Conclusions from the first Winter Test

Date published: March 5 2018

A very frustrating first winter test is in the books, so let’s tread carefully along the very dangerous path and see what sense, if any, we can make of the upcoming season…

Politics, politics, politics

In case you had forgotten over the winter how the Formula 1 world operates, it did not take long to be reminded of how difficult it can be for progress and common sense to prevail.

It is worth emphasising just how unfortunate teams have been in the first test to experience a snow-ladened track in Barcelona, where year upon year goes by without a single flake of the white stuff. But the freak weather conditions did highlight just how petty and selfish teams can be in the decision-making process.

Teams knew in advance that there was going to be a very high chance that day three (Wednesday) was effectively going to be a wash-out, so the logical decision would have been to create another testing session on another day, right?

Yet Formula 1 and logic rarely go hand-in-hand with each other. The Circuit de Catalunya was booked for a two-week period and, take away the scheduled eight days of testing, there were still six days to play with to try and make up for lost time. Still a unanimous decision between teams could not be agreed.

Williams and Ferrari obviously did not want to give up their filming days on Friday and Saturday respectively, but what about Sunday or Monday? Or next weekend?

It is a classic case of cutting your nose off to spite your face. Teams would rather not run their own car at all if it also meant starving everyone else of precious track time as well.

Suggestions such as moving to hotter climates like Bahrain or setting up a few weeks early in Australia ahead of the season opener have been put forward.

But an even better idea is for Formula 1 to explore the option of following the MotoGP model and let each team test wherever they feel makes the most logistical sense. At the very least, a reserve day in Barcelona can surely be created if the bad weather returns next year.

Mercedes and Ferrari still setting the benchmark

There has been zero evidence at this stage to suggest a change of the status quo is on the horizon in Formula 1. The Mercedes and Ferrari cars are still the ones causing heads to turn in the garage and both teams are continuing to set the standard out in front.

Reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton only had 25 laps to his name as the final day of the first test got underway, yet there he was at the top of timesheets, where he so often is, when the checkered flag waved.

The headline time flashed up as the final hour approached in Barcelona – a 1:19.333 on the medium tyres and the quickest lap we have seen all week.

All we can garner from that is just how much more speed there is to come next week, given that the lap was three tenths quicker than Sebastian Vettel’s second overall best time on day two (softs) and half a second faster than Stoffel Vandorne, who posted the third best time of the week on the hypersofts, four steps quicker than Hamilton’s mediums.

The quickest time we saw in testing last year was a 1:18.634 on supersofts. That benchmark will surely be beaten next week.

While Mercedes and Ferrari have quietly gone about their business with no major problems other than the weather, Red Bull, once again, find themselves behind.

They got off to an excellent start on the first day with Daniel Ricciardo topping the times and the lap charts with 104 laps to his name, but it has all grinded to a halt since then.

Verstappen was making up for lost time on day two after a minor fuel leak kept him in the garage and day four came to an abrupt end after finding the gravel trap at Turn 12, leaving the Dutchman two laps shy of what Ricciardo managed on the opening day alone.

Bringing forward the development date of the RB14 has not had the desired effect at this stage and their ambition of pumping in 100 laps a day went askew alarmingly quickly. With reports that certain parts of the bargeboard area were also falling off the new car, a lot of hard miles are still ahead if Red Bull are to get out of their comfort zone as the third-best team on the grid.

McLaren on road to recovery

Testing has not been as catastrophic as it was last year for McLaren, but there are still signs they are not completely in the clear just yet.

A loose wheel nut restricted Fernando Alonso to just 10 laps on the first morning in Barcelona, while Stoffel Vandoorne’s running on day two was affected by a broken exhaust clip.

Even though those two incidents kept McLaren bottom of the mileage charts, at least neither of them were as terminal as the problems experienced with the Honda power unit.

The recovery since then has been a very encouraging one. Alonso got McLaren off the bottom of the mileage standings with his 11 laps in horrendous conditions on day three, removing one negative tag, and Vandoorne put in a monster of a day on Thursday with 110 laps before giving the car back to Alonso for another 51 laps.

No other teams completed more laps than McLaren on day four of the first test. Let’s just hope the early issues were nothing more than a couple of little gremlins still left in the system.

Good start for Toro Rosso-Honda

How is the other divorced partner getting on? Pretty bloody well actually.

It wouldn’t have taken much for the 2018 test to feel like an improvement on last year for Honda, but spirits will have no doubt been raised after a strong first week.

Both Toro Rosso and Honda have been full of praise for each other, which is to be expected given how early they are into the relationship, but there is a sense that the Red Bull junior team are easier to work with.

The expectations are not as high and they seem more willing to work and compromise where need be in order to help Honda get a little closer to producing a powerful and reliable engine. Regardless of Honda’s checkered past, Toro Rosso have still progressed to being a works team and its potential benefits cannot be overlooked.

Brendon Hartley caused a stir in the paddock saying McLaren had “made a mistake” in leaving Honda and that he had “more power than last year” – which, of course, was with a Renault engine.

Toro Rosso completed 326 laps of what was essentially three days of weather-affected testing with the other day all-but washed out; no other team completed more, not even Mercedes.

A reminder once again that the Honda engine managed just 425 laps throughout the whole eight days of testing last year.

Kubica quicker than Sirotkin, so what?

We have reached a new chapter in the Robert Kubica comeback story, which is threatening Stephen King’s The Stand for page numbers.

Moving on from his failed attempt to land the final seat on the 2018 grid at Williams, the plot has turned to why he should have got the drive ahead of eventual victor Sergey Sirotkin. But, it seems even Kubica himself is getting bored of reading.

On day two of the first winter test, Kubica posted a lap time three tenths quicker than Sirotkin, giving another round of ammunition to those who are still sore about Williams’ decision not to bring the Pole back in a full-time capacity. However, in reality, it ultimately means nothing.

Not only do we have a lack of data surrounding the respective lap times, but it is also not going to change anything. Kubica will still be the reserve and development driver; a role he has begrudgingly accepted himself.

“You cannot compare,” Kubica said. “I don’t care about my feeling, I have different job and the times are really irrelevant I would say, especially in my position.”

“Forget about looking at lap times [in future] as I won’t be driving for three months then jumping into the car and it will be like the first time in the car because the car is moving forward.”

There was also a really interesting exchange between Kubica and Sky Sports F1 reporter Ted Kravitz after the word “limitations” was mentioned.

“I’ve been always comfortable [in the car]. It was only media talks that I was not comfortable,” he said.

“If I keep changing [the car], you [the media] will keep saying I have limitations. I think we should stop.

“I have my limitations which I never hide.

“The problem is I was too honest with everyone and they keep asking the same questions.

“I’m living a good period, enjoying my role and I’m hoping to give a positive message and not the same story after many years.”

So, there we have it. It is still ‘keep calm and support Kubica’, but with an emphasis very much on the first half of that mantra.

Mark Scott