Drafting the Circuits
Formula 1 Report
By Steve Aibel
February testing is now complete and after 12 days at Jerez and Barcelona, the teams are headed back to the factories to put the final touches on their 2015 charges. Testing figures are often challenging to decipher as they are layered with variable fuel levels, tire compounds, and test agendas. However, there are definitely trends that allow us to make pre season forecasts and predictions.
The Mercedes juggernaut continues.
From the looks of it, the 2015 Formula 1 championship could very well be round 2 of the Hamilton-Rosberg battle. Mercedes went though their testing program efficiently and rarely had the need to show just how much speed the W06 possessed.
With reliability the only nick in the Mercedes armor last year, the Mercedes program revolved around battle testing the new entry with high miles instead of pure speed. Often the Mercedes was mid-pack on the speed charts, however rarely were they bolting on the faster tire sets. The fact that Mercedes times were often set on medium tires while others were posting lap times on softer compounds is the critical warning shot fired across the bow of the field.
Both Hamilton and Rosberg are feeling like this years car is better than last years dominant entry. Both have expressed this scary sentiment….we have not gotten the set up right yet.
This year’s championship will run through Brackley!
Williams have had a less than stellar decade, but last years team effort rejuvenated the squad from Grove. What was a strong entry in 2014 feels better this year to both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas.
In typical Williams fashion, the team had an uneventful test, often rounding through their checklists in a professional and efficient style. Williams tended to finish their testing programs early in the afternoons and simply shut it down once complete.
Both Bottas and Massa were able to deliver fast trap times with the Williams again designed to be low on drag and high on top line speed. If they are able to improve rear grip and tire degradation, Williams may be the only team capable of challenging Mercedes.
Ferrari is synonymous with Formula 1 and when they struggle, it is not good for the sport. The huge changes in Maranello have obviously had a positive effect on the Scuderia. With Sebastian Vettel joining Kimi Raikkonen, and Maurizio Arrivabene now steering the ship, the month of testing for Ferrari has shown a vessel moving in a new direction.
Heck, Arrivabene even questioned Kimi Raikkonen’s health as he was smiling so much.
No doubt, Ferrari was the surprise of testing. The power level of the Ferrari engine seems much improved with both Ferrari and Sauber topping the time sheets for some of the testing days. While Ferrari atop the time sheets should surprise no one, having Sauber tag along speaks volumes for the development of the Ferrari engine.
The Ferrari chassis also seems to have improved with both drivers complimenting the design. Kimi Raikkonen struggled last year with a design that did not possess the front-end grip that comforts Raikkonen. This year’s car, designed by James Allison, should possess better front-end grip mid corner and improved stability under braking.
A more powerful engine, better chassis and two motivated drivers sets Ferrari up for a significant improvement this season.
Red Bull RB11
Red Bull’s 2015 season rests, again, on the shoulders of the Renault power unit. If Red Bull is able to deliver an engine that can compete with Mercedes, they will again be title contenders. But if Renault delivers an underpowered engine, Red Bull will struggle, perhaps more than they did last year.
Losing Sebastian Vettel will be a bigger hit than I think Red Bull expects. Even though Vettel struggled last year, he was still in the points each race and with Daniel Ricciardo, grabbed a second place position in the Constructor’s Championship. With Daniil Kvyat now in the second Red Bull seat, those points are not guaranteed and Red Bull may drop down the order behind Williams and Ferrari.
My biggest wish for Red Bull is to lose the camouflage paint scheme.
McLaren was dreadful during the 12 days of testing.
They won’t be by years end!
McLaren have rejoined with Honda in what, on paper, looks like the ultimate dream team. McLaren, Honda, Alonso and Button, Boullier and Dennis have the drive and experience to weather the early storm and bring McLaren back to the front of the pack.
Generously, the testing season for McLaren was a struggle. They spent most of the Jerez test just trying to get out of the garage and Barcelona was spent with issues that would keep the car in repair for hours at a time. Once the MP4-30 hit the track, it was often slow and carried a sound that was unrefined in comparison to the engines that have had a year of on track seasoning.
Still, McLaren and Honda are too solid to stay mired in the back of the paddock for very long. At worst, McLaren expects to see improvement by the European summer segment, but I suspect they will be competitive much, much faster.
With Alonso, they have a driver who could wring points from a used washcloth and Jenson Button is much the same. Both a Formula 1 Champions! With the problems facing the new Honda engine, keeping Button will prove to be a brilliant decision that will result in quicker development of the new package. Button may also prove to be a calming and rational voice when things get rough for the Woking group.
So keep this in mind.
McLaren will be up to speed faster than expected and will score points in Australia.
A day late and a dollar short. Maybe not this year!
The new Lotus E23 arrived one day late to the Jerez test and Pastor Maldonado crashed the car during the last afternoon session in Barcelona. Between those two events, Lotus has developed a strong contender that will show improvement from 2014.
The biggest change for Lotus is the engine switch from Renault to Mercedes. An improved chassis and Mercedes power set Lotus up to lead three of the four days during the first Barcelona test.
With a more dependable standard, Lotus should be able to run a more conservative set up which will allow the racecraft of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Madonado to develop the car through the year.
Lotus will surprise the year, however the increased strength of the mid-pack may have them still battling for points rather than podiums.
Force India VJM08
It was not until the final test that we first saw the Force India entry. That is too late to do all the testing necessary to feel comfortable in Australia. Surprisingly, the Force India entry ran flawlessly out of the box. The Mercedes powered car ran almost as many miles as McLaren did across the entire month in the last three days.
Unfortunately, Force India did not have the time to run a proper series of tests. If the car runs well, as it did during the final weekend in Barcelona, Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez will be battling amongst for Q3 positions and mid pack and placements.
2014 for Sauber was the worst season in the history of the team.
2015 could be very different. Sauber was one of the pleasant surprises from the month long tests in Spain.
Sauber seems to have benefitted from an improved Ferrari power unit, which helped them top the time sheet on day 3 in Jerez. Sauber ran well enough through the rest of the testing period to be more of a player than an afterthought.
The question mark this season will revolve around two inexperienced drivers. Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr who will be challenged to develop the C34 from the cockpit. If they can do this and Ferrari truly has improved their powerplant, expect Sauber to figure in more point scoring positions throughout the entire season.
And PS, the blue, yellow and white paint scheme looks great.
Toro Rosso STR 10
Toro Rosso spent most of the testing season acclimating two new drivers and working to achieve a level of reliability to begin the season anew. With Carlos Sainz Jr. and Max Verstappen piloting the Toro Rosso entry, the team will be faced with developing a new car and new drivers at the same time.
This will be their biggest challenge!
The fate of the 2015 season will once again fall to the power increases made by engine supplier Renault. The jury is still out on the engine gains although we know that Renauly have chosen to save development tokens so they can makes changes during the season as conditions develop. This could mean improvement across the season from an engine perspective. Wise move, but I am seeing a long season for Toro Rosso.