ANALYSIS: Picking the pecking order after F1 pre-season testing

Image by Zak Mauger/LAT

ANALYSIS: Picking the pecking order after F1 pre-season testing

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ANALYSIS: Picking the pecking order after F1 pre-season testing

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Now Formula 1 pre-season testing is finished, it’s usually about the time I find a fence to sit on.

Don’t worry, I’m still going to do that in a bit. But first I thought I’d take an educated guess at the final constructors’ championship order at the end of this season, based on what we’ve seen in Barcelona, and also what we’ve heard. So, here goes:

1. Mercedes
2. Red Bull
3. Ferrari
4. McLaren
5. Racing Point
6. Renault
7. AlphaTauri
8. Haas
9. Alfa Romeo
10. Williams

You don’t need to screenshot that one, it’s going to be preserved in the RACER archives forever so you’ll be able to tell me how wrong I was come the end of November.

VIDEO: Chris Medland’s Barcelona week 2 wrap-up

As I mentioned, that’s based on a few different aspects rather than just the raw one-lap pace of any team, or the potential pecking order in Australia. Testing never gives the full picture because it’s one that evolves — different tracks suit different cars to a greater or lesser extent, development, weather, driver changes — there is so much that can influence the final standings.

Even if you nail the competitive order from pre-season testing, all you’re doing is confirming who was quickest with those cars in those conditions at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in February.

For example, in week two Alfa Romeo test driver Robert Kubica’s quickest lap time was a 1m16.942s set on the C5 compound, while Alfa racer Kimi Raikkonen did a 1m17.415s on the same compound on the final day. I’m told the car was in comparable condition, so do you really think the half a second gap means Raikkonen was getting everything out of it on his run?

Anyway, all of that said, there seemed to be a picture emerging that the grid has become closer to a three-tier championship more than a two-tier one as seen last year, but every team will have someone to race with.

Hamilton and Mercedes have been typically fast, but reliability has been atypically shaky. Image by Glenn Dunbar/LAT

Starting at the front, Mercedes definitely looks the class of the field. The car is quick on low and high fuel, but there is a question mark over reliability. The Mercedes power unit was not its usual bulletproof self — namely in the Williams but also on a couple of occasions in the works car — and that’s even before it will have been turned up to 11 during a race weekend.

All of the top three appeared to be hiding a chunk of performance, which means all three should extend their advantage over the rest of the midfield once we get down to the serious business of racing. How much performance was being held back is the big question.

On the face of it, Red Bull has the edge over Ferrari and will be giving Mercedes a real run for its money at certain tracks, but lagging behind at others. The comments were very confident ones from Christian Horner’s team, so perhaps it believes it has more to unleash than its rivals, but either way it’s good to see a Red Bull that expects to hit the ground running.

Does Red Bull have even more pace than its 2020 car has yet shown? Image by Steven Tee/LAT

Ferrari went for the opposite approach and showed very little of its hand, and then suggested it had shown a lot. Mattia Binotto rejected a Mercedes claim that the power unit was being run in a much lower mode than on Ferrari’s customer teams, and also talked up the threat from Racing Point.

But the race simulations don’t show such a threat, and Ferrari was burned last year when it thought it had the fastest car based on testing. Leaving no stone unturned this pre-season, the Scuderia is definitely the team to watch closest in Melbourne to understand if it has slipped back or offers a genuine title threat. It’s a much bigger spectrum of potential performance than most.

Behind those three, there’s another trio that look set for a big battle. Racing Point caught the eye with the Mercedes-inspired 2020 car, both in terms of looks and pace, but one-lap pace was stronger than race potential during this second week.

While the focus was on Racing Point, McLaren was quietly going about its work, amassing the miles and posting quick lap times on harder tires that were really the team’s quickest of the day but betrayed a car capable of matching what Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll were doing. Race pace was even stronger, and with a much more evolutionary car and settled team than Racing Point, fourth place is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

That’s certainly true when Renault’s best laps are thrown into the mix. Some quick times towards the end of testing and solid race running from Daniel Ricciardo makes it a likely three-way battle for fourth. Renault’s hopes could well rest on how much it wants to focus on 2021, and whether the new front end concept on the RS20 is easy to develop and exploit.

Renault looks like a dark horse in more ways than one. Image by Mark Sutton/Sutton Images/LAT

After that comes a group where three of the four teams were somewhat disappointing. AlphaTauri looked solid – actually, it looked great, because that is the best livery on the grid – but given the amount of hardware it shares with Red Bull, plus the progress Honda appears to have made over the past few seasons, it didn’t appear to be as close to McLaren/Racing Point/Renault as you’d expect.

Haas also didn’t tear up any trees, but it’s important to remember just how far off that team was at times last year. The raw pace from previous seasons doesn’t appear to be present in the 2020 car, but as a more consistent offering it should provide fewer headaches from one week to the next. And it appears to have an advantage over Alfa Romeo, although the Sauber-run team is comfortably within range if Haas suffers any repeat of last year’s woes.

Williams appears to be in much better shape than in 2019, although that’s a pretty low bar to clear. Image by Mark Sutton/Sutton Images/LAT

And the same can be said for Williams — the one team of the bottom four that can’t really be called a disappointment this winter. OK, improving on last year’s car was never going to be that difficult, but the gap to the rest of the midfield was so big that it was unrealistic to expect it to be wiped out in one go.

The FW43 is slowest on qualifying pace but in touch with the rest of the field, to the extent George Russell will be targeting more than 19th place in Melbourne. But it’s in race trim where the car looks so much better, and really able to mix it with the likes of Haas and Alfa Romeo. It’s a definite step forward.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway from testing is that nine of the teams have no idea where they stand on a power unit front, after a bizarre statement from the FIA. Talking points such as DAS were blown out of the water when it was announced (12 minutes from the end of the final day) that the FIA had reached a “settlement” with Ferrari regarding the operation and monitoring of its power unit, and that “the specifics of the agreement will remain between the parties.”

The latter part is crucial, as at least one team has confirmed they do not know any details, and it suggests they won’t be told. The FIA put out the statement after all press calls with the governing body and Ferrari were done for pre-season — and there were many over the two weeks — so Thursday’s media sessions in Melbourne are likely to be just as fascinating, if not more so, than Friday’s practice ones.

 

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