Formula 1’s pre-season schedule has been significantly cut this year, and the teams are already facing their final three days of running before heading out to Australia for the opening race.
On the face of it, the first test appeared to show a very strong Mercedes. But plenty of unknowns remain ahead of the start of week two, including some around the defending champions.
So as all the teams prepare for the second test, here are the main questions that need answering over the next three days:
1. Just how much performance has Ferrari been hiding?
On the face of last week’s standings, Ferrari is in big trouble. No real pace shown, and a power unit issue that meant it only barely finished ahead of Williams in terms of both fastest lap and mileage.
But as Mercedes pointed out in its post-test analysis, Ferrari hasn’t turned up yet. This isn’t sandbagging, this is just a very different approach after the nasty surprise the Scuderia got last year when a very strong testing performance did not translate into competitiveness once the serious business started.
Ferrari has been thoroughly learning about its car, carrying out aero mapping and systems tests while running its power unit in a very different state to its customer teams. While Mercedes has hit the ground running once again, like-for-like comparisons have been tougher between the other front-runners, and neither Charles Leclerc nor Sebastian Vettel have done any low-fuel runs.
The situation 12 months ago is a reminder that it might only be on the final day that we have any real sense of the relative performance of Mercedes and Ferrari, and even then Australia could look very different. But there will be serious focus will be on the Ferrari lap times to at least get an understanding how much potential performance remains untapped.
2. Will DAS make another appearance?
There was major interest in Mercedes when it started running its Dual Axis Steering – DAS – system during the first test, especially when it became clear that it was an innovation that has been cleared by the FIA up to now.
The fact that the 2021 regulations outlaw such a system suggests it is here to stay this season, and Mercedes must see a significant enough benefit to have pushed on with development and testing in the knowledge it will only be allowed for this year.
So while other teams will be scrabbling to understand how the system works and whether they can implement it on their own cars quickly enough for it to be worth the investment, it will be interesting to see how confident in the concept Mercedes is. Further testing this week would suggest more needs to be learned, but could also potentially give away further information to keen observers. The more it is run, the more other teams will be trying to crack its code.
If it isn’t seen regularly, it could well suggest that Mercedes is confident in the system and ready to race it, while also limiting what its rivals can learn about it.
3. How many major upgrades will be introduced?
As much as those rivals would love to introduce an innovation similar to DAS this week, the likely timeframe on its development is half a season according to Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto. But just because Mercedes has a visually striking component on its car, doesn’t mean others won’t have developments of their own.
The second test is when significant upgrades are likely to be seen, because teams have completed the baseline running on the cars and are starting to understand how changes to bodywork and other new parts will impact performance.
Last year, a major step from Mercedes put it right back in the frame at the end of the second test after a slow start. This time round, teams are dealing with stable regulations and therefore should be able to work with a bit more certainty when it comes to updates.
Binotto has already suggested Ferrari won’t be significantly changing its car, but then he doesn’t need to show his hand at this point. The same goes for all teams, but with no in-season testing this year, this is the best opportunity to run a major update without the restrictions on track time during a race weekend.
Expect at least some of the 10 teams to end Friday’s running with a car that looks decidedly different to the one that rolled out on the opening day last week.
4. Do the other midfield teams have a response to Racing Point?
When Mercedes wasn’t the center of attention last week, a very Mercedes-looking car elsewhere on pitlane was. Racing Point’s 2020 design very much follows the philosophy of last year’s Mercedes W10, and to that end it was also clearly quick out of the box.
Team principal Otmar Szafnauer was keen to point out a lot of hard work had gone into getting the team into such a position, and right now that position looks like being the midfield leader. But Racing Point’s strong start contrasts with a slightly disjointed – if sometimes quick – opening week from Renault, and a McLaren team that appeared to be focusing on mileage early on.
Whether there is enough pace in either car to reel in Racing Point should become more apparent this week, as will the potential of an AlphaTauri that benefits from many Red Bull components and a rapidly-improving Honda power unit.
The midfield was extremely competitive for much of last year, despite McLaren’s comfortable advantage in P4 overall, and regardless of the final order that looks like having the potential to push all of the teams closer to the top three.
5. How competitive is Williams?
The feel-good story of last week was definitely Williams, as last year’s 10th-placed team was first out on track on the opening day. (OK, Carlos Sainz was waiting at the pit exit first, but Williams got the jump when the light went green, so let’s not ruin a good story…)
Mileage was solid – or brilliant, if you want to compare it to last season – and encouragingly, so was the immediate pace. But as previously pointed out, plenty of midfield teams are yet to show what they are capable of, and it remains to be seen if Williams has genuinely erased the gap to the rest.
While you could write down the back row of the grid at basically every qualifying session last year before the race weekend even started, Claire Williams has already boldly targeted challenging for Q2 this season, which would represent a massive step forward.
If that is achieved, it will say a lot about the work Williams has done after a number of years in decline. But even if it simply gets closer to what is a strong midfield, then that is still progress that should be applauded. When more low-fuel running is seen, we’ll start to get a picture of whether Williams can go with the rest or is still lagging behind.
(Disclaimer: These might not all get answered this week, but then where’s the fun in knowing all the answers before we go racing?)