With the pre-season testing being done and dusted, teams and drivers start to focus on the Australian Grand Prix that kicks off the 2020 FIA Formula One Championship season at Melbourne on March 15.
The championship's main contenders only had six days of on-track action to get themselves ready for the forthcoming championship. Although the pre-season testing looked horrendously short, most of the cars have been built as an evolution of their predecessors which meant reliability has been less of a concern.
Everyone knows that winter testing can be misleading just as it was the case last year when Ferrari impressed with a fast, reliable car only to fall then flat on their face at the season-opener in Australia. However, Mercedes’ form during the six days of running at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya has indicated that the world champions are going to be very hard to beat in 2020 when they try to secure their seventh consecutive title double.
Ominously quick, but a bit fragile
Who other else could be the favourite for the forthcoming season than the reigning world champions, the Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport team? The Anglo-German outfit that has dominated every year since the hybrid power unit was introduced in 2014 has kicked off their preparation in style by hitting the ground running at Barcelona.
The team’s new machine, the W11 has impressed everyone straightaway with its inherent speed. Although the first week saw Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas racking up the mileage, several engine-related issues have hindered the team in the second week of testing. Hamilton could hardly hide the fact that his new race car presents a huge step in terms of outright pace compared to its ultra-successful predecessor, the W10.
„It’s crazy how quickly these past two weeks have gone. It’s been intense, with a huge amount of work from everybody at the track and back home at the factories. The car’s feeling like a step forward from last year, but it’s clear we’ve still got a few issues we need to iron out ahead of Melbourne.”
Despite to the small hiccups, the six-time world champion is confident that the team can solve the problems come the first race weekend. „I’ve got total confidence in the team and know they’ll be doing everything they can to make sure we arrive in Australia in a good place.”
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas also confirmed the positive feeling that the new innovative machine has given on the race track so far. „I feel like we’ve made a step forward in most areas and it’s been a successful test. As always we’ll be focusing on our own performance and we’ve got two important weeks coming up now ahead of the first race to put what we’ve learnt from the test into action,” he said.
A step back in performance
Although Ferrari impressed with its performances after the summer break in 2019, the team left Barcelona, the venue of the pre-season testing less optimistic than it had hoped. The car has developed reliability issues of different sort in the first week and even if the team has managed to iron those glitches out for the second week, Scuderia’s new car, the SF1000 has been long way behind the rivals’ cars both in long and short run.
The team’s previous car, the SF90 impressed with its straighline speed in 2019, but the early signs from the pre-season testing indicate that Ferrari has made a complete turn-around with its aerodynamic concept and has lost its key advantage as a result.
When asked why Ferrari has lacked of straighline speed on the long straight of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Team Principal Mattia Binotto explained that relibaility concern and the need of improving cornering speed have played a crucial part in that.
„In terms of overall performance on the power and the engine, we are not as strong as we were last year. We were somehow focused on our reliability and that is somehow compromising eventually the performance.
"But the drag is significantly affecting the speed. I think when you look for better speed you need to look for the drag and the power of the engine itself,” Binotto was quoted as saying by autosport.com.
The Swiss-Italian acknowledged that the new scarlet red machine is currently lacking of speed in all conditions to Mercedes and Red Bull, although the race pace has looked a bit more encouraging during the race simulations completed on the final two days of testing.
„Over the last two days, we have carried out race weekend simulations with Sebastian and Charles. I believe the performance over a dry lap isn’t yet where we want it to be – while the indications are relatively better when it comes to reliability and long runs too, albeit not yet positive enough.
The Scuderia’s team principal stressed that Ferrari has a huge „amount of data to analyse in the knowledge that we have a range of work to do. But as a team we feel ready for the Australian Grand Prix, which will give us a clearer idea of where we stand,” Binotto added.
Finishing last season with arguably the best chassis, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing is adamant to fight for the championship. Previous season saw the Milton Keynes-based team start the season in a low-keyed form, but that is something the outfit very much wants to change for 2020. The outfit hopes that it has found every ingredient requiered to put immense pressure on the dominant Mercedes team right from the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen left Barcelona encouraged, but he felt that his team still has to make the package better if it really wants to mount a challenge on the field-leading Mercedes.
„We tried everything we wanted to over the six days which is very important from our side, so I’m happy with that. Overall, I can’t complain but that doesn’t mean we should stop the hard work and there are always things to improve. No car is ever perfect, especially at this stage in the season, so we will keep pushing to make improvements.
During the six days, Verstappen and his teammate Alexander Albon had several spins, leading to questions over the rear stability of the RB16. The eight-time grand prix winner dismissed any concerns over the handling characteristics of his new machine, claiming that the spins were rather results of trying to find the car’s limits.
„Me and Alex had a few moments but I’m not worried and I want to find the limit of the car in testing instead of at the first race. It’s better this way rather than being caught out and realising there is more pace in the car in Melbourne. Mercedes also look very fast as expected but I don’t really look too much at them as nobody knows exactly what they are doing, so it’s better to focus on ourselves. Overall I think the pace looks pretty good, it’s been a positive start and I hope it’s enough to be competitive in Melbourne,” the Dutchman said.
A step forward
On the back of a disastrous year in which the team only secured a solitary world championship point, the sport’s third most successful outfit, Williams wants to bounce back in 2020. The team’s engineers have put in a lot of effort to iron out the issues that plauged last year’s car. Building on the platform of the 2019 car, the FW43 has showed significant improvements in terms of cooling and aerodynamics during the pre-season testing.
Desputy Team Principal Claire Williams was delighted with the work carried out over the six days of testing, although she admitted that engine-related gremlins caused a setback to the development of the new car.
„Unfortunately, some of our run plans were impacted by the number of engine reliability issues that materialised over the six days, and which primarily affected Nicholas's running, but we have every confidence that Mercedes HPP will resolve these prior to actually racing.”
„It’s still early days, but the car certainly looks better than last year’s and that’s what we wanted to demonstrate, that we can make progress. We now have some time to go through all the data we’ve gathered in order to make sure we have the optimum configuration going into Melbourne. We will continue to fight hard to bring continual improvement to the car and look forward to seeing it take to the track in Australia.”
A question mark
Starting its second season in this incarnation, the Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen team has not left a superb impression during the six days of pre-season testing. Although Robert Kubica topped the timesheets on Day 4, the car has not been too impressive apart from several runs completed on Pirelli’s softest compounds and on lower fuel loads.
Racking up 735 laps in total, the C35 registered its fastest lap with reserve driver Robert Kubica when the Pole clocked a time of 1m16.942 on the C5 compound. The team’s technical director Jan Monchaux felt that the Hinwill-based outfit is ready for the season-opener.
“We can look back at the last two weeks with satisfaction for a job well done, although we are fully aware that the real task is still ahead of us. Over these two tests, we have gained a good understanding of the C39 and we feel prepared for the start of the season. We have completed nearly every item on our testing list, which is what you set out to do before even looking at performance, and we can now look forward to putting the final touches on the car before flying to Australia.”