Welcome (Back) And 2nd F1 Testing: 7th-10th of March
Hello and/or welcome back to the ravings of an F1 obsessed lunatic. I say that because I have realised that the last (and first) post was very long; but I think it always was going to be, setting the scene for this blog and the teams in general ahead of this year. This time I shall try to keep my descriptions and pondering analysis as short as possible; but as always with F1 there is plenty to talk about. Whilst most of the topics discussed here will be elaborations on my views of first week of testing there are some new developments to catch up on.
Yet again I will follow through each team in order of last year’s championship and try to collate their differing information from the 4 days of testing into reasonable sized chunks. The difference this week is at the end of each section I am going to stick my neck on the line with predictions for the final constructor table position, even though it is all very difficult to tell at this stage. Any fool can say what will happen once they have begun to see it happen and so I resolved to make my predictions before a turn of a wheel, not post-Melbourne. As for drivers, that is a more complicated matter in terms of predictions (due to individual and human ups and downs throughout the year) but expect future posts during the season to be more evenly team and driver oriented. But enough rambling, let’s talk about the teams in testing and what might be expected when it all gets under way.
Mercedes AMG Petronas
Testing week 2 saw Mercedes again pound the track relentlessly, managing 538 laps over the 4 days. They still look bloody quick as well, breaking the 1:20 lap barrier on all days but the first and topping the time-sheets on day 2 with Valtteri Bottas. The real news is the strange war of compliments between Mercedes and Ferrari. Lewis Hamilton struck first, pulling no punches on Tuesday, by speculating that the “Ferrari might be quickest” only for Vettel to viciously retort that Mercedes “are the ones to beat” on Thursday. This only angered Hamilton further as he insisted Ferrari “are very close, if not faster” than his own team. Someone hold them back, I don’t think I can watch.
But with joking aside, these comments are obviously an example of an age old trick in sport: to remove the pressure of your expected success and dump it firmly upon your rivals, hoping they crack. However, what is most interesting to me is that Mercedes are also playing Ferrari’s game which perhaps shows they feel a little more vulnerable than last term.
So with all that, let’s talk predictions. Unfortunately, as a pessimist I am siding with Vettel and I believe there will not be change at the top. The Mercedes engine is still the dominant power unit and with Hamilton and Bottas in the car they have an experienced and talented driver pairing. At worst case scenario, the Germans will take off the sand bags and clock a heart-breakingly quick qualifying lap in Melbourne to shatter morale. At best, and what I expect: their rivals will be closer to them than last campaign, hopefully winning races and making an exciting season. Either way, Mercedes have grown a culture of winning over the last 4 years which one winter will not have erased. All the indication from testing shows Mercedes are still at the top of their game.
They will come 1st.
Red Bull-Renault (Tag Heuer)
Red Bull are another team that Hamilton expects to have made strides towards Mercedes this season. However, both a medium total lap count of 390 and quickest laps consistently in the 1:20 bracket have meant Red Bull’s wings have flown them under the radar in testing this week. Actually on the whole they have had a fairly quiet winter performance wise: perhaps Hamilton thinks it is eerily quiet. As I said last week, you can never count out the possibility that Red Bull might have something up their sleeves. It is concerning for Red Bull that on the whole the Renault engine seems less reliable than last term, but on the flip side that could simply mean that Renault are pushing hard to catch up. However, that being said Verstappen’s breakdown and a subsequent later setback on day 2 was the most Red Bull had to deal with on their side of the engine woes. In short they have somehow managed to utilise better reliability on their engine than the Renault factory team. Daniel Ricciardo also has said the engine is not an issue and they are “balanced on engine and chassis” in terms of pace.
So, swiftly on to their prediction. Red Bull, as with last year seem to have emerged as the dark horses of the competition. Furthermore, aerodynamics are more important than last term and they have an ace in the hole with Adrian Newey who will continue to provide excellent development through the season. The big question will probably be whether or not Renault can scrape enough power from their engine without it blowing up too much (plenty talk of that later for all my fellow disgruntled McLaren-Honda fans). Good enough aero? Check. Good enough drivers? Check (in my opinion the single most talented pairing on the grid in Verstappen and Ricciardo). Good enough engine? debatable. So, due to being in a still largely engine dominated era of F1, I can see them mounting a consistent podium challenge again this term at the very worst. Maybe we will see some race wins.
They will come 3rd.
