The 5 biggest questions from F1 testing
Eight days of Formula 1 pre-season testing over two weeks in Barcelona and what have we learnt? The short answer is nothing definitive (as usual). The old Johnny Nash reggae song ‘There Are More Questions Than Answers’ would be a fitting F1 earworm right now.
Lap times set on different tyres, fuel levels, engine maps and so on make conclusions about what to expect at the opening grand prix of 2019, in Australia on 17th March, nothing more than provisional. But patterns have emerged.
So let’s take a step back and consider the bigger picture beyond Melbourne. Testing has thrown up some key questions about the shape of F1 this year, and we can at least take a calculated stab at answering them.
1. Will this finally be Ferrari’s year?
Why not? Last year could have been and some would say should have been. This time, the closest thing that appears to be definitive from pre-season testing is that Ferrari has a significant performance edge ahead of the Albert Park opener.
The SF90 appeared well poised and balanced in both Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc’s hands, with Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas indicating they believe the red cars have an edge in the region of 0.3 seconds to even half a second.
The two weeks weren’t perfect for Ferrari, with Vettel’s second-week crash the most obvious setback. But a wheel rim failure, while unpleasant for the driver in that moment, is hardly something of major concern. Vettel left Spain safe in the knowledge that his team has provided him with the hardware to add a fifth world title to his personal tally, and a career-defining first for Ferrari.
But that was also the case last year. To fully answer our big question, we first have to ask whether this time Ferrari can offer the support its lead driver needs, under the new management of Mattia Binotto – and whether Vettel himself has the resilience to re-set back to his brilliant best after the glaring errors that marred his 2018 season.
If the answers to those two questions are both ‘yes’, then Ferrari will have what it takes to clinch a first world title since 2007.
2. Has Mercedes lost its edge?
No. But perhaps it’s not as sharp at this stage as it has been in recent years.
Let’s not overreact to Merc’s unspectacular Barcelona showing. By the end of the second week, Lewis Hamilton did at least bank a time almost on a par with Ferrari’s best afterall. But a raft of aerodynamic upgrades for that second week were a sign of how hard the team is working to claw back an apparent Ferrari deficit.
What we do know is that Mercedes has both the talent and means to regain its cutting edge, if indeed it needs to. And in Hamilton, it has a driver who can make up shortcomings, as he did last year – although that is a factor no team would ever want to rely on.
Merc will be fine. But a sixth consecutive title double will surely require new levels of perspiration to defeat a rival armed with an arsenal of at least equal power.
3. Can Red Bull-Honda win races in 2019?
As usual, the Red Bull chassis looked sharp out on track in Barcelona, and the air of optimism around the team was enhanced by a reasonably trouble-free two weeks. Prangs for Pierre Gasly lost the team some track time, but the new Honda partnership got off to an assured start.
In terms of pace, Red Bull appears to remain F1’s third-ranking team – but perhaps the gap to Mercedes is closer than it was.
It’s too early to say if the RB15 can be a winner in 2019. But Max Verstappen has the Hamilton-like ability to raise the bar himself and, in the right circumstances on the right day at the right track, the odd victory or two should be a realistic target.
Red Bull is too ferociously ambitious, both as a team and a group of driven individuals, to expect anything less.
4. Has the midfield fight just got even tighter?
It was super-tight last year, and on the evidence of Barcelona testing, the answer is yes. Headline fastest lap times should always be taken with a bucketful of salt, but they will have at least offered the likes of Renault, Toro Rosso and McLaren some indication of progress.
Renault, now boasting the talents of Daniel Ricciardo, does appear to be best of the rest behind the Ferrari-Mercedes-Red Bull axis of power, but Haas, Toro Rosso, McLaren and Alfa Romeo will all be pitching for that status, too.
Haas quietly got on with the job of learning about its new car in Spain and showed the usual under-the-radar promise; Alfa’s Kimi Räikkönen appeared to be enjoying himself back at the team formerly known as Sauber; McLaren had an air of greater stability as new drivers Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris acclimatised (watched closely by team ‘ambassador’ Fernando Alonso); and the signs are Toro Rosso might sustain a higher level of performance this time around, with a tighter collaboration with sister team Red Bull.
Racing Point endured a few setbacks. But the consensus seems to be that the team formerly known as Force India should also be in the thick of that fraught midfield battle, too. Whatever happens at the sharp end, the ‘second division’ promises to be frenetic in 2019.
5. Is Williams in trouble?
Perhaps not as much as in 2018, but the delayed start to testing (“embarrassing”, admitted Claire Williams), a curtailed final day and a general lack of pace doesn’t exactly bode well.
There’s so much goodwill for the returning Robert Kubica and talented Formula 2 champion George Russell. But there’s an unpalatable and very real fear that their efforts could all be for nothing. They might be in for a slog of a season.
Photography by Ferrari and Motorsport Images.