Conclusions from official pre-season testing

Jon Wilde
McLaren mechanics go to collect their car. Bahrain March 2022.

McLaren mechanics go to collect their car stopped at the end of the pit lane. Bahrain March 2022.

Pre-season is over and now for the real thing…but what did we learn from the three days of official testing in Bahrain?

Well, obviously, as it says on the tin, it’s testing, so it would be unwise to draw up anything too hard and fast based on what happened on track.

And especially because all the cars are brand new, conforming to the much-changed regulations and, at this embryonic stage, development will be rapid over the opening grands prix of a planned 23-race record-breakingly busy season.

But still, from the data we have and what drivers and team bosses have said, we can glean some pretty informative clues about the general pecking order and what can be expected at next weekend’s curtain-raiser in the desert.

Here are the main takeaways from what unfolded in Sakhir.

McLaren had a week to forget

From the moment Daniel Ricciardo was consigned to his hotel room with illness and left Lando Norris all alone beside the MCL36 for the traditional pre-testing photoshoot, it became a test of near-disastrous proportions for McLaren.

Obviously we need to keep things in context when making such statements given what is happening in the world just now, but from a sporting perspective things could not have gone much worse for a team who would have been delighted after Barcelona two weeks earlier.

Ricciardo ended up testing positive for COVID-19 and his appearance in next week’s grand prix is now in slight doubt depending on his recovery rate. Even if he is unleashed from isolation in time, he will be much rustier than his 19 rivals during Friday’s free practice.

But of more concern than the Australian lacking match practice are the brake problems that restricted Norris to only 110 laps across the first two days, with a quick fix of a temporary nature allowing a more productive 90 on Saturday. Nevertheless, well short of the mileage McLaren would have wanted.

“The test definitely didn’t go to plan,” said team principal Andreas Seidl. “We had an unexpected problem on the front axle with the brakes which limited our running quite a bit, especially when it came to long runs. It definitely put us back foot.”

Some pundits are putting McLaren fourth in terms of pace, but the short timeframe until the competitive action begins means reliability could be an issue for them next Sunday.

Element of mystery at Mercedes

So we can say with a degree of certainty Red Bull and Ferrari look in good shape, but what about the eight-time consecutive Constructors’ champions?

Red Bull ended the test with Max Verstappen almost seven-tenths clear at the top of the timesheet and smiles aplenty in the garage, while Ferrari were up there in P1 or P2 pretty much throughout the entire six days of pre-season running.

As for Mercedes, they are keeping us waiting to know just where they stand – certainly until this coming Friday, maybe even Saturday.

With the W13 and its absent sidepods appearing to have the worst ‘porpoising’ problem, the party line from the Silver Arrows is that they are off the pace. Not even contenders for wins at the opening races, according to Lewis Hamilton.

But do we believe them? Is it the old trick of playing down expectations and then, suddenly, wallop…a front-row lockout for the Bahrain Grand Prix?

Some rivals, including Carlos Sainz, are not being lulled into a false sense of security.

The Spaniard clearly remembers last year when Mercedes’ engineering director Andrew Shovlin said after testing: “We’ve had issues in recent years with pace in winter testing and managed to make good progress before the first race, but we may have our work cut out this time.”

What happened next? Hamilton won three of the first four races.

In fairness, last season Mercedes had an extra six days to work on things compared to this year, and also that was with a W12 which had plenty of carryover rather than being created from scratch like the W13.

Nevertheless, they have ‘previous’ for sandbagging. We will simply have to bide our time to find out whether Hamilton and George Russell can challenge for victory or merely the podium in Bahrain.

Haas have made distinct improvement

On early evidence, what we are unlikely to see in 2022 is Haas trailing around at the back again, being lapped two or three times per race. Their decision to write off 2021 and focus entirely on this campaign already appears justified.

Of course, it has been a turbulent pre-season for the team. Events in eastern Europe led to them parting ways with their title sponsor and driver Nikita Mazepin, rushing back their former racer Kevin Magnussen at short notice to join Mick Schumacher. That in itself ought to be a positive though.

There has certainly been enough pace already demonstrated by the VF-22 to suggest it will at least be competitive with Williams and Alfa Romeo, perhaps even other midfield teams such as AlphaTauri, Aston Martin and Alpine, at least until some of those find steps forward.

The concern though has been keeping the car out on track, with two separate problems disrupting Magnussen’s long runs in the first half of Saturday’s action.

“Our main worry is reliability,” admitted the Dane. “But it feels good and it’s not been slow.”

The extra running Haas were granted at the end of the last two days, to compensate for missing Thursday morning due to freight problems, saw them set fast times.

While nothing should be read into those specifically due to the circumstances under which they were set, it looks like it will be a surprise if the team do not have something to celebrate this year by way of a few points finishes.

Overtaking not looking as easy as hoped

Lewis Hamilton ahead of Charles Leclerc in testing. Bahrain March 2022.
Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes ahead of Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari during official testing. Bahrain March 2022.

As forecast by the technical minds that designed the new rules, following another car seems easier with the 2022 models. They can sit in behind, but then breezing past appears more difficult.

The slipstream effect looks to have been reduced, as some drivers have reported, so it looks very much as though DRS will not be done away with any time soon.

“The thing is, you can’t have everything,” said F1 technical chief Pat Symonds. “We have to, unfortunately, even in F1, obey the laws of physics, which I find very annoying sometimes but we have to do it!

“I think we will still need DRS, I hope a little bit less, and my dream one day is we only use it to overtake backmarkers rather than fighting for position.”

Races featuring an average of several overtakes per lap may not yet be in reach, but the uncertainty of the midfield order in particular as a result of testing suggests the 2022 season should provide a feast of excitement.