Formula One: Red-hot Red Bull sets the pace

After winning the drivers and constructors double for seven years running, does Mercedes finally have a fight on its hands given the pace and consistency of the two Red Bull drivers? Lewis Hamilton seems to think so.

Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton stops in the gravel leading to a red flag on day two of testing at the Bahrain International Circuit on March 13. “The rear doesn’t feel particularly great with the new regulation change and we’re trying to find the sweet spot,” he said.   -  Getty Images

Where is Lewis Hamilton? Yes, the seven-time world champion did do 54 laps on the final day of pre-season testing at the Bahrain International Circuit. But fifth-best is probably not where you’d expect to see him — and definitely not in the gravel at Sakhir, where he found himself on the second day.

After his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas lost most of his running time due to a gearbox problem on the opening day, Hamilton looked uncomfortable in the W12 in the Friday afternoon session. “The rear doesn’t feel particularly great with this new regulation change and we’re trying to find the sweet spot,” the seven-time world champion said a day later after he spun off the track, referring to rules changes that reduce a portion of the floor of the car in front of the rear tyres and limit the size of the diffuser, effectively reducing the aerodynamic downforce a Formula One car generates.

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While Hamilton struggled with the balance and handling of his car, Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin admitted the team was not happy with the way it was performing. “The lower fuel work was a more confusing picture. We didn’t gain enough and we need to go and look at our approach as far too many cars were ahead of us on pace today,” Shovlin said. “We’ve had issues in recent years with pace in winter testing and managed to make good progress before the first race, but we may have our work cut out this time.”

The aforementioned rule changes have affected the performance of the F1 cars, but many of the teams are confident of matching the downforce levels seen in 2020, if not surpassing them. That said, Red Bull’s performance over the three days in Bahrain indicates it has the fastest car. But pre-season testing only provides a snapshot of the actual pace of the cars. The teams put their machinery through their paces on parameters such as engine modes, fuel loads, tyre compounds and track conditions, making it all but impossible to get an accurate comparison before the season begins.

On the cars itself, the FIA, motorsports’ governing body, has limited the number of components that can be changed and has introduced a token system where the teams will be given a series of tokens that can be exchanged for the introduction of specific component upgrades. For the all-conquering Mercedes, however, a more telling change is that the dual-axis steering system that it developed for 2020 — which allowed its drivers to adjust the toe of the front wheels to optimise mechanical grip by pulling or pushing on the steering wheel — has been banned for this season.

Red Bull is racing

Max Verstappen agreed that this was the strongest pre-season testing of his career, but with a caveat: “...it doesn’t give you any guarantees, so we’ll find out throughout the first race weekend where we are.”

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“We did our programme, and compared to my first day, the conditions were quite a bit different. So we had to adjust the car a little bit to it. But I think from our side it was very smooth and (we are) happy with our progress throughout the whole test,” he said, adding, “We always look into what we can improve. And for sure there are some things we want to work on. But I guess every team has that.” The Red Bull racer — who incredibly begins his seventh full F1 season at age 23 — topped the overall time sheets after three days of testing and was the only driver to go below 1:29.0. And, while Verstappen was the first driver to spin during testing at Sakhir, it was one of only two blips for his team, the other being Sergio Perez’s engine cover flying off while he was overtaking the Williams of Nicholas Latifi on day two. Perez was fastest in the first session of the final day before his Dutch teammate took over the car, which looked far more stable than it did in testing prior to the previous season.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen — who incredibly begins his seventh full F1 season at age 23 — topped the overall time sheets after three days of testing and was the only driver to go below 1:29.0.   -  Getty Images

 

Verstappen, however, was guarded in his expectations: “The amount of times Mercedes has topped the testing in the last few years is not very high. It is not about pure performance. I had positive feelings in the car, but we will find out at the first race where we are. It has been a good few days now, but we always improve and try to be better. I don’t think we are the favourites if Mercedes wins that many championships in a row. I think it is still the same as before the test.”

After winning the drivers and constructors double for seven years running, does Mercedes finally have a fight on its hands given the pace and consistency of the two Red Bull drivers? Hamilton seems to think so: “They can be favourites if they want. I mean, they’re looking strong. I don’t really focus on that kind of stuff and they’ve had some really good running... They’re going to be a different machine or animal this year with, I think, a really good, strong line-up for two drivers and a really good car.”

The rest of the paddock

When taken along with the variables at play, the conditions at Sakhir made it nearly impossible to compare the performance of the midfield teams — McLaren, Alpine (the rebranded Renault), Aston Martin (the rebranded Racing Point), Ferrari and AlphaTauri. Testing began at 10 a.m. local time, continued through the hottest parts of the day when lap times were at their slowest, and finished at 7 p.m. in near-optimum conditions under the lights.

McLaren, with new driver Daniel Ricciardo in the cockpit, seems to have made the most progress between the 2020 and ’21 seasons. This year, the team resumes its partnership with engine supplier Mercedes — one that resulted in three drivers’ and one constructors’ title between 1995 and 2014 — and the car was quick throughout testing.

However, Aston Martin, the other midfield team using the Mercedes power unit, struggled in Bahrain, its two drivers placing at the bottom of the charts on the final day. The team’s new signing, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, was limited to only six laps on the second day because of a gearbox problem, but managed to do 56 on the final day, when he was hampered by a loss of turbo-boost pressure.

Ferrari seemed to struggle, but a strong lap from Charles Leclerc on the final day put him in sixth in the classification. While it was hard to judge the actual pace of the car, team principal Matteo Binotto said its straight-line speed was no more disadvantage. “When we were here last year in Bahrain for the race and for qualifying, we’ve been very slow here on the straights — we didn’t enter into Q3 and we were very distant from pole. Now if I look at the first days, I think at least on the straights the speed is alright. It doesn’t seem to be such a disadvantage as it was last year,” he said. “We know it’s not only power, it’s the drag of the car as well — as we often said last year — but let me say that both of them contributed in improving our speed on the straights and today we feel it is not any more a disadvantage.”

A surprise was the performance of rookie Yuki Tsunoda in the AlphaTauri, who made it a Honda-powered one-two overall by clocking within one-tenth of Verstappen’s time.   -  Getty Images

 

A surprise was the performance of rookie Yuki Tsunoda in the AlphaTauri, who made it a Honda-powered one-two overall by clocking within one-tenth of Verstappen’s time. Red Bull and sister outfit AlphaTauri are the only two teams using Honda engines this year, and the Japanese manufacturer is set to exit the sport at the end of the season.

With Fernando Alonso returning (with a jaw held together with titanium plates following a cycling crash in February) after a gap of two years, F1 has been afforded a rather rare sight: three world champions who are unlikely to challenge for the title this season, the other two being Vettel and the ageless Kimi Raikkonen, who did an incredible 166 laps in his Alfa Romeo on the final day — nearly three full Bahrain Grand Prix distances.