Barcelona: Consensus was reached by drivers regarding what a physical challenge handling the new cars represents. The word “beast” was bandied about with abandon by several and, to their credit, they were using it positively and revelling in the task of having to properly manhandle their drives around the Circuit de Catalunya.
Mechanical grip was up, as was downforce, as had been the plan for the new regulations, and the resultant grip saw cornering speeds and g-force increases that are a new experience for almost all of the current crop of drivers. It also allowed braking later into corners and to get back on the gas sooner on exit, again opportunities few drivers would not take with alacrity and they did.
Nico Rosberg, who retired after winning the world championship last season, was full in his praise for the machinery and the test it presented, describing the cars as “monstrous” and the drivers as “gladiators”, noting that some may even lose races due to being tired out by the task. The purpose of making the cars harder to drive was that they would appear to be exactly that visually to fans — making the racing truly gladiatorial.
But there remains a major drawback. Evidence thus far from watching trackside is that while the men behind the wheel are building up a sweat, the cars still look like they are on rails, they are not moving around under the drivers and they are very stable with barely a wheel out of place during some of the many metronomic laps put in over the test — flat through three and hitting line and length to perfection at La Caixa. If the intent was to see the cars being flung around with 1970s-style oversteer, it has simply not materialised. The demands are higher but they have not translated into the spectacle that was hoped for — the drivers are clearly working harder — the trouble is it just does not look like they are.
Looks making their mark
The aim to make the cars simply look quicker and more aggressive too has been a success. The 2017 models are a vast improvement on their predecessors, the fat rubber was a simple way to improve the aesthetics and should have been reintroduced long ago but it combines well with the wider cars and the rakish angles of the new regulations, with swept front and rear wings and sidepods.
Adrian Newey was dismissive of such changes as a bit “wacky races” in that it was presenting an illusion of speed but a great part of enjoying motor racing is taking pleasure in the look of the vehicles and F1 has had some very average looking rides in recent years and in this sense the new regs have been successful, with of course the major exception of the ghastly shark fins featured on all the cars bar the Mercedes. Some have implemented the vertical fin that channels air to the rear wing better than others — the Haas version actually looks very dashing but Force India’s slab of anodyne blank silver is painful to behold.
Ross Brawn confirmed that having set the parameters and allowed designers to work to them it would be entirely unfair to now tell them they had to ditch the fins because everyone simply didn’t like the look of them — so there will be no ban this season although a rethink may occur for 2018. Which means Mercedes, who appear to be favouring their innovative ‘T-wing’ system over the shark fin and which various other teams are now also trialling, has at this stage the best-looking car on the grid.
Forward into the future
Signs that new owner Liberty Media is taking Formula One into new territory are welcome after years of stagnation under Bernie Ecclestone and CVC and how small things can sometimes make such a big difference.
Teams and drivers were allowed to post videos to social media for the first time from the track in Barcelona, an act that was strictly verboten under Bernie as was anything that even remotely might infringe on selling broadcasting rights.
Yet it was an unqualified success and can only be to the sport’s advantage.
Suddenly there was access to far more coverage, information and insight than ever before and the sense of connection to and interest in F1 will have grown as a consequence as will the potential for creating new fans — an absolutely crucial goal.
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, told me he was right behind the move.
“The engagement we have had has been enormous,” he said. “We nearly crashed the Red Bull servers with the influx of following and that is purely an advertisement for what’s coming. The broadcasters won’t miss out from that, they’ll gain because people will think: ‘OK, I want to see what goes on’ and we are able to get across the personalities of the drivers. What did Daniel Ricciardo have for breakfast, how does he prepare before he gets in the car — people are content hungry.”
A positive move backed up by some innovative thinking as Ross Brawn floated the idea of non-championship races to experiment with new formats while he was in Barcelona — these are small but positive steps and in a long conversation I enjoyed with Brawn his eagerness and commitment to improving the experience for fans was hugely encouraging. Sudden structural change is definitely not coming to F1 but addressing these issues is going to happen and it will occur sooner rather than later.
Overtaking under fire
The questions over the effect on overtaking from the new regulations began long before the cars finally hit the track for the first test. Lewis Hamilton brought it up back in November and from the moment that a downforce-based aero-formula, intended to increase speeds and lower lap times, was revealed the potential for it to impact on the ability to pass cars on track was clear. Dirty air — turbulent wakes from the aerodynamics of the car in front has long been a known issue in F1, indeed the very existence of DRS is partly down to finding a way to enable cars to get round it but in Barcelona the added aero of 2017 has raised serious concerns over it genuinely detracting from the racing. Hamilton, who had warned twice in the week before testing that it would be an issue, again brought it up after his first run in the Mercedes W08.
“I was behind a couple of cars out there and it was harder to follow, as we expected,” he said, and he was swiftly joined by Williams’ Felipe Massa.
“Definitely from the driving point of view, it’s much nicer for the driver,” said the Brazilian. “For the show, I don’t know. I’m sure it will be more difficult to overtake.”
Three days later, after his final run on a dry track and Hamilton was even more sceptical. “When the design came out the engineers said this is the wrong design, this is the wrong way,” he said.
“When you are behind it feels one way for a second then have a crosswind you’re not expecting or you lose front-end grip and you have to lift and then you never get close enough. I’ve experienced that here, I was behind several different cars and it was not easy,” he said.
This is not a good sign for the new season. Lower lap times and increased cornering speeds are nice for drivers but it will not be particularly noticeable to fans tuning in on a Sunday afternoon. However if they are confronted by cars that cannot pass one another on track it will be all too clear and all too embarrassing for the sport.
Worryingly, Hamilton has now used the phrase “don’t hold your breath” in reference to seeing overtaking twice in the space of less than 10 days.
Putting in the miles
Lap times at the first test cannot be invested with too much significance. No one is looking to set out-of-the-box quick times with a brand new car on its first shake down and doubly so when the car is in its first year of development. The teams admit as much. Getting on track, ironing out glitches and top to bottom system checks are the order of the day and that is achieved through putting in the miles. Here we can see some genuine results.
Ominously the Mercedes was absolutely rock solid from its first time out of the garage and remained so, barring some minor glitches on the last day. They completed 152 laps on Monday, 168 on Tuesday, 170 on Wednesday and 68 on the final day — the latter with more limited running due to an “electrical fault” that excused Hamilton from running in a wet session he had been less than keen to do anyway.
Those runs included two full, race-length simulations by Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, the Finn’s on the second day, a remarkable effort for the debut of a new machine. Mercedes will have begun development of the W08 early, given the dominance they enjoyed last season and that will have helped but they have also clearly managed to ensure they have carried over the extraordinary reliability of the previous car to this year’s model.
Ferrari too will be buoyed by some really consistent running. The Scuderia managed 128 laps on Monday, 108 on Tuesday 139 on Wednesday and 93 on the final day — this is just the start they needed, exploring the limits of the car’s potential in speed and tuning its setup can now be the focus for the second test. That was the least that was needed should they want to take the fight to Mercedes.
Red Bull in turn had a few problems, completing 50 laps on Monday, 89 on Tuesday 70 on Wednesday and 85 on the final day, but were on an upward curve throughout the week and Daniel Ricciardo was optimistic that they too would begin unlocking the real potential of the RB13 at the next test.
As for McLaren, to have to replace one power unit on day one might be misfortune but a second on day two as well looks like carelessness.
It’s too early for them to panic but alarm bells could and should be ringing. And those times? Oh, go on then. Bottas and his Merc was fastest overall with a 1.19.705, which was just two-tenths up on Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari. Intriguingly, and here let the glorious conjecture begin, the German set his time on the harder, soft tyres...