of stress on the car” to be the team mantra. Since Mercedes admitted that they put their major emphasis on reliability during the off-season, trust then that Mercedes will again lead and win from the front, its 6000km in testing giving them a massive advantage in the 2015 “what if” and “if-then” sweepstakes.