The word ‘monster’ was being thrown around an awful lot at the conclusion of the first pre-season test of the 2017 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season. And it was not just on account of former three-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton signing a major sponsorship deal with the American energy drinks company of the same name.
Pretty much every driver and observer present at the first four-day pre-season test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain was raving about how the new breed of F1 cars looked meaner, went faster and posed a physical challenge to the drivers.
With tyres that are 60mm wider at the front, 80mm wider at the rear and wider cars overall (2000mm from 1800mm), there was a lot more grip to be expected from the cars that finally look like the performance oriented machines from 1997; a year prior to then FIA president Max Mosley famously mandating grooves to be put in the tyres and the width reduced.
Add to all this a 25 percent increase in downforce and the cars ended up achieving the goals laid out as per the new regulations. The first being to drastically decrease lap times and for the increased mechanical grip and downforce to lead to drivers being physically taxed.
Fernando Alonso and Hamilton both agreed on how much more of a challenge it was for them to drive the 2017-spec cars as did Sebastian Vettel. Alonso even went so far as to ‘apologize’ to the fans on behalf of F1 as a whole for the way cars looked and performed over the last seven years.
And he did have a point. Certainly every machine on track looked the part of a mean and imposing racing car, as did the lap times they set.
STATE OF PLAY
The fastest time set during the pre-season test around the 16-turn, 4.655km circuit was a lap by Mercedes AMG F1’s new recruit Valtteri Bottas at 1min19.705sec. Although probably even more significant was the second fastest time set over the course of the test, which was by Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. The former four-time world champion’s time of 1min19.952sec was set on a set of soft compound tyres as compared to the ultra-soft tyres that were bolted on to Bottas’ silver arrow. That means the Ferrari was on a set of tyres two steps harder than the Mercedes’ (super-soft being the compound in between the two).
Both of these times were the fastest ever that have been set at the circuit since a chicane was installed at its penultimate corner in 2007. The previous best being a 1min19.995sec lap that helped Mark Webber claim pole position for the 2010 Spanish Grand Prix. And way faster than the 1min22.000sec pole position time for Lewis Hamilton last year and light years, figuratively speaking, than Nico Rosberg’s 1min24.681sec pole time from 2015. In fact, nine of the best times set over the course of the first test were faster than last year’s Spanish GP pole time. At this year’s event itself, if the weather remains dry, don’t be surprised to see a time in the 1min18sec range.
But for now, back to how Mercedes and Ferrari’s best times can be interpreted. Since this is only testing and fuel loads are unknown, the best indicator of the pace of a car is still the first qualifying session of the season that is 22 days away. But Ferrari also managed to rack up a lot of mileage and suffered no reliability issues whereas Lewis Hamilton could not do any running at all on the final day yesterday due to an electrical failure.
And based on reports from those at the test, Ferrari looked very consistent over long runs even on comparatively harder tyres than the Mercedes, which suffered understeer at the start of a long run and then oversteer at the end of it. A long run would typically last around 20 laps.
Since cars have to go a full distance on a single tank of fuel (since 2010) these long runs determine how kind a car is to its tyres. That was something doubly important this year as F1’s control tyre supplier Pirelli had been asked to create a tyre with less drastic levels of degradation for 2017. The Italian firm had initially been asked to construct its tyres without keeping outright performance in mind but rather to get teams to pit for new rubber frequently and with differences between different compounds. With the feedback of drivers and fans being negative in many instances, 2017 will see a far more performance oriented tyre.
Which means that one is likely to see fewer stops for tyres and drivers having to work hard to overtake, although as compared to previous years when F1 cars a lot of downforce the much maligned Drag Reduction System (DRS) is still around to help drivers if they manage to close to within one second of a car in front.
While Hamilton – despite gushing about what a beast the new Mercedes is – felt that following another car is harder than before, Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen felt that following another car is no different than last year when a higher and narrower rear wing produced less turbulent air to blunt the effectiveness of the front wing.
FINDING THE EDGE
Now one can’t be certain if Verstappen feels like that because he is just naturally talented to the point that he can handle anything thrown at him or if there will indeed be a problem. Last year’s world champion Nico Rosberg was at the test too and he felt that a driver’s fortitude could be a performance differentiator. The idea being that drivers reaching a point where they have no choice but to take it easy would allow a fitter driver to snatch a place late in the race.
In order to prevent that, drivers have put on around 5 kilos of muscle over the course of the winter break while training their upper bodies, core and neck for the punishment to come. Already this seems to have caught out Williams Racing’s new recruit Lance Stroll, who crashed thrice over the course of the first test. The last being on the penultimate day, which damaged the sole chassis Williams was using, forcing them to not run yesterday.
The team will count its blessings to be able to fall back on the services of the far more experienced Felipe Massa who was yanked out of retirement when Bottas left to fill the vacancy at Mercedes after Rosberg’s shock retirement.
So the first running of the new F1 cars has left fans looking forward to the new season almost as much as the twenty drivers – not 22 as Manor Racing is officially gone from the grid – who are keen to push their new monsters, and themselves, to the limit.