Pre-season testing is always a great way of generating narratives. After all, this is the most unpredictable period of the season, where fans and teams can dare to dream. With the pecking order not yet established and everyone starting from zero, optimism is the prevailing emotion.
2017 testing has certainly given neutrals something to be optimistic about. Ferrari have exploded out of the blocks, proving both reliable and quick in Barcelona. Their pre-season form would suggest that a title tilt for either Sebastian Vettel or Kimi Raikkonen is absolutely possible this season.
However, with Ferrari being the kings of the ‘false dawn,’ and the Mercedes juggernaut historically being rather passive in testing before arriving with a spaceship when it matters in Melbourne, are Ferrari really a match for the champions this season?
We’ve been here before…
Pessimistic Ferrari fans would be quick to diffuse talk of a title challenge and in their defense, it’s not like we haven’t been here before. Ferrari have been the fastest in pre-season ahead of both the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Last year, conversation while en route to Melbourne centered around the imminent threat to Mercedes’ superiority from a reformed Ferrari who would be the resurgent force in 2016 and would build upon their three race victories obtained the year previous.
I was certainly convinced by their pre-season form. In a similar article to this last year, I stated, “the curtain-raiser in Melbourne is poised to be fascinating throughout the field, including the intriguing battle for top honours between Ferrari and Mercedes. On the basis of pre-season running, Ferrari have leveled with their Brackley rivals.”
It’s widely accepted that Ferrari run lighter than Mercedes in pre-season testing. The two teams simply run different programmes. That is as near to factual as testing gets!
However, Ferrari were most certainly not running on fumes this time. Kimi Raikkonen’s sensational 1:18.634 set on the final day in Barcelona was not a Q3 simulation. The Finn went on to complete a second lap on the same run. That lap wasn’t fast, but it didn’t need to be. The crucial fact is that Raikkonen had fuel on board and therefore, time in his pocket.
Mercedes seem to have tyre advantage
Tyres have been a key talking point across the course of the past two weeks, but not for the stories we have been accustomed to telling. In 2017, tyres are more durable than at any other time in the Pirelli era, with the compound construction being harder and the wider contact patch meaning that thermal degradation is naturally reduced.
However, it seems that Mercedes are able to take these new tyres further than Ferrari. On day seven, Lewis Hamilton managed a hugely impressive 20 lap run on the ultrasoft compound. The Englishman managed to keep times consistent too, staying within a second for the entire stint.
Raikkonen completed a similar run on the final day during a race simulation. The Finn’s 16 lap run started with a 1:24.510, before drifting into 1:25’s and eventually slipping in the 1:26’s. It was a consistent drop-off in performance, more comparable with the levels of degradation that have been seen in previous seasons.
This could mean two things. One, the W08 is much kinder on it’s tyres and two, Mercedes have been putting far less stress through the tyre as a result of essentially cruising around the circuit, well within the car’s ultimate potential.
The good news for Ferrari is that track conditions always evolve, particularly at Spain in March. It is notoriously difficult to read into tyre degradation across the course of winter testing, with unrepresentative conditions meaning that tyres behave entirely differently to what they will at a Grand Prix weekend.
Ferrari could have found a loophole in the 2017 regulations…
Regular readers will know that I’m certainly not an engineer. However, I do like technical ingenuity particularly when it involves finding a loophole in regulations. Ferrari are rumoured to be the team to have exploited 2017’s new rules with a radical sidepod design.
Ferrari’s sidepods look vastly different to that of their rivals. The area behind the front tyre has been opened up for development this season, seeing teams introduce complicated bargeboard arrangements and winglets galore in this region.
Ferrari have opted to add airflow conditioners to the front of their sidepods which in fact, look like the air-inlet itself at first glance. In reality, this appendage in front of the sidepod means that this becomes the element that complies with regulations regarding sidepod dimensions.
As a result, Ferrari are able to make their sidepods higher than that of their rivals, and with the inlet positioned at a 90-degree angle to the monocoque, they become more aerodynamically efficient. Mercedes have their own ingenious developments, but nothing quite like this.
Whether it gives Ferrari enough of an aerodynamic advantage to make up for the deficit they have faced in relation to downforce in past seasons is unknown. However, it is most certainly a beneficial development.
So, what does it all mean
Ferrari have had far too many ‘false dawns’ of late to get carried away after a strong fortnight of testing. No doubt Ferrari have a strong package, but Mercedes have clearly been conservative this winter.
However, last season Mercedes drove to the moon and back on the medium tyre, running the white marked compound nearly exclusively. This year, with new regulations meaning that teams have more to learn, Mercedes haven’t had the freedom to focus on one compound.
Similarly, I doubt they have had the freedom to sandbag to the extent that they did last year. As I mentioned before a wheel was even turned, teams had to ensure their package would hold firm under the stresses of a Q3 run and therefore would have been forced to run on low fuel and a degree of attack at some point.
Mercedes haven’t shown their hand yet, but neither have Ferrari. I’m not about to say that Ferrari are going to turn up at Melbourne and lock-out the front row, but I would say that the Scuderia are as well-placed for a title tilt as they have ever been in the hybrid era.
Call me an eternal optimist, but surely that’s what pre-season is all about…