- The Inside Line
What can we say about BCN1?Kate Walker February 23, 2015
Winter testing is a time of best guesses, even for the teams and their banks of computers operated by skilled analysts. For those of us basing our judgements on trackside observations and timing screen data, it's even harder to get closer to any form of concrete truth.
Still, with F1's pre-season testing now two-thirds complete, there are some lessons to be learned from Barcelona.
The obvious place to start is with reliability, for the one thing that cannot be disguised is the number of laps a car is able to complete without falling to pieces. But even straight lap counts can disguise the truth - on a day like Sunday, which saw six red flags, the constant stoppages saw reduced running from some teams who escaped any issues themselves.
Williams and Mercedes are both up there on the reliability front, while Toro Rosso has also logged an impressive number of laps over the course of the past two tests - and that despite having a car driven by two rookies who, logic dictates, should be more prone to errors than their more experienced colleagues. While Red Bull had a shocking time of it in Jerez, solid running in Barcelona showed the team has made massive progress since the beginning of the month.
The same cannot be said for McLaren, who continue to struggle with the integration of the Honda power unit. The Woking racer's troubles are no different to those experienced by several teams at this point last year, but given that McLaren had a jump start in the form of the post-season Abu Dhabi test followed by a winter in which to fix problems which emerged there, the prognosis isn't great for the start of the season.
Lotus certainly seems to have produced a vastly better car than last year's model, with the E23 showing decent driveability in addition to the boost gained from the move from Renault to Mercedes power. But given the shocking state of the Enstone racers' 2014 season, the only way is up this year. Just how competitive they will prove to be when everyone is in race trim remains to be seen, but for a team who missed the first week of testing Lotus have performed admirably.
Another team who underperformed in 2014 was Ferrari, and again there are signs of progress made over the winter to both car and power unit. Both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen have praised the SF15-T, with Raikkonen saying the handling was better than last year, and the team as a whole balanced confidence with managing expectations over the course of their week's press dealings. The relative competitiveness of the Ferrari power unit is still a mystery, and performance tokens are still available for in-season improvements.
When it comes to recovering from bad seasons, Sauber have their worst year in history to overcome and two relatively inexperienced drivers to do the job. The headline-grabbing pace of Jerez was more muted in Barcelona, partly due to lost running time as the team fixed the odd mechanical error. But with the Circuit de Catalunya a more reliable test of a car's aerodynamic than the Circuito de Jerez, press room doubts about the C34 first raised in Jerez were not eliminated in Barcelona.
The real unknown quantity is Force India, who have the benefit of a Mercedes power unit and the serious disadvantage of not having put any laps on their 2015 car.
While the defending champions have yet to set a timesheet-topping lap across the eight days of pre-season testing thus far, Mercedes' pace looks ominous. The team has been working on reliability and set-up work over outright performance, conducting endless long runs and race simulations from the very get-go. When running on the medium compound on the final day in Barcelona, Nico Rosberg was within a whisker of the times being set around him on the soft and super-soft compounds, and the implication is that the Silver Arrows has pulled even further ahead over the winter.
The rate of progress in Formula One being what it is, however, current signs are that this season will be a competitive one. Even if Mercedes scampers off into the distance, Williams, Red Bull, and Ferrari all look as though they will be fighting each other for podiums, while Lotus also look to be in the mix. McLaren's progress is likely to be hampered by the glacial speed of Japanese boardroom culture on the decision-making front, and the Barcelona paddock abounded with rumours that the situation with the power unit is even worse than it looks on paper.