The first week of Formula 1 pre-season testing at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona produced some surprising lap times and some unexpected names at the top of the timesheets, but can we really read anything into the lap times we’ve seen in week one?
The answer is yes, a little, but as yet, we’re still a day or two away from getting a clear idea of the 2019 competitor idea. Let’s start off by looking at some of the key numbers from last week’s opening test.
What’s important during week one?
At this stage, the most important thing to be looking at is mileage. The more mileage the teams can do in week one, the more things they can tick off their list in terms of understanding how their car works and how to identify the characteristics that will define how their car should be set up to achieve the best performance in a variety of scenarios.
Most cars will have different characteristics to one another - some will be kinder on their tyres, some cars’ performance will differ depending on fuel load, and some may even develop ‘diva’ like tendencies like Mercedes’ 2017 car, which was nicknamed as such because its response to setup changes was at times a little unpredictable.
All of this knowledge is vitally important for the teams to identify early on, and is largely why Robert Kubica explained that his Williams team have not yet begun preparing for the season-opening Melbourne Grand Prix, as their limited running so far means they’ll still be trying to understand the nuances of their new car.
Who will be happy so far?
So looking specifically at the times and mileage from last week, we can see that Mercedes and Ferrari are both, as you’d expect, running really well in terms of reliability and have clocked up some seriously impressive mileage in week one.
On the opening day of the first test, Sebastian Vettel described it as “near to perfection” as he clocked up a staggering 169 laps - the most by any driver on day one since pre-season testing became restricted in 2010.
Intriguingly, Alfa Romeo have started well, producing the third quickest time so far and the third highest mileage of all ten teams. Their lap time was particularly interesting too as they are they were the first team to go quicker than they did during last year’s pre-season test (if we compare them to Sauber) and so far they have made the biggest gain (1.3 seconds) compared to this time a year ago.
While Alfa Romeo’s lap-time improvement is eye-catching, claiming them to now be the third or fourth quickest team isn’t quite as simple as that and there are a few other things to take into consideration before we can really judge how much progress they’ve made.
Let’s take a quick look at how all ten teams performed in the first test, and try to make a case for where they currently stand in the pecking order
Mercedes - 610 laps (4th fastest time, 0.5s quicker than 2018 test)
At this stage of the test, Mercedes can be reasonably pleased with their mileage, but there’ll be one or two concerns about the handling of their W10 car heading into week two. Valtteri Bottas spoke of “massive” balance issues last week, and the team have responded by bringing a major upgrade to address their early teething troubles before they begin work on low-fuel performance runs. Both Bottas and Toto Wolff have suggested the team may be a little behind Ferrari at present, and with their tyre adjusted best time placing them fourth overall, the early signs are that their admission is genuine.
Ferrari - 598 laps (5th fastest time, 0.8s slower than 2018 test)
Don’t be fooled by Ferrari’s time being only the fifth quickest so far and over eight-tenths down on their best during last season’s test. Their time was set on the C3 compound which is over a second (according to Pirelli) slower than the C5 compound which Toro Rosso used for the leading time so far. Vettel spoke of his delight at the first week’s running and adjusting the times around what compound has been used, Ferrari appears to be quickest of all so far. There’ll no doubt be more performance to unlock in week two, but the early signs are that Ferrari might just be the leading team at this point in the test.
Alfa Romeo - 507 laps (3rd fastest time, 1.3s quicker than 2018 test)
Sauber, or Alfa Romeo as they’re now officially known, appears to have made some huge strides compared to winter testing last year. While some of that performance will have carried over from the team’s development in the second half of last season, the early signs are that Alfa Romeo have made progress up the order and with over 500 laps on the board so far, the team appear to have a quick and reliable car. Kimi Raikkonen says the team have not yet concentrated on qualifying simulations, but Antonio Giovinazz’s tyre adjusted time on the C3 tyre places them currently just a tenth shy of Ferrari’s leading pace. It’s unlikely that will be reflective of their genuine position in the pecking order, but it’s a very promising start.
Toro Rosso - 482 laps (2nd fastest time, 0.7s quicker than 2018 test)
Another team who will be pleased with their first week’s running in their 2019 car are Toro Rosso, who set the second quickest time overall last week and proved that Honda’s 2019 power until is perhaps more competitive than expected. Toro Rosso’s showing last week will be encouraging too for Red Bull, who for the first time will use Honda power this year and will benefit from having comparable data once the season begins. It’s early days, but team boss Franz Tost says he has been extremely impressed with Honda’s development over the winter, and his ambition of competing for regular points in the midfield should be realistic this season.
