From eight days of pre-season testing and poring over thousands of laps, we’ve learned exactly the same as every other year: Not quite enough. And that’s a good thing.
Testing is all about understanding a new car, ironing out reliability issues, learning how to make it work to the best of its potential and getting a rough idea of where you stand in the competitive order. Teams will always suggest that the latter part is not a priority – they’ll often trot out the line that they are “only focusing on ourselves and not paying attention to what anyone else is doing”. Which, quite frankly, is rubbish.
Thankfully, McLaren sporting director Gil de Ferran provides a much more authoritative voice than mine on that topic: “From a competitive perspective it is really hard to gauge,” de Ferran said. “People are doing different things all the time, different times of the day, different engine modes, tires, fuel loads. So it is really hard to gauge with precision our competitiveness. Believe me, we are trying! You guys are doing a lot of analysis on the lap times. And so are we.”
If it were as simple as just following the headline lap times, then the excitement would be huge. But the remarks made away from the track were as fascinating as many of the indicators on it. At midday on Friday, Lewis Hamilton faced the press shortly after Sebastian Vettel had posted a 1m16.221s, the fastest time of testing. Hamilton was in a mood we’ve seen before. Talking up Ferrari throughout, Hamilton was willing to suggest the gap to the Scuderia could be as big as half a second. He praised his own team – rightly so, as defending champions – but insisted Mercedes has a major challenge on its hands to try and close the gap to Vettel and Charles Leclerc.
Not even two hours later, Mattia Binotto was in front of the press and dismissing those claims. The Ferrari team principal is pragmatic, and not overly political when it comes to dealing with the media – as an example, he has already said that Vettel will get priority over Leclerc at the start of the season if required, based on his history with the team and superior experience. On this occasion it was almost as if Binotto could predict the future, because he preempted the way the afternoon would pan out.
“I would like to be faster, I would like to be more reliable,” he said. “I’m pleased to say that the car is behaving as we’re expecting. That’s the starting point. There were many issues to be addressed, and performance to push forward. So I will not be pleased today.”
Less than two hours later, Vettel stopped at Turn 2 with an electronic issue that would prove terminal. And that wasn’t the only premonition Binotto had…
“I’m happy to know that Hamilton believes that we are faster, but we believe they are very strong,” he said. “I believe that Mercedes will be very, very strong in Australia and I think it would be completely wrong to think that today we are faster than them.
“I think we know that here we may run different fuel levels, we’ve got different programs, so I’m not expecting them to be behind us, I think it’ll be very, very close.”
At around 17:00, Hamilton duly posted a 1m16.224s to make “very, very close” translate into 0.003s. It was on the same tire compound and on the same day, so naturally the instant reaction was that it shows the two teams to be neck-and-neck. Then the follow-up was to ignore testing and wait for Melbourne.
It’s not the headline lap times that tell the story. The standout laps also came from the top two drivers on Friday, but they were a 1m16.6s from Hamilton on the C4 compound, and a 1m16.7 from Vettel on the C3. The latter puts Ferrari ahead, but by how much really is hard to gauge. That’s because Pirelli suggest a delta of 0.6s between C3 and C4, and similar between C4 and C5, but the majority of teams did not find anywhere near that amount of time.
While Pirelli states the delta is an average across the grid, the common consensus is that it’s smaller, and therefore the above laps – tire corrected – would give Ferrari a small advantage. It’s in Hamilton’s interests to talk up Ferrari’s pace and overestimate the deficit Mercedes faces. It buys his team some breathing room if indeed there is a big gap, but more realistically, it makes both himself and the team look even more impressive if it manages to set the pace in Melbourne.
It also puts pressure on Ferrari. If Mercedes has got comparable pace but has managed to paint a picture that places Ferrari comfortably ahead, then the Scuderia will have been deemed to have made a step backwards the moment a wheel is turned in anger.
And it’s for that very reason Binotto will talk down his team’s performance. The on-track performance might suggest a small advantage, but suggest Mercedes is at the same level and Ferrari could be seen as over-delivering if it wins in Australia, rather than just achieving the result it should.
Ultimately, the top three teams need to know they are able to get the better of the rest of the field, but keep their main rivals guessing as to how quick they really are. They remain the leading trio, but the gap to the rest of the grid does appear a little smaller, and just as tight as ever.Williams and Racing Point aside – the latter aiming to introduce a major upgrade ahead of Melbourne that further clouds judgment of its position in the pecking order – the remaining five teams all have realistic aims of reaching Q3 in Australia. By default, that means someone is going to be left surprised when they drop out in Q1.
But that qualifying session is not where the true picture is seen. At this stage a year ago, Ferrari looked like a threat on single lap pace but potentially less so over a race distance. Hamilton stormed to pole position to apparently highlight just how much Mercedes was sandbagging in testing. But the next three pole positions? They went to Vettel. Was Ferrari struggling over a race distance? No. Whatever we’ve seen over the past two weeks, the leading cars will look different in Melbourne, and again in Bahrain, and again in China. The chase for performance won’t relent, and competitiveness will fluctuate as a result.
Fortunately, that’s all you can say with any form of certainty.You never learn everything in testing. Yes, you do learn – Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull should be winning races this season, and it’s the Scuderia that is favorite heading into the opener – but only based on this exact circuit, in this week’s exact conditions, with this week’s exact cars. And they will not be the three ingredients for any race.The fun comes from trying to work out a best guess, but realistically knowing it will only ever be a best guess, and heading to Australia with seeds of doubt.
The teams hate that doubt. It’s the unknown. It’s exactly what they are trying to discover by analyzing their rivals, and what they are trying to stop their rivals from knowing. And it’s exactly why decoding testing is so fascinating and so pointless at the same time. Nobody ever knows quite enough.