MAR 02nd 2015

Pre‑season testing is over; HHF predicts what's in store in 2015

So that’s it, pre-season testing for Formula 1 2015 is done. After 12 days – four at Jerez, former home of the Spanish GP, and two four-day sessions at the Circuit de Catalunya, current home of the race – the nine teams that blow budgets of hundreds of millions and devote thousands of hours to sophisticated toiling in their quest to lift motorsport’s most prestigious prize must now just wait. And hope.

When the flag fell on the final afternoon at the Barcelona venue yesterday (Sunday), all sorts of emotions will have kicked in. With tools downed, cars packed away, trucks sent back to base and media soundbite scrummages all done, some of the teams will be looking forward to the first race – in Australia in just under two weeks – more than others. 

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If, like me, you followed all the Spanish antics from the off using social media and live web updates, you’ll know who ‘won’ and who ‘spun’, but if you didn’t, what does it all really mean, once you’ve taken fuel loads, tyre compounds, track and ambient temperature and any old-fashioned sandbagging into account?

Among the four ‘works’ teams, Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren, those outfits with bigger budgets and resources and, you would imagine, fewer excuses, it was pretty much all about the world champion team. Mercedes looks to have taken its 2014 world-beater and made it better, with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg setting faster lap times than rivals almost routinely in Spain and, on occasion, using harder tyres. Yikes! If you like a flutter, don’t bet on the Silver Arrows improving on their 16 wins, record number of one-two finishes and championship double from last season – the odds will be awful.

Over at Ferrari, where the sport’s most famous and successful outfit has gone through the pain barrier and back with driver firings and hirings, management shake-ups and technical-staff overhauls, things are looking up. The SF15-T appears to be a big improvement on the old nag that helped Fernando Alonso to make up his mind to leave and kept Maranello’s most recent champion, Kimi Raikkonen, off the podium. And that’s good news for the Iceman, one of F1’s most enigmatic characters and his new team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who didn’t look like he was enjoying life at Red Bull last year.

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For Red Bull, a return of the sort of form that landed the Milton Keynes team four championship doubles on the bounce, led by that man Vettel, seems some way off. Hobbled in 2014 by a Renault engine that lacked horsepower, energy-recovery efficiency and the sort of reliability enjoyed by the rival Mercedes lump, Red Bull is banking on upgrades and improvements from its friends in France. Daniel Ricciardo, who stole all the headlines thanks to his thrashing of Vettel in his first year with the team, says he’s ready for his home race in Melbourne. He’ll just have to hope his RB11 is, too. With highly rated Russian youngster Daniil Kvyat moving up from Toro Rosso to replace Vettel, I wonder which Dan will be The Man.

Last and, sadly at present, least of the ‘big four’ is McLaren. The much-hyped and fancied rekindling of the love affair with Honda – remember all those drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in the late-1980s and early-’90s with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost? – has got off to a rocky start. A series of niggles with chassis/engine integration, as well as Honda having to play catch-up to rivals who’ve had a year’s headstart on track with the new 1.6-litre, V6 turbo, hybrid technology, meant precious little mileage was covered in Spain. McLaren returnee Fernando Alonso’s concussion after a heavy impact during the first four-day test in Barcelona cast the Woking squad further adrift, especially when he had to miss the final four days. Alonso and Jenson Button both feel the chassis is a huge improvement on last year’s car, but with so little data gathered, it’s impossible to predict where the MP4-30s will be come Melbourne.

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For Williams fans, there’s much better news. Historically part of the works outfits and still right up there near the top of the all-time league tables, this legendary race team is now firmly among the privateer set-ups. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped it rubbing shoulders with the big boys.

Last year’s FW36, the first Williams to be powered by the all-conquering Mercedes engine, was a fine racing car and allowed Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas to run at the front and lift the team to third in the makes’ race, although a race win proved elusive. Vital operational and technical reappraisals from experienced duo Pat Symonds and Rob Smedley meant a leaner and meaner Williams and more of those issues have been addressed for 2015. The FW37 showed its hand during the final day in Barcelona and the team heads to Melbourne confident it can kick off where it left off: running at the front. I’d love to see a Martini-striped Williams winning this season and it’s perfectly feasible.

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Among the always-intense scrap for mid-grid placings between the second-tier teams, testing revealed plenty of evidence of the status quo this time round. Lotus is a far happier set-up, especially with the Mercedes engine bolted into the back of the E23. Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado remain with the British team and showed signs of pace, consistency and reliability, despite missing some of the crucial early running at Jerez. Expect the team to banish its 2014 blues and be in the hunt for regular points, even if a decent haul of podium finishes, 2012/13-style, is too big an ask.

Toro Rosso, the Red Bull junior team whence Vettel and Ricciardo emerged, brings rookies Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz into Formula 1 with what appears, thus far, to be a tidy car that technical chief James Key reckons is way better than before. Both youngsters have an eye on the long game, of course, but neither seemed out of his depth during the winter running, acclimatising to big mileage and at sensible pace. For the time being, because racing is a whole new ballgame, Verstappen and Sainz gave critics of their youthfulness far less to talk about.

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With news emerging over the weekend that Force India is working with F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone to help shore up its finances, worries hang over the Silverstone-based team’s future. Its car, the VJM08, was late, failing to run at the opening Jerez test. Once it did get going, Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez put a lot of laps on it, suggesting solid reliability, even if lap times were never going to worry Mercedes up front. Of more immediate concern, though, is the team’s financial plight. Plenty has been written about the perilous state of the income/spends ratio in F1 and if Force India falls by the wayside during the season or even at its end, more bad PR for the sport is guaranteed.

Finally among the supporting cast, Sauber, the Swiss team that somehow manages to cling on. Its 2014 season was its absolute nadir, a pointless – on several levels – campaign that was excruciating to watch. Out go Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez and in come Marcus Ericsson (from the defunct Caterham operation) and former Williams tester Felipe Nasr. It would be difficult for Sauber to have a worse season than in 2014, but in fact its Ferrari-powered C34 ran well in Spain, setting some headline times early on and working through a programme to ensure a better year.

Plenty of good, bad and indifferent stories to conjure with then in the run up to the first race around Melbourne’s superfast Albert Park street circuit. From the roster of well-worn clichés it may be, but who’s done their homework properly will be revealed in the early hours of Sunday March 15.

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