Red Bull - 470 laps (8th fastest time, 0.7s slower than 2018 test)
Once again, don’t be fooled by the times, Red Bull’s performance last week was better than it appeared on the timing sheets, and both Christian Horner and Dr Helmut Marko have been glowing in their praise of Honda’s 2019 power unit, with Horner describing it as fitting the team’s RB15 car “like a Swiss watch”.
With a new power unit, Red Bull will have spent a large part of last week focusing on understanding the capabilities of their new Honda package and won’t yet have begun focusing fully on performance. Adjusting the times around Pirelli's suggested lap time delta between compounds puts Red Bull sixth quickest, but their performance runs this week will be hotly anticipated as we wait to see if they’ve finally closed the gap to the front.
McLaren - 445 laps (6th fastest time, 0.6s slower than 2018 test)
At present, the team’s quickest lap set by Lando Norris on the C4 compound tyre places them sixth fastest of the 10 teams, but that becomes ninth when adjusted for tyre compound deltas. An unspectacular performance from McLaren in week one, but the team will be encouraged by their mileage which was significantly higher than they have managed during the first week of testing in recent years. With Alonso gone, the team have a much less-experienced driver lineup to source feedback from, and week two will be especially important for the team who are looking to return to midfield respectability after ending 2018 with the second slowest car.
Renault - 433 laps (Fastest time overall, 0.7s quicker than 2018 test)
This is an important season for Renault, as the heavy investment that the French manufacturer has made in recent years must begin to pay off soon. The quickest time in week one, set by Nico Hulkenberg on the C5 tyre, hints that Renault will at least be fighting at the front of the midfield, but with performance runs still to come, new recruit Daniel Ricciardo will be eager to see where his new team shake-up after admitting the team “won’t be winning races this year”. The team made steady progress across the four days last week, carving chunks of time as it moved from slowest on day one to quickest on day four. A DRS failure which pitched Ricciardo into the gravel was a minor hiccup, but with a total of 433 laps on the board, the team appear to have a good base with which to work with during week two.
Haas - 384 laps (7th fastest time, 0.2s quicker than 2018 test)
A frustrating week for the American team, despite their tyre adjusted time being roughly third quickest during week one. A serious of mechanical issues restricted the team’s running, and a bizarre headrest issue meant test driver Pietro Fittipaldi was forced to step in at short notice to replace Kevin Magnussen on Tuesday. There appears to be decent pace in the Haas VF-19 but being over 200 laps down on the frontrunning teams after week one gives them an uphill task to iron out their issues during the second week, and to optimise their car’s performance ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in less than three week’s time.
Racing Point - 248 laps (9th quickest time, 0.7s quicker than 2018 test)
It’s difficult to gauge Racing Point’s competitiveness so far, as the team admits their fractured second half to last season delayed the team’s development of their 2019 car and technical director Andy Green has even said that they are working to optimise a car they won’t have in Melbourne. A “substantial upgrade” is planned for the first race, but won’t see the light of day during week two here in Barcelona, and a lack of parts have so far restricted the team’s running to just 248 laps, less than half that of the leading teams. A tough start so far, but there is optimism coming out of the team that 2019 will be a positive season once they are able to bring upgrades to the car.
Williams - 88 laps (Slowest time overall, 1.8s slower than 2018 test)
As pre-season tests go, last week was a disaster for Williams. Forced to miss the opening two and a half days, deputy team principal Claire Williams called it embarrassing and had to deal with difficult questions regarding the future of technical director Paddy Lowe.
Slowest of all, the least number of laps, and way behind on their run programme, George Russell says it is important that he and teammate Robert Kubica keep the motivated this week, but even as a rookie, he will realise the team will likely be racing towards the back of the field when the season gets underway.
Tyre adjusted times (based on Pirelli data)
1 Ferrari 1:16.846s 2 Alfa Romeo +0.115s 3 Haas +0.517s 4 Mercedes +0.531s 5 Renault +0.547s 6 Red Bull +0.734s 7 Toro Rosso +0.791s 8 Racing Point +0.918s 9 McLaren +0.985s 10 Williams +2.951s
Of course, we don’t know what fuel loads the teams are running, and the adjusted times based on Pirelli’s tyre compound deltas should be treated as an estimate. The picture at the front appears to suggest Ferrari are on top, but behind that, it’s a little unclear. The midfield should be very competitive this year, and we still are yet to see what Williams can do. Week two will be fascinating, but it won’t be until Thursday at the earliest that we begin to get a true picture of where everyone stands.
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