I find myself putting my neck on the line as Formula 1’s official test in Bahrain comes to an end, and with it the entirety of pre-season testing is now behind us. To all appearances that means we should have a clear idea as to where everyone will line-up on the grid on Saturday, or at the end of the race on Sunday.
Of course that’s absolutely not the case by any stretch of the imagination, but we can make educated guesses on what we saw – and in fact didn’t see – in pre-season at this stage.
Topping the timesheets in testing does not necessarily mean a certain team will repeat that feat at the first Grand Prix, although it hints towards an inherently sorted package which the team is happy to go in differing directions on when it comes to testing run plans. It means the package is consistent and adaptable and so should be competitive at whatever stage it is in the true order.
To throw into the testing mix however, there was the returning phenomenon of porpoising to consider, which strangely caught everyone by surprise even though 1980s Ground Effect F1 and modern LMP1 machinery both experienced the nightmarish characteristic.
To differing extents for each F1 team, a proportion of both tests was spent trying to get a handle on the porpoising – the methods in which teams use to combat (or compromise) the issue always has a bearing on the behaviour of the car in other ways. Increasing the ride height for example often led to serious drops in downforce when the car is unloaded, such as in slower corners, which left several drivers grappling with piteous looking understeer and subsequent oversteer.
The last day of pre-season testing is easily the most telling, it’s the time when the cars were at their most up-to-date and representative, but you also get a clearer picture of one-lap pace as some teams either go for glory on low fuel or hide their hand on high fuel. Some of my predictions would have looked a little different after even the second-to-last day in Bahrain.
These predictions, listed from top to bottom, are purely where I think the teams are at right now, even though I wouldn’t really expect this to change going into the Bahrain Grand Prix later in the week. There is of course scope for nuance due to the chances of Mercedes finding a drastic fix for for example, and the obvious impact of McLaren and Daniel Ricciardo’s lack of Bahrain running. In fact I’m confident this is probably not how the order will line-up, but it’s good to have a rough idea where things stand.
I have based this on how the cars looked out on track, primarily focusing on the more representative test in Bahrain, as an overview of the cars’ driveability – stability, responsiveness, control, predictability and outright speed – and reliability concerns and the impact that had on teams’ data gathering plans – more time spent in the garage with the floor off the car subtracts the time at hand to be learning about the car on track.
1. Red Bull
I’m putting Red Bull in the number one spot purely down to its day three pace with its upgraded sidepod design. Although not as easy to spot as Mercedes’ Bahrain sidepod remodel, the RB18’s update did a lot more good straight from the off, it seems, than Mercedes’ did.
The Red Bull never really showed signs of porpoising in Bahrain, and I think Helmut Marko’s elation after Perez put in the fastest lap on his first flyer with the upgrade in operation speaks volumes.
Incredibly consistent, both in terms of run plans completed and the car itself, the Ferrari looked easily quickest up until Red Bull seemingly obliterated that notion on the last day.
As a collective across all six days of running, the Ferrari was a better car – controlling its small amount of porpoising with ease, and completing the most laps for good measure. But going into the first race of the year, Ferrari looks to have slipped behind the reigning drivers’ champion’s machinery for now. Although, there’s no doubt the F1-75 is a mightily quick car, with its upgraded-for-2022 power unit, and so surely right up at the sharp end of the order.
The Bahrain iteration of the W13 was a whole new car in comparison to the Barcelona version, although not a B-spec according to the team. The sidepod-less W13 actually looked quite a lot harder to tame.
It exhibited the most porpoising of any car in Bahrain by a big margin, and when the team made efforts to reduce it the car understeered horrifically in the slower corners and didn’t look too happy in the faster final sector either. Of all of Mercedes’ apparent pre-season ‘sandbagging’ in the last few years, this time around it’s clear their struggles are real, but the exact extent is unknown and I suspect has more to do with how close behind the midfield pack are in reality.
McLaren endured a horrendous three days in Bahrain – one driver down and held back enormously by a brake cooling issue which confined the MCL36 to the garage for long periods. The hot Bahrain temperatures exposed the weakness in the design for the first time, after the car starred somewhat at the colder Barcelona.
The hugely promising pace shown behind closed doors in Barcelona is enough to put McLaren at the head of the midfield – a pack which seems to be even closer to each other and potentially closer to the front group.
This could easily still be the Woking-based squad’s most likely chance of fighting for the championship, but they need to get on top of the reliability concerns before or during practice for the first race in Bahrain.
This is where it gets a lot more difficult to nail down an order. But AlphaTauri’s AT03 is a ‘tidy’ car which responds well to driver inputs and setup changes.
It was obvious the team were trying to find the setup limits of the car through front wing angle changes on the last day, as Tsunoda spent a few laps fighting the oversteer with the car a bit too ‘pointy’ and on the nose after several runs of rampant understeer. However, the combination of a hopefully resurgent Tsunoda and the dependable hands of Gasly surely leaves Red Bull’s sister team with a right to have confidence.
6. Aston Martin
Perhaps the enigma of the midfield pack is the Aston Martin team, who had a car which appeared to be decent to drive in the middle and the last sectors and largely reliable.
However the team is somewhat reticent about their chances going into 2022, but how much of that is purely anticipation of what their closest rivals may bring remains to be seen. What was clear is that the AMR22 did exhibit some porpoising at the end of the pit straight, just after the group of bumps, but didn’t suffer as badly as some others.
After a rocky start in Barcelona, where reliability issues early on in a few of the sessions cost them a lot more running than usual, Haas seems to be in a relatively good position coming out of Bahrain. The termination of Mazepin’s contract with the team means the services of team’s former accomplice Kevin Magnussen have been acquired, with the Dane getting stuck in with the alien VF-22 straight from the outset.
Magnussen will be a more representative benchmark for Schumacher, and will push the German harder for his second season in F1. This should lead to better results for the team, but only as long as the car continues to deliver the promise that it did in Bahrain.
Sure, the team utilised low fuel glory runs in the evenings, but the development focus on this year’s car last season seems to have delivered a good package.
8. Alfa Romeo
Asked on Alfa Romeo’s prospects after the Barcelona test, I did actually say that Alfa Romeo were absolutely at the back of the field. Extensive porpoising on the first day in Barcelona led to crippling reliability issues for the camouflaged car which outgoing Mercedes compatriot Valtteri Bottas drove alongside Chinese rookie Zhou and, at first, reserve Robert Kubica.
The team suffered a lot less in Bahrain having reduced the porpoising, but Bottas did stop out on track at Turn 8 twice in two days. In fact, the car showed surprising upturns in performance which seems to parachute the Sauber-run entry higher up the order than previously thought.
Alpine suffered from a variety of reliability issues throughout both tests, with porpoising seemingly the major culprit and something they are clearly struggling to get on top of. The true potential of the car then is unknown, and unless the porpoising is permanently brought under control without too much of a performance impact, they are set to be closer to the back of the grid than the front.
Where this leaves the faith of Fernando Alonso, who returned to F1 for this very regulation set, remains to be seen. But don’t expect him to remain much longer if the car doesn’t live up to expectations.
This is a tricky package to decipher, with the stand-out moment being the double brake fire and subsequent spin on the second day in Barcelona which cost them valuable running. Rather than saying that it’s the worse, I’d say the Williams overall is probably the ‘least-best’ at the moment.
No team is obstinately slow and no–one’s done a bad job. It’s just that Williams pace’ was somewhat average in Bahrain and Barcelona. There were extraneous factors though, such as the high temperatures and red flags, so expect the Williams to improve in the first few races.
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