All aboard the hype train? Oh lord, let it be so. And it does seem so! 488 laps is a very handy total indeed for starters; that it is not quite into Mercedes territory is only and purely due to Raikkonen having an off at turn 3 on day 2 which stopped his running on 53 laps. Whilst turn 3 is a demanding corner grip wise, word is it was pure driver error and nothing due to the car, so relax you fans in red. This excellent long running is punctuated with the fastest lap on day 3 (a 1:19.024) from Vettel and the 0.804 margin between Raikkonen’s 1:18.634 and any other car on the final day. Whilst Alain Prost seems to disagree (he does have previous though, having been sacked from Ferrari in 1991) there is enough excuse to believe that Ferrari are back in business concerning a championship fight. Personally, I think I am slowly being turned into a Ferrari fan for this season; most notable influences include: prayers for a multiple driver title fight, my good friend and Ferrari guest at Barcelona this week Jos Matthews and the lamentable state of McLaren-Honda which frankly….later….later…
So, my prediction for Ferrari is a complicated one, because I so so wish I could say they would win the title. I also believe, unlike some, that Raikkonen still has what it takes at the age of 37 to mount a serious challenge alongside Vettel (who’s credentials are in no doubt) as long as he is given the right car. However, I am very wary of Ferrari’s ability to somehow manage to squander opportunities, as they did last year with their strategy in Melbourne and later in Canada. I am also very sure that Mercedes will not relinquish their iron-fisted grip of Formula 1 without a good, long tussle. I wanted to put Ferrari 1st, but I am settling for a vision in which Ferrari fight valiantly to the end and along with Mercedes and maybe Red Bull, give us a season to remember.
They will come 2nd.
Andrew Benson of BBC sport writes that “Force India have had a low-key winter and it is beginning to look as if the team that did brilliantly to finish fourth last year might be struggling for pace in 2017” and my own response to their first week of testing was similarly luke warm. I pondered the history of the Silverstone team and quickly judged their lap count and showing of pace. This time, as reflected in Benson’s quote there will be little much more to say, making a prediction difficult. What can be said in certainty though is that this week was a marked improvement, upping their total lap count markedly from 278 to an impressive 507 and also walking away from Catalunya with a positive showing of pace on day 3 with Esteban Ocon finishing 3rd on the timing. Perhaps however it is more important to look at their overall fastest lap spread of 1:20.116 by Perez to the 1:21.317 of Ocon to gauge a more representative positioning of their car.
Benson says Force India “might be struggling for pace” but I am ‘struggling’ to see where he gets that opinion in all honesty. The numbers seem pretty decent. Perhaps, he means compared to their car last year? If this is the case then perhaps he does have a point. I do think it will be incredibly difficult, as I pointed out last post, to achieve their ambition of 3rd: it is lofty to say the least. Instead and regrettably, I see a season in which they fall in the standings, not because of their own deficiencies (Force India are a very handy team) but because of the improvement of other teams around them. Their task will be made harder as the midfield of the grid is predicted to constrict a little into a more competitive environment especially with heavier emphasis on aero development. However, one team surely looks to have dropped out of that midfield at this stage….NO. Not yet. Anyway, where was I? Yes prediction….I fear this one may bite me, but…
They will come 6th.
Last week I went on a little bit of a tangent regarding Williams, arguing that due to the rising costs the sport is no longer suited to customer teams. Whilst I still believe that to be the case, I am going to get off the fence upon which I perched regarding Williams and argue that testing does indicate a strong season for them. Williams in the 2nd test actually led the way with laps completed, clocking up a mighty 587 laps, punctuated with a huge total from Massa of 168 on day one, where he also went fastest of all. I think the most impressive thing of all is what David Croft revealed on AskCrofty: they did ALL of the test days, meaning the first week as well, on the SAME ENGINE. A far cry from the next team… Anyway…That is a pretty mammoth feat and I think it shows Williams to have an excellent understanding of their power unit. Could they be entering into the mix for the championship? The signs are promising.
So lets make the prediction. This one is also rather up in the air in my mind and that it is due to the questions over the drivers and their abilities, something which is obviously more fluctuating than the car in which they sit. In Massa and Stroll they have an elder statesman and a rookie, there is no way around that. Last term Massa was practically blown away by Bottas (to the tune of 32 points) whilst the Finn was at Williams. Massa does seem to have a new lease of life, but my questions surround his diminishing race-craft not overall pace: put simply he is not the driver he was. For Stroll this is going to be a very interesting first year as he will be under a lot of pressure to deliver if Massa fails to deliver in the leading driver role. I feel that Williams have built a good car, but in the end I don’t believe their drivers will be in a position to deliver fully on it’s potential. I feel this year will be a good set-up for 2018 in which Paddy Lowe will properly have influence over the core of the car. They will however rise in the rankings and perhaps regularly challenge for podiums.
