F1 gears up for full throttle season

FORMULA One teams have finally had a chance to try out their new cars over eight days of testing in Barcelona in preparation for the Australian GP. 

Mercedes showed amazing reliability over the eight days, racking up over 3500 miles before suffering a transmission failure with defending champion Lewis Hamilton at the wheel. The team didn’t show their full pace over the two tests, choosing instead to focus on longer runs, in contrast to Ferrari, who were quickest on five of the eight days. Kimi Räikkönen set the fastest time of the test ahead of Sebastian Vettel, which will give the Finn a confidence boost in what is expected to be his final season in F1.

Williams were another team to focus on longer runs, with both their drivers happy with how the car performed, especially considering the team’s struggles on slower circuits over the past two years. Red Bull will be pleased that their Tag Heuer-branded Renault engine ran like clockwork given the struggles the French company have had in the turbo era, and will hope that the engine improves as the season progresses, giving them a chance to win their first race since Belgium 2014.

Force India on the other hand took advantage of their Mercedes engine to finish fifth last season (the Silverstone-based team’s best year since 2001), and were the third-fastest team in Spain, as they hope to match last season’s performance. Renault’s protracted takeover on Lotus has definitely had an effect on the car, with debutant Jolyon Palmer suffering from the majority of the team’s reliability issues. The former GP2 champion will be hoping for better luck once the season starts to allow him and former McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen to showcase their skills.

Toro Rosso will be happy with the pace their car showed over the eight days, with the 2015-spec Ferrari engine proving more than capable of helping the team beat their sister team at Red Bull. However, this old engine is likely to cost them as the season progresses, so Carlos Sainz Jr. and Max Verstappen will have to hit the ground running in Melbourne if they want to move up to a bigger team in 2017. Sauber will start the season with four days less running than everyone else, having used an upgraded 2015 car for the first test. This showed with the teething problems they suffered during the first couple of days of testing, with Marcus Ericsson losing a wheel at one point. With development unlikely due to a lack of funds, matching last year’s finish of eighth looks a tall order.

If Red Bull thought they had problems last year with engines, they were nothing compared to the disaster that was Honda’s comeback with McLaren. Even with the improvements made over the winter, the engine still looks like the worst in F1, leading to another year of frustration for Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, with time running out on both of their careers. The admission that the car isn’t fully ready for Melbourne means it is likely to be the first few European races where we see what progress has been made.

Manor suffered a large number of reliability problems with their first new car since 2014, and will be hoping to get these sorted soon, as they look to move up the field thanks to their new Mercedes engine. At the moment however, it looks like they will be battling for the final few rows of the grid with Sauber and new boys Haas, who regressed slightly after a promising first test, with braking and engine issues limiting running for both Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutiérrez.

As well as the usual testing talk, there were a few other interesting points over the last two weeks. The new elimination qualifying system, where drivers drop out every 90 seconds, hasn’t won many fans amongst the general public, with many believing it to be too confusing. Another point of contention is the ‘halo’ safety device, which is designed to protect the driver’s head from debris. Although most drivers are in favour, a few, including Hamilton, think it is too ugly for F1, also noting the fact that it wouldn’t have helped Jules Bianchi survive his accident in 2014.

The last two weeks have shown that the order will be very similar to last year, with Ferrari potentially able to challenge Mercedes on a more consistent basis. Hopefully, there will be more talk this year about the action on track, rather than the politics off it.

Luke Etheridge 

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