Formula 1 concluded its pre-season running at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, but what could we learn from the last batch of group action before the Australian Grand Prix?
Mercedes is still ahead, but Ferrari could pose a threat
Mercedes added to its astonishing mileage and finished running having effectively completed the Spanish Grand Prix 19 times across the eight days of testing. The W07 Hybrid was rapid during its race simulations while it was impressive across one lap, despite neither Lewis Hamilton nor Nico Rosberg sampling the two softest tyres from Pirelli’s range. Ferrari finished 1-2 in the timesheets but it will be encouraged by its race pace on a circuit where it was comparatively weak in 2015. The consensus is that Mercedes remains comfortably ahead, but there will be occasions where it will be put under pressure by Ferrari.
Williams leads the chasing pack
Williams leapt into action during the second test, posting times across both short and long stints, leading to a confident aura from senior figures that it could even pose a threat to Ferrari. Whether it has improved its chronic wet-weather deficiencies, and corrected its operational weaknesses, will remain unknown to the wider world such a situation arises. Red Bull had a promising test and can be encouraged by Renault’s increased commitment to the sport, while Force India is also in the mix.
Toro Rosso is a dark horse
Praise was heaped upon Toro Rosso’s chassis in 2015 but engine weaknesses, and unreliability, held the team back. Despite the late confirmation of its move to a year-old engine, Toro Rosso has enjoyed a productive pre-season campaign with both Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. racking up the laps. Perhaps more impressively, the drivers set some rapid times both in qualifying specification and in race trim, suggesting that Franz Tost’s target of a podium could be achievable.
McLaren still has to make progress
McLaren-Honda is in a much more comfortable position compared to 2015, of that there can be no doubt. However, the rate of progression in Formula 1 is such that in a midfield which is expected to be tightly contested, McLaren currently appears to be nearer the back of it. The MP4-31 is not yet in full 2016-specification, with new parts being prepared for Australia. Honda has corrected the problems which hindered the team in 2015, but it is still behind its rivals in most areas. Finishing in the points more regularly is an achievable target, but a podium for now is a pipe dream.
Rookies face an uphill challenge
Three rookies will grace the field in Australia: Renault’s Jolyon Palmer and Manor duo Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto, and all three face a steep learning curve. Palmer labelled his pre-season testing as a “little bit disastrous” after being struck by the majority of Renault’s issues, and faces a rookie campaign at a team which has low expectations as it builds for a long-term effort. Manor also endured reliability concerns during the second test, meaning it completed more mileage than only Haas; Wehrlein, at this stage, appears far better prepared than Haryanto.
Haas can react to problems
Following a promising first test, matters turned south for Haas in the second test, as Esteban Gutiérrez amassed only 24 laps across the opening two days due to a fuel system issue, which caused an anomaly with the data. Once that was resolved, Romain Grosjean was pitched off track twice due to brake-by-wire issues, but Haas reacted quickly to the issues and finished the test with its most productive day. More problems will affect Haas as it adapts to life in Formula 1, but proving it can overcome such issues shows that it has the ability to clear the hurdles which will come its way.
Head protection is coming
Safety developments across recent years have been focused on head protection, with Mercedes’ ‘halo’ concept currently the favoured option. Running had previously been conducted in private but during testing both Kimi Räikkönen and Sebastian Vettel demonstrated the ‘halo’ device for a solitary installation lap. It received a mixed reaction, with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hülkenberg vehemently opposed, the former citing its aesthetics as a stumbling point. However, as Vettel pointed out, if the device saves lives, it will have a positive impact.