Should Formula One get ready for a very close three-way fight between Scuderia Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull during the 2018 season? All in all, the first pre-season test offered little definitive indication either way, which should not come as a surprise. Testing is, as Formula 1 itself is prone to remind, a notoriously unreliable barometer of the true pecking order before any new season. And this week’s test in Barcelona was particularly untrustworthy.
In addition to all the usual caveats about unknown engine settings, fuel loads and performance goals, the winter chill which descended on the Circuit de Catalunya, effectively reducing the event to a three-day test after Wednesday was all-but written-off, made any close reading of the results especially hazardous. Simply put, track conditions – “like an ice-skating ring,” in the words of one driver – were too cold and too unrepresentative of what awaits beyond March 23 for any meaningful performance comparisons to be drawn. But the test also wasn’t short of clues. There was an ominous feel to the lap, the fastest of the week and unarguably the event’s most significant single act, which world champion Lewis Hamilton bolted in at the end of Day Four. And set on Medium tyres, the Mercedes was two tenths up on the best Scuderia Ferrari managed to achieve even after running on the Soft tyres.
In normal circumstances, the next line would state that tyre corrected Lewis Hamilton’s 1:19.333 was the best of the week by upwards of a second. But Barcelona Test One was a test like no other in recent memory with track temperatures so low that the medium tyre was very probably the fastest available. By the end of next week’s test, for which warm weather is expected, the benchmark figure could be as low as 1:17s. The 120 laps Sebastian Vettel drove today, brings the total completed by the SF71H over what was effectively just a three day session to 298, equivalent to 1387.19 km/h. After yesterday’s snowfall, temperatures were very definitely on the up today at the Catalunya Circuit: at the end of the session, there had been a high of 12.7° air and almost 15 on track, but damp conditions in the morning still affected the work.
For the moment, one useful yardstick at this time of year is to focus on the lap count rather than lap times. And it was here that genuine cause for predicting a close campaign could be found with Mercedes completing 305 and Ferrari 298. Both cars were reliable, both looked good on track.
Still, few could argue with the contention of both Red Bull boss Christian Horner and Scuderia Ferrari’s German driver Sebastian Vettel that Mercedes are “the favourites” heading into the new F1 year. “The car has been reliable, reasonably swift and the handling has been ok,” said Merc technical chief James Allison. But if Mercedes are still ahead, the question is how far behind Ferrari and Red Bull might be. While Test One offered little scope for meaningful analysis, the body language of both teams at Barcelona was interesting to note: assured and confident at Ferrari, almost belligerent at Red Bull as the team aim, in Horner’s words, to be the new season’s “disrupters”.
More importantly, there’s no impression this year – as there was twelve months ago – that the team are currently on the backfoot, although Max Verstappen’s trip into the gravel on Day Four was far from ideal.