Pre-Season Testing – The Big Boys

Pre-season testing is normally a crap shoot.  Actually, that’s putting it nicely.  In terms of figuring out what teams actually have in store for the new year, you might as well just pull names out of a hat.

Inevitably, one team will look strong that ends up running solidly in the midfield come Australia and another team will look like they don’t have anything and will end up on the podium week in and week out.

Regardless of any of that, each February, deprived of the sound of engines for an entire winter, we read way too much into pre-season times and lap numbers and try to discern who will come out on top over the course of the year.  My thoughts on the ‘Big Three’ are below.

 

Red Bull:

This was supposed to be Adrian Newey’s glorious comeback year.  A new set of regulations, more focused on aerodynamics?  Tell me this doesn’t sound like Red Bull’s dream season.  But if testing is any indication, this season could be far from that return to form.  Don’t get me wrong, the Red Bull is still a mighty chassis and Newey has clearly worked his magic on the RB13.  But despite the refocus on downforce, it appears the boys at Red Bull are still being brought down by their old nemesis, Renault.  Increased Aero or not, this is still the age of the engine, and with Mercedes reworking their engine to increase output by as much as 90bhp, it appears Renault have once again dropped the ball.  Will this completely destroy them for the entire season and relegate them back to being a midfield team at best?  God, no.  They will be competitive.  Very Competitive.  I believe they have one of, if not THE, strongest driver lineups in the paddock in Verstappen and Ricciardo.  Their chassis is solid and looks to perform wonderfully in medium and high speed corners, albeit not as well as much they hoped.  Yes, Renault will weigh them down until they are able to get their act together and produce an engine that doesn’t break down as often as Eddie Jordan’s logic does, they will have problems, but that does not exclude them from having a fundamentally good car and drivers who can get the best out of it.

The most striking feature of the car, to state the obvious, is the hole in the nose, that via Adrian Newey’s near god-like ability to circumvent the rulebook, is completely and totally legal.  If the hole does actually allow for an increase of airflow through the redesigned S-duct, it is entirely possible the the RB13 could make up some of the Renault engine’s power defects.  We won’t know for sure until the car takes to the track on the long straight of China, but it could be something to keep an eye one.

Look for RBR to do well on tracks that they do well on…  If that makes sense.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another brilliant pole lap at Monaco from either Ricciardo or Verstappen.  Hungary, Singapore, maybe even Japan could suit them as well.  They’ll be able to be scrappy and fight for podiums and maybