Who’s hot and who’s not after F1 testing

News

SAKHIR, Bahrain — New regulations, new cars and possibly a new competitive order in Formula One. Don’t expect the tables to turn completely at the start of F1’s new era, but it’s clear at least one of the top teams is struggling while a number of the smaller outfits have made significant strides.

Below is a rough ranking of the teams based on the data available from the Bahrain test. Testing times are notoriously unreliable for predicting genuine performance ahead of a season, but digging into some of the longer runs and factoring in expected progress it is possible to pick out the top teams from the chasing pack.

The season begins with the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 20, live on ESPN (10.55AM Eastern Time).

It’s way too early to be crowing champions, but it’s safe to say Max Verstappen will get a shot at defending his title this year.

The Red Bull looked solid throughout the two tests and stepped things up on the final day when it brought an update to the RB18 to top the timesheets by 0.521s at the chequered flag. The update was not as extreme as the one rivals Mercedes brought to its car on Thursday, but it was a lot less troublesome. The fact it was planned for the final day of testing underlined Red Bull’s confidence in its development plan; making use of every last minute of time back at the factory before bringing the final product to the track.

As impressive as Verstappen’s time was, it comes with the usual caveats around fuel load and engine settings skewing performance (although Red Bull are not known for chasing glory runs in testing). The world champion confirmed his fastest lap was a long way from a “qualifying spec” run, but he was clearly pushing the Red Bull and opened up a 0.695s gap to the pre-existing fastest lap set by Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari. Verstappen’s lap was on softer tyres than Lecerc (C5 versus C4), but Pirelli believes there was little to choose between the two softest compounds as any extra performance from the C5 was levelled off by tyre degradation around the lap.

Verifying Red Bull’s performance with long run data is tricky as the team didn’t do an obvious race simulation to compare with its rivals, but there were some snippets from its high-fuel running that back up Verstappen’s headline-grabbing time on Saturday evening. Teammate Sergio Perez was able to lap in a similar ballpark to Lewis Hamilton’s race simulation over a 15 lap run on Thursday, but that was with the disadvantage of running in much hotter conditions and two days before Red Bull brought its upgrade.

Two long runs in the final 90 minutes of the session saw Verstappen set average times around the 1:37.8s, which was a healthy step faster than anyone else on heavy fuel at any point in the test. A comparable long run by Leclerc’s Ferrari in the final hour saw him average lap times in the 1:38.2s, which suggests the Red Bull holds the edge over Ferrari by a few tenths of a second going into the first race.

What they say

Max Verstappen: “Everyone has more to come, nobody is full beans and qualifying spec at the moment. The car was feeling alright and we went through our programme we planned to do and that’s always positive I think.”

What we say

Everything about Red Bull’s testing programme exuded quiet confidence. Combined with Verstappen’s on-track performance, it’s safe to say that last year’s team to beat is still this year’s team to beat.

Ferrari

Every time the Ferrari was on track during testing it looked stable and fast, and quick lap times came easily for both drivers. There are cautionary tales from previous seasons about Ferrari’s testing performance flattering to deceive, but under F1’s new regulations it’s clear the team has made a big step forward and left its fight with the squabbling midfield pack behind.

Ferrari’s fastest lap was 0.695s off Verstappen’s benchmark time, but was also set one hour earlier in the day before the sun had fully set and the track had cooled to a more optimum temperature. Leclerc set his best time on the second softest compound, the C4, before switching to the C5s and failing to improve by a tenth of a second (underlining Pirelli’s theory that there was very little to choose between the two softest compounds in Bahrain).

It wasn’t possible to pick a full race sim out of Ferrari’s data on the final day when conditions were at their best, but Carlos Sainz completed a series of 12-lap runs in the morning around the same time that Lewis Hamilton was on his race sim. All three yielded average lap times between 1:40.2 and 1:40.8, on the C3 compound, which compare favourably with the second stint of Hamilton’s race sim which averaged out at 1:41.2 on the C2 compound.

It wasn’t a direct comparison, but there’s every reason to believe Ferrari has a pace advantage over Mercedes, even if it is just shy of Red Bull.

What they say

Team principal Mattia Binotto: “We are not the favourites, I think if we are outsiders. It’s true that we had a good start to testing and a good start of season, but to become favourites we need to have good races and prove that we are capable of winning, because we already know they [Red Bull and Mercedes] are. They are still the favourites.”

What we say

After such a long period without success it’s understandable that Ferrari is playing down its strong testing performance. But don’t be fooled, the F1-75 looks like Red Bull’s closest rival after testing.


Showed potential, but off the pace

Mercedes

Is Mercedes really in trouble ahead of the start of the season?

The same question has been posed a number of times in recent years, only for the eight-time constructors’ champions to find a solution ahead of the opening round and go on to win the title. But make no mistake, the new Mercedes underperformed over the three days of testing in Bahrain and the team has significant challenges to overcome if it wants to fight for victory at the same circuit next weekend.

Mercedes is clearly pushing the boundaries with its new car; something that became obvious the moment the updated W13 was rolled out for a photo shoot on the opening morning of the second test. The conventional sidepods that featured on the car in Barcelona had almost disappeared, replaced by a radical design that took both rivals and rulemakers by surprise. But as George Russell pointed out on the same day, “it doesn’t matter what it looks like, we need to see if it’s fast on track”.

The early signs were not good. The porpoising issues that a number of teams started to get on top of at the second test were glaringly obvious on the Mercedes. At the end of straights and in high-speed corners the car bounced up and down, while the car’s ride looked stiff and harsh, making it a handful in low- and high-speed corners. It was possible for Mercedes to solve the issue by running at a higher ride height, but that sacrificed precious performance and, given the lap times of the Ferrari and Red Bull over the course of the test, Mercedes does not have performance to sacrifice.

One attempt to combat the porpoising came in the form of a metal stay connecting the upper side of the car’s floor and the engine cover to make the floor more rigid, but even with the stay in place the underfloor aerodynamics were susceptible to stalling over Bahrain’s bumps. The only good news is that the team believes it is still a long way from realising the W13’s true potential.

EXPLAINER: What is porpoising?

“There’s still a lot of pace to come if we can make further gains on the bouncing and get the car more settled,” chief trackside engineer Andrew Shovlin said on Saturday evening. “We’ve got a lot of good data so hopefully we can gain a bit more understanding of the issues in the next few days.”

As a result, Russell’s fastest lap on Sunday night, which was a full second off Verstappen’s benchmark using the same compound tyres, is most likely unrepresentative of the pace Mercedes will find ahead of qualifying at the Bahrain Grand Prix. But even so, Mercedes’ long run pace also left a lot to be desired, with the average lap time of Lewis Hamilton’s race simulation 1:41.2 just shy of Pierre Gasly’s 1:41.1 in the AlphaTauri at the same time of day.

What they say

Lewis Hamilton: “At the moment I don’t think we’ll be competing for wins.”

What we say

If there’s a team that can turn disappointing testing pace into grand prix winning-performance in the space of a week, it’s Mercedes, but don’t be surprised if the recovery takes more than a couple of races.

McLaren

After emerging as a star performer at the opening test in Barcelona, McLaren faced two major setbacks in Bahrain. The good news is both problems should be solved in time for the opening race next weekend and there is still reason to believe the car will be competitive once everything is back in place.

The first setback came when Daniel Ricciardo felt unwell on the opening morning of testing. The illness, which was later confirmed as Covid-19, kept him out of the car for the first two days before he returned a positive test on Friday evening that will keep him in quarantine until the eve of the first race weekend. In some ways the timing is fortunate, as a later positive test may have resulted in a quarantine period during the first race, but it means his contribution to the team’s three days of testing was zero.

Lando Norris took over driving duties on all three days, which would have been exhausting had the car not encountered a problem that severely limited the team’s mileage. Brake cooling issues restricted running on the opening two days to 50 laps and 54 laps, and prevented Norris completing any long runs, meaning the team has a big hole in its tyre and race preparation data. New parts were flown out for the last day of the test, allowing Norris to up his lap count to 91, but a complete fix will not be possible until next weekend.

The lack of long runs makes it tricky to get a feel for McLaren’s true performance, and to add to further muddy the waters Norris’ fastest lap was set on the C3 compound rather than faster C4s or C5s. However, working on Pirelli’s data that the C4 and C5 unlock as much as 0.8s-1.0s performance over the C3s, it’s possible to draw the conclusion that the raw pace of the McLaren is not a million miles away from Ferrari. However, it seems as though the McLaren is better suited to high-speed corners than low-speed corners, meaning Bahrain may prove to be a relatively weak circuit for the team compared to others later in the season.

