Formula 1’s first round of testing the new 2019 new wing and aerodynamic rules puts Mercedes on their back foot
With Formula 1’s first of two four-day runs of 2019 pre-season testing at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya complete, and the first of millions of data points recorded and under analysis, the teams have only four remaining days to unlock the potential of their newest rocket ships. They’ll return to the track February 25-March 1, and then it’s off to the Melbourne season-opener, March 14-17.
With only 64-hours in total, teams must fit, measure, run and perfect their designs to match tyre compounds with suspension and aero settings. The end product is a veritable playbook for their entire F1 season, so any early successes allow teams the luxury of more in-depth data gathering, and any setback means the loss of hours or even days worth of data not easily captured during the season.
We’ve had close looks at each team’s progress and can now offer our informed take on how the teams have responded to the new rules changes, and which teams could already have a head start toward capturing the Constructor’s crown 21 Grands Prix from now in Abu Dhabi.
Last season, Mercedes-AMG captured their fifth-straight dual Constructor’s and Driver’s Championships. While they have dominated F1 since the current FIA engine formula appeared – they have captured 74 wins, this season’s new front and rear wing changes, bargeboard limits and simplified tyre compound management may have given Mercedes’ rivals a chance to upset their momentum.
Mercedes’ new W10 arrived in Barcelona with a conservative set of aero mods and their traditional low rake chassis, passing over their rivals’ universal adoption of the high-rake ( higher rear ride height ) Ferrari and Red Bull designs. Lap times and on-track observations suggest Mercedes is on its back foot as both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas keep a low profile as they struggle with lack of front grip on corner turn-in, especially after braking. The sliding is costing them tenths of a second throughout the course, and threatening tyre blistering on long runs.
Red Bull offered their usual tight-lipped response as to their speed – and it was perfectly understandable. Red Bull never goes lap time “hunting” the first test week, preferring to button down reliability. With new engine partner Honda, it was Red Bull’s first chance to run the Honda’s revised power unit, and the good news was that the squad ran more laps than it has ever managed in pre-season, leaving now team-leader Max Verstappen beaming. Expect the Dutchman to seriously pick up the speed this week – and expect the Red Bull squad will take its share of 2019 wins and podiums.
Alfa Romeo arrived looking quick with its radical new front wing, having dropped the Sauber name, and added a blazing fast 39-year old pilot, returning to the squad 18-years after leaving Sauber following his dream rookie season. Kimi Raikkonen, partnering with the now impressive long-run specialist Antonio Giovinazzi, proceeded to wring out the Alfa, first with a spin and then with consistently competitive times. The Alfa Romeo will enable Raikkonen to fight for consistent points finishes freely and, with more work to increase grip, who knows?
In Thursday afternoon’s final runs, Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault bolted on Pirelli’s softest tyre and made all of France proud, topping the final first-week timesheets with a 1:7.393, with partner Daniel Riccardo setting the fastest time that morning – nearly heroic due to his previous rear wing failure on the front straight.
Renault has made significant gains with their engine and the team’s esprit de corps. Still, the Ecurie was troubled to have not completed nearly the number of laps needed for a complete data log. The car is well balanced and should expect to be a co-leader of the midfield next to the new Alfa Romeo.
We’ll see if they have rethought their set-up approach this week. Mercedes will also be running their power unit in qualifying mode for the first time (as well as other teams), so we’ll see if the added power offsets any time lost to lack of balance and understeer. We think not.
Ferrari, on the other hand, seemed to land on their feet already in sprinting blocks. The SF90 was fast and agile from its first turn of a wheel. With Mattia Binotto’s new “openness” era on display, Scuderia Ferrari seemed a completely different squad from last season’s team. Both Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc suffered severe cramping from smiling so often – with Vettel even calling the opening session “unbelievable”. Their big smiles were backed up by their prodigious speed – Vettel fastest on Monday; Leclerc fastest on Tuesday.
With their speed dialled in, the pair got down to trouble-free longer runs that put them in a category all their own – sharp turn in, no lockups and a rear that seems to have the grip to spare. Should this week produce the same speed differential at higher qualifying-mode engine settings, Ferrari can be called the legitimate season benchmark.
Any team looking to be 2019 World Champions will need to beat the newer, faster, and more positive Scuderia Ferrari.
For the 2018 season, Toro Rosso took up the challenge of seasoning Honda and its engine for parent team Red Bull. Mission well accomplished, they can now turn their attention 100% toward themselves. They have developed a well-balanced car that needs more hours to produce downforce and grip.
The team is planning to spend the entire season developing each system. So far, they’re on the right track as punctuated by the lap time rookie Alexander Albon’s produced on the first week’s final day. With the right development program in 2019, Toro Rosso will soon step out of Red Bull’s shadow.
Last year, McLaren came to the hard reality last year that it was their aero sums were severely flawed and paid for it not only with their entire season but also with Fernando Alonso’s resignation. For 2019, everything is new, and the team responded the first week with grit and resolve. Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris are aggressive drivers who aren’t afraid to mix it up. McLaren will successfully return to mid-field with a car renewed with aggression.
Williams burned the midnight oil rushing to get their all-new FW42 to Barcelona, only arriving at 4 am on the third day, hitting the track in the afternoon. Plagued with flawed aero numbers for the last two seasons, they paid dearly for the curse of the modern F1 era – faulty data.
The car was missing many new aero and body-bits, yet still looked stable and responsive. It will take time for them to get their balance as a team with the help of George Russell and miracle-man Robert Kubica. If Williams truly knows their data is correct, they will make up the ground this week. Wish them luck – they’re not the first champions nor will they be the last to fall from grace. Now they’ll use the grit that brought them multiple World Championships to set their team on the right course by midseason.
So, should this week deliver decent weather, Circuit de Catalunya will graduate a new F1 class with ample competitiveness and the chance for surprise winners and perhaps a new Champion. There is one certainty, every car in the 2019 field will be faster, driven by a collection of proven champions and younger drivers who will not be satisfied with anything but passing their way to the front of the field.