They will finish 4th.
Oh dear. Oh my dear me. I said last week that McLaren’s second test needed marked improvements. If anything they have gone backwards. With a combined total of 6 engine failures in week 2 to add to a similar amount in week 1, the term testing week has come to be a very painful double entendre for McLaren-Honda. Questions have also begun to surface on the ability of McLaren’s chassis but the team were quick to rubbish those, comparing them to “fake news” in the style of Donald Trump, which is itself humorous given the identical shade of orange adorning both the McLaren and the US president. However, Trump would have no problem in deeming the current prospects of the Woking team a “disaster” ahead of this campaign.
Fernando Alonso meanwhile is clearly incredibly frustrated with the state of affairs, the most damning statement being that “There is no reliability and there is no power. We are 30kph down on the straight…for us all the corners are flat”….Of course McLaren would not have allowed him to make such statements if they weren’t very irritated themselves with Honda’s engine. So, whilst not yet a full war of words, it can’t be long before it happens between the two parties. David Croft has asserted that “vibrations mean they cannot turn the engine up the whole way as it rocks all of the electrical connections about” simply meaning that when running on full pelt they lose all & any power. The numbers reflect such fragility: with only 217 laps to show for their efforts and a painfully embarrassing longest run of only 13 laps suggest that simply managing to complete the race distance in Australia will be triumph.
Honda surely ran the new engine endlessly on a dynamo to troubleshoot any potential issues, as every team does? But now in the MCL chassis problems have duly surfaced. To me this indicates that the vibration issue is due to a bad marrying of chassis and engine: the reports of bad drivability would also suggest this. On the whole it outlines a communication problem between England and Japan. Zak Brown has insisted there is no crisis but I am very sorry Zak, no amount of your cheery American optimism can hide that a crisis it definitely is. If it were me in charge of McLaren, I would be exploring a way to put the 2016 engine into the chassis for the beginning races until the new 2017 engine was sorted: to finish in the points you first have to finish right? After that I would quickly explore possibilities for a new engine supplier in 2018…Something needs to change to get sponsors back on the car and money covering the huge overheads, else we are looking at a very big crisis in the coming years.
And so heavily I come to my prediction for McLaren’s season and it is very difficult to judge. Crofty predicted they will be last in Australia, behind even Sauber. As a fan of McLaren I have to solemnly agree with that. However, I just cannot believe that such a state will be allowed to last beyond then and that they will step forward into the midfield again. Surely people are working around the clock in Japan to sort these horrific issues out? As for the drivers and their ability Stoffel Vandoorne is clearly talented and Fernando is the best driver on the grid, in my opinion: so they may be able to drag the car beyond it’s abilities. In conclusion I do think the car will sort itself out, but I do not know how late into the season that will be as they have a lot of ground to make up: let’s just hope that Fernando Alonso will not walk away from the team before then. At the very worst they will have a season of two halves, but with the midfield predicted to become more congested it is so hard to tell and I fear recovery will come too late….
They will finish 7th.
Toro Rosso are one of the main reasons why I think the midfield will become congested in 2017. That is simply because they are no longer running a year old Ferrari engine like in 2016, but will now run Renault’s 2017 engine allowing them to maintain engine development through the year and not fall backwards as they did last season. However, the Renault engine has not been treating them completely kindly in this last week of testing as “some small but frustrating background issues have broken up running” for the Italian team. However, on the whole they had improved running to week 1, amassing 401 laps of the track and showing some middling pace in the time-sheets. A gearbox issue on day 3 with Kvyat was the highest cause for concern in a rather standard second week.
And so swiftly onto their prediction. As I said last week I think they do have good, young driver pairing which I think can wring the most out of the car. However, I expect them to be out-developed by the cars around them before the season end as they have looked to pull a lot of resources into the core of the car instead. Coupled with a potentially shaky start with the 2017 power unit, I don’t think they will be pulling up any major trees this year; although perhaps fighting strong in some races for good points finishes. What I mainly hope is that the car is good enough to show Carlos Sainz’ talents so he might be able to earn a competitive drive ahead of 2018…there is potentially a Ferrari seat up for grabs should Kimi Raikkonen retire.