What they say

Lando Norris: “There’s a lot of work going on to try and understand everything and fix everything and get things ready in time for next week. But there are also many good things that we’ve learned from the last few days.”

What we say

It’s a real shame McLaren encountered its brake cooling issues as it looked as though it might be in touch with the top three teams at the opening test in Barcelona. But even if the car is off the pace in Bahrain, don’t rule it out at circuits dominated by high-speed corners later in the year.


The midfield pack

AlphaTauri

As hard as it is to rank the midfield teams after preseason testing, AlphaTauri combined solid pace with plenty of laps over the two tests. It’s the latter that gives the team the edge over some of its rivals in this ranking and provides a foundation for a positive start to the season.

Keeping the AlphaTauri in the top ten will prove difficult and it’s clear that the competitive order could swing dramatically from circuit to circuit. But the AlphaTauri shares its engine, gearbox and rear suspension with the Red Bull, so perhaps it’s not such a surprise that the car appears to be firmly planted in the midfield.

The team’s fastest lap, a 1:33.002 set by Yuki Tsunoda on the C5 compound, was nothing to get excited about, but Gasly’s pace relative to Hamilton over their comparable race simulations on the final day is another reason the team features in the top five. Gasly started his race sim slightly later than Hamilton, but was able to fight the Mercedes for position when the pair crossed paths.

Their strategies slightly differed, with Mercedes going C3, C2, C1 across its three stints and AlphaTauri C3, C1, C2, but the average lap times across the whole race distance were split by 0.054s in Gasly’s favour. It could be that the Mercedes really is in trouble or, more likely, the AlphaTauri is a very raceable F1 car and Mercedes will find more of an edge once it starts to extract the true potential from the W13.

What they say

Team principal Franz Tost: “We have a strong package, the car is reliable, we have two very good drivers and the team has made a big step forward, therefore I expect a successful season.”

What we say

The midfield is so tight after testing that AlphaTauri could be fighting for a position in the top six or simply struggling to stay out of the bottom six next weekend. However, its considerable mileage in Bahrain means it will be as well prepared as any midfield team for the opening race.

Aston Martin

Cases could be made for putting Aston Martin at the front of the midfield or at the back. Focus on single-lap pace alone and you’d opt for the latter, but look deeper into the long-run times and its possible the car will be a regular top-ten contender.

The bad news is that the team’s fastest lap of the test was over two seconds off the pace despite being set on the C4 compound. But it should be noted that it was also set in the heat of the afternoon, with Aston Martin prioritising long runs when the track cooled and conditions improved at the end of the day. As a result, Sebastian Vettel had one of the most impressive long runs of the test to his name, with an average lap time of 1:39.982 over 20 laps on C1 tyres.

It goes to show how big an impact track conditions can have on performance and how unreliable the times can be on face value.

What they say

Sebastian Vettel: “I think reading into lap-times is even more difficult this year but, behind the usual leading teams, it is a tight pack, so I expect fierce competition. Nobody really knows where they stand yet.”

What we say

We’re happy to be proven wrong on this one, but there simply wasn’t enough clear data to move Aston Martin further up the order. A different circuit layout or different conditions could easily change the picture.

Alfa Romeo

After an awful opening test with reliability and porpoising issues, Alfa Romeo started to show some genuine potential in Bahrain. The drivers now seem able to push the car more towards the limit, and in the hands of Valtteri Bottas it set one of the most impressive lap times of any midfield team on Sunday evening.

Bottas’ 1:32.985 on C3 tyres was only 0.2s off Hamilton’s best effort on the much softer C5 compound. Making an allowance for the tyre compound difference and time of day, it’s fair to say Bottas’ time was slightly more impressive than Schumacher’s time in the Haas. Of course, the lap times of both Bottas and Schumacher were likely set on lower fuel than the front runners, but Bottas also showed some impressive pace over long runs too.

A 22-lap stint on C2 tyres saw his average lap time stabilise at around 1:40.7 and then drop to 1:39.6 once he pitted for a fresh set of the same compound. That kind of pace is in the same region as the long runs of Hamilton and Gasly, but again the fuel load could skew the picture in Bottas’ favour. Reliability also remains a concern, with Bottas stopping on track twice in the last two days.

What they say

Valtteri Bottas: “At the moment my kind of biggest concern is doing a race distance because we’ve had multiple different kinds of issues during this test. We’ve been able to fix them, and we just hope there’s no new issues coming up.”

What we say

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all three Ferrari powered cars look more competitive this year, especially in Bahrain which is a notoriously power sensitive circuit. Whether the Alfa Romeo looks as competitive at all types of tracks remains to be seen, but it’s another team that has made good step from last year.

Haas

Haas had the most disrupted preseason of any team, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel in the performance of the car. The headline grabbing times by Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher towards the end of the test underlined the potential that kept popping up throughout the three days, although both were set in the extra hours of testing granted to Haas to make up for the time lost on Thursday morning due to a freight delay.

As easy as it would be to rule out the laps as low-fuel glory runs set by a team looking for sponsors, there were also long runs to back up the single lap pace. Kevin Magnussen lapped at an average of 1:40.2 over a 15-lap run on C3s on the final day, which tallies with cars fighting in the upper midfield and suggests it’s safe to say Haas will no longer be a second off the pace at the back of the field.

But there are still big questions about reliability. The team registered the second lowest lap count ahead of McLaren, and over the course of the three days the VF-22 had a water leak, an oil leak, cooling issues and a problem with the fuel system. But if the car can run reliably, there’s every chance it’ll be sniffing around the points, which is something Haas hasn’t done regularly since 2019.

What they say

Mick Schumacher: “We have a good car, we have something we can work with so everyone can be really happy and proud of themselves that we’ve achieved that. Now we have to be able to put it down on track when it matters, and that’s next week.”

What we say

Haas is clearly back in the midfield, which will be a huge boost for a team that has faced so many challenges over recent years. Pinpointing exactly where it will end up is difficult, but points on Sunday are no longer a pipedream.

Alpine

In the final two days of testing, everything seemed to click for Alpine. Reliability issues disrupted the team’s test in Barcelona but once the gremlins were flushed out, Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso both had productive days towards the end of the test. It’s this strong start and the positive noises from those within the team that means it features towards the top of the chasing pack.

Alonso’s fastest time of 1:32.698 was set on the C4 tyres on his last run on Saturday evening. It was the fourth fastest time of the test and was backed up by a solid 16-lap long run on C2 tyres earlier in the afternoon that yielded an average lap time of 1:40.762. It’s not a huge amount to go on, but the team is confident it has found a direction that will lead to more performance later in the year.

What they say

Fernando Alonso: “We did some interesting testing and had some very clear results. That’s what you want when you are testing, black and white, so you know the direction to go, and it was very productive.”

What we say

Another team that’s hard to place, but there’s no doubt it made a breakthrough towards the end of testing. The midfield is so tight that the margins will be fine between featuring in the top ten and getting knocked out in Q1 qualifying, but Alpine is in the mix.

Williams

Someone has to be last in a ranking like this, and based on its performance in Bahrain over the three days of testing it’s Williams this time round. But this isn’t like previous years where the car was up to a second off the back of the midfield pack, and there’s every chance that in the right conditions the Williams will spring a surprise in the top ten.

The test in Bahrain wasn’t helped by a serious brake fire while Nicholas Latifi was at the wheel that limited the team’s running to just 12 laps on Friday. Team boss Jost Capito is adamant it won’t happen again, however, admitting it was an operational error rather than a design fault.

In terms of outright lap time, the car was the slowest of the bunch, but it should be noted that Alex Albon set the time before sunset when the track was not at its fastest. Long run pace didn’t offer many glimmers of hope, with Latifi made use of a cooler track at the end of the day to average a 1:41.3 over 18 laps.

What they say

Alex Albon: “In terms of the car’s performance, I think there’s some more to come from us and I’m excited to keep pushing next weekend and throughout the course of the season to get the most out of the FW44.”

What we say

Williams appeared to be having a solid preseason up until the point that its midfield rivals stretched their legs on the final day. Clearly the run plan was altered after the brake issue on Friday, which may have limited the team’s time for quick laps on the final day, but there were still very few signs the car would be troubling the top ten at the opening race.

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