F1 Testing Review – What Did we Learn?

March 04, 2018

- Grant Whittington

Ahead of the first week of Formula 1 testing in Barcelona, many pundits were anticipating a close, three-way title fight between Ferrari, Red Bull and defending champions Mercedes in 2018.

While this made perfect sense given the exploits of these teams and their drivers last season, however, it’s fair to surmise that the first pre-season test did very little to confirm or disprove this assertion.

This was due to a combination of factors, from omni-present challenges surrounding engine settings and fuel loads to volatile variables like the weather. As a winter chill set in the Circuit de Catalunya became covered in a treacherous blanket of ice, attempting to find rhyme or reason in the subsequent results proved to be increasingly difficult.

Despite this, the team at the Bet Hut have attempted to make some sense of a tense and keenly-contested testing session. Here’s what we found:

The First Week of Testing – What Happened?

If nothing else, the first week of testing was memorable for the adverse weather conditions, which brought a thin layer of snow on Wednesday and sub-zero temperatures throughout. Of course, the 10 teams on show rallied against the conditions to make the most of their circumstances, but a number of key questions were left unanswered ahead of the next week.

The biggest consequence of the adverse weather was the impact that it had on tyre performance, with all Pirelli compounds (even those designed for cool weather conditions) required to reach at least 90C in order to turn the tyre on.

Some teams tried to circumnavigate this issue by using heat from the brakes to generate bulk tyre performance, but with these also running cold it forced drivers to push even harder in the quest for optimal results.

Without the requisite tyre temperature, however, there’s no doubt that vehicles were forced to operate within their capabilities last week and modify their initial performance goals.

In this respect, it can be argued that the first week’s test results are meaningless and questionable at the very best. In fact, teams like Ferrari seemed to adapt their strategy half way through the week, ahead of the slightly warmer weather conditions and average temperature of 15 degrees Celsius that rolled into Barcelona on Thursday afternoon.

More specifically, they began to use last week as preparation for the subsequent testing session, while planning out a new and informed strategy for the near-term.

Who Performed the Best in Testing?

Given the prevailing weather conditions, it quickly became apparent medium tyres were ultimately

the fastest available. This was borne out during the final day of testing, when Lewis Hamilton showed a brief glimpse of Mercedes’ true pace and power to claim top spot and record the fastest time across the entire week.

Ominously, Mercedes clicked into gear as the sun came out and the temperature soared on Thursday, with Hamilton comfortably outperforming his rivals during this period. In fact, by the end of the day he sat half-a-second clear at the top of the standings, after his medium compound tyres helped him to record a fastest time of 1:19:333.

Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas also performed solidly on medium compound tyres, trailing behind with a time of 1:19:976 and recording the fourth fastest time overall.

While Hamilton’s performance in particular may have caused concern among those at Ferrari and Red Bull, however, the Englishman was not the only driver to exceed expectations last week.

In fact, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel produced a superb drive during conditions on day two, claiming a time of 1:19:673 on soft tyres and setting an early standard in the field.

Stoffel Vandoorne also surprised everyone by recording the third-fastest time of 1:19:854 in his McLaren, while using hyper-soft tyres with a compound four steps softer than Hamilton’s mediums used later in the week.

Beyond this, Daniel Ricciardo ensured that a surprisingly difficult week for Red Bull enjoyed on a positive note, as he followed Hamilton’s example by racing on medium tyres during the final session. In doing so, he recorded a time of 1:20:179, and created a foundation for the much-fancied Red Bull team to thrive during the next week of testing.

What Exactly Did we Learn and What will Happen Next?

If you were to look at last weeks testing results without the necessary context, it would appear as though Mercedes were well-set to continue their recent dominance in the sport. After all, Hamilton’s best time in warmer weather conditions was comfortably the fastest of the whole week, while the gap between him and his rivals seemed relatively large.

Tire firm Pirelli have been quick to question that accuracy of such as observation, however, claiming that the conditions restricted performance considerably across almost the entire week.

In fact, they believe that the teams have yet to scrape the surface of the capabilities in terms of performance, and that the next week of testing will prove to be far for insightful ahead of the brand new season.

More specifically, Pirelli claim that continued use of softer tyres in the range will cause lap times to drop considerably in the second week, with times as low as 1:17 forecast for the leading teams. This will instantly create a more even playing field for the competing teams, enabling them to optimise their performance and lay down a marker for next season.

Not only this, but Pirelli’s observations also suggest that we should view Hamilton’s performance from a slightly different perspective. After all, while Mercedes utilised medium tyres that were automatically quicker in the cold thanks to their stiffer construction, Ferrari continued to use soft tyres for the majority of the week.

This meant that Hamilton’s quickest lap on a harder compound was far less conclusive than it originally appeared, particularly as Vettel achieved the next quickest time on far softer tyres.

It’s also important to note that the teams have yet to determine fuel levels, and this remains one of the great unknowns that has a direct impact on single-lap performance.

All things considered, we must consider the results achieved during the first week of 2018, F1 testing in context and take them with a pinch of salt.

The lap times achieved are particularly meaningless, for example, as the conditions created a variable that caused performances to vary wildly depending on the types of tyre used.

The mileage completed each team is important, however, as is the way in which they chose to use their time. Ultimately, it is probably those that utilised the conditions most effectively that will enjoy greater success during the second week of testing.

One that is clear, however, is that Mercedes and Ferrari (and specifically Hamilton and Vettel) that are likely to remain the key competitors when the new F1 season starts.

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