They will finish 8th
Haas fans would be forgiven for being a little underwhelmed ahead of the start of this season. Only 372 laps were clocked in the second week and the fastest pace of their car on each day fluctuated between two middling times of 1:20.504 from Magnussen and 1:21.887 from Grosjean. As with all teams though, true pace is still bound to be unlocked, so maybe there is hope for improvement in the standings before Melbourne comes about. What will certainly be concerning is that the team’s problems with their Brembo brakes continued into the second test; prompting a back-lash from Grosjean and a request at a change of supplier. Quite a drastic one, but perhaps understandable given that similar issues plagued them last term.
In terms of a prediction for Haas, I expect this to be a difficult year for them. It is their first year without the unrestricted Ferrari development ties that they enjoyed in 2015, allowing for a strong first year. Having that privilege unavailable this campaign is quite simply bound to hamper their abilities. I don’t think this will be a classic case of “second season syndrome” in which they are useless but I do expect them to tail off towards the end of the campaign especially if they cannot keep their brakes in check. They do, however, have a promising Ferrari engine in their car and their driver line-up seems stronger than last campaign, with Kevin Magnussen preferable to Esteban Gutierrez. So, it wont be a drastic slump but it will be a slump as other teams improve more efficiently as I will elaborate on next.
They will finish 9th.
Renault are the team that I am backing to make the most of the regulation change, simply only due to their ability as constructors to have larger financial backing. On top of this the engines they supply to Red Bull and Toro Rosso are in fact theirs first and foremost, meaning that they receive data first ahead of these other teams. The Renault car looks aggressive and Jolyon Palmer has been quietly confident in his assessment that “We’re behind the top three. Everyone else is in the tight battle: it’s all to play for”…That he can even begin to think about the top 3 is a far cry from Renault’s season last term when they were just taking over the Lotus 2015 chassis. However, they did only clock up 304 laps in testing due to an engine change on day 1. They also broke the 1:20 lap barrier on the 4th day. So, perhaps issues to solve with reliability but I do think the car and engine has inherent pace that will make them more competitive than before.
Therefore, for my prediction I am eagerly anticipating an impressive season. The Renault team themselves, as discussed last week, claimed to be targeting 5th in the constructors championship. Upon further thought I am of the opinion that with the team and Jolyon Palmer growing throughout the season to compliment Nico Hulkenburg’s pace that the team will achieve their 5th place ambition. I think that in the future Renault will return to the top, as long as their development cycles are well managed. They are my biggest movers this season and the prime reason for the midfield becoming more congested, leading to many teams falling a place or two.
They will come 5th.
Finally and lastly we come on to Sauber. To make a simple statement they have had a good 2nd week of testing compared to their major rivals ahead of the beginning sections of the season, by which I mean McLaren. Monisha Kaltenborn seemed buoyant when talking of their prospects for Melbourne, giving a cheeky comment that their 2016 spec Ferrari engine “at least works” and it was proved as it ran 439 laps, double and a tad of the 217 of the stricken McLaren. They did however have a bit of a problem on day 2, with Marcus Ericsson parking the car up at the end of the day; whether that was just a fuel run to test consumption or a real technical issue is unclear. Pascal Werhlein was also back in the car following his Race Of Champions crash in the off season and outpaced his team-mate on all but the last day.
Onto my final prediction. Sauber will unfortunately come bottom of this years championship. Whilst Monisha is right that the year old Ferrari engine is bound to have good reliability, it also WILL NOT be developed any further by Ferrari for this coming season for obvious reasons. As such, I think that even if Sauber manage to start strong their horse-power deficit will begin to show come the middle of the year. I also expect McLaren to sort themselves out, so Sauber will be left at the back of the grid. However, maybe just maybe they can make use of excellent ex-Ferrari strategist Ruth Buscombe to make the most of the unreliability of others at the start of the campaign. But for me….
They will finish 10th.
Again, if you have made it this far in this post I would like to thank you for reading and wishing you and your own team well ahead of the season. I hope you are as excited as I am. I should be posting a qualifying report (which may include some details of practice sessions) and a race report after each race. I also plan to do a special post for Ayrton Senna’s birthday on the 21st of March, whilst there is of course reams and reams of text written about the great man, I would just like to clock my own personal appreciation and remembrance of his life as he is an hugely inspirational figure to myself and many around the world. I hope if you have read this you will join for that. If not then perhaps see you after Melbourne, I can’t wait!