Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
After eight days and 16 very intriguing Winter Testing sessions, the start of the 2017 season cannot come quick enough.
With just two weeks to go before the curtain is raised in Melbourne, most of that time will now be spent debating whether Ferrari really do have a car capable of challenging the mighty Mercedes…and whether McLaren can possibly sink any lower.
Ferrari are quick
We can at least all be confident in saying that, right?
We all know too much can be read into Winter Testing and that there are so many different factors behind each lap time, yet it is still very difficult not to be impressed with Ferrari’s showing in Barcelona.
The Scuderia and Mercedes were trading the top headlines throughout the eight days of the testing, but it was in the final two morning sessions that Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen made everyone take notice.
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) March 10, 2017
Firstly, there was the 1:19.024 set on ultrasoft tyres by Sebastian Vettel, who still had some more sand left in the bag after definitely lifting off in Sector Three.
The real eye-opener, though, came from the ‘The Iceman’ on the last day, a 1:18.634 on the second quickest tyre and he even said himself that he “could go even faster”.
For the sake of a competitive season with a memorable title race, we certainly hope that he can.
However, Ferrari will know all too well about pre-season testing being the catalyst for a false dawn.
12 months ago, Vettel finished top of the testing timesheets in Barcelona and that amounted to zero Grand Prix victories and being leapfrogged by Red Bull as the best constructor behind Mercedes.
The great unknown heading into Australia is just how much does the SF70-H truly match up to Mercedes? All we have at the moment is evidence that they may improve from a pretty dismal 2016.
Mind games from Mercedes
Sitting third and fourth respectively on the overall timesheets are the Mercedes duo of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton, who are both singing off the same hymn sheet as Niki Lauda.
When Ferrari threw down the gauntlet in the final two days, Mercedes did not feel the need whatsoever to respond and allowed the Prancing Horse to have their moment in the spotlight.
That was followed up by lavishing praise on the Scuderia while understating the actual hard work Mercedes were doing every single day.
Hamilton described Ferrari’s pace as “spectacular”, Bottas declared them as the “most impressive” team and Lauda got in on the act by saying Ferrari have a 0.2s edge over Mercedes. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
You will be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks the real Mercedes turned up in Barcelona. They will do exactly that when it matters in Melbourne.
While you can pretty much disregard Mercedes’ lap times, one element that cannot be overlooked is how incredibly reliable the W08 looks already.
Only one team clocked 1,000+ laps during #F1Testing
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 10, 2017
Mercedes racked up a whopping 1096 laps and 5102km over the course of Winter Testing and a lot of those hard miles came through plenty of race simulation runs, the first of which came on just the second day.
With reliability being such a huge factor in Hamilton’s failed title challenge in 2016, the four-figure lap count will be the most comforting and telling statistic for the team who are still very much the ones to beat.
Red Bull are staying low-key
Lurking in the shadows are Red Bull, who emerged as the biggest threat to Mercedes in the 2016 season and are still the team predicted by many to benefit the most from the new aerodynamic regulations this year.
Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo finished P6 and P9 respectively, with the latter saying that Red Bull are behind Mercedes and Ferrari in the pecking order.
Again, it is very hard to believe they actually are after such a low-key showing in Barcelona. Like Mercedes, Red Bull were happy to just fall away into the background and not be sucked in by the pre-season hype.
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) March 10, 2017
One area of concern, though, is that the RB13 – all about breaking superstition this year – was not as reliable as the leading duo.
Renault, Toro Rosso and Red Bull all spent much longer than they would have liked in the garage due to the ongoing teething issues with the Renault power unit.
Only the doomed McLaren (more on them very soon) propped the aforementioned trio up in mileage standings and, on that basis, there is clearly some catching up to do.
Ricciardo has already alluded to this, though, revealing after his final stint on Thursday that Red Bull would be heading to Australia armed with engine and aero upgrades.
McLaren are in crisis
“Crisis is a bit strong.”
Those, ladies and gentlemen, are the words of McLaren executive director Zak Brown, who probably should have taken the hint from the cancelled press conferences that the time had come to simply stop talking.
Teams are restricted to four power units for the 2017 season; McLaren have gone through at least seven in the space of two weeks. That statement alone should everyone reaching for that big (now orange) panic button.
— Honda Racing F1 (@HondaRacingF1) March 10, 2017
The MCL32 also broke down four times within the final two days, managed a paltry 11 laps on its longest run, and Fernando Alonso, as part of his lengthy outburst at Honda’s incompetence, claiming the car was down 30km/h on every straight.
The cold, hard facts are there for all to see: just 425 laps completed in eight days at an average of 53.1, not even a Grand Prix distance.
Honda chief Yusuke Hasegawa has since admitted that he is a “little bit scared” of what is to come over the course of the upcoming season. Again, that is putting it very lightly.
There’s hope for Stroll
And finally, a word on Lance Stroll.
The Canadian teenager, funded by the very deep pockets of his billionaire father, came in for a lot of stick after crashing three times in two days during the first Winter Test.
He took away plenty of precious track time from his team-mate Felipe Massa, who would go on to show the rookie how it’s done by covering 168 laps and posting the fastest time on Day One of the second Winter Test.
With every red flag that followed in the second week, the automatic assumption was it would be either a dying McLaren MCL32 or Stroll facing the wrong way again.
— WILLIAMS RACING (@WilliamsRacing) March 10, 2017
However, his response to a rough first week was fantastic. He may not have been able to eek out the same performance from the FW40 like Massa did, but, on the final day, he racked up the joint-most laps (132) and finished with a total of 386 laps under his belt – only five other drivers could boast more.
That has shut many people up. For now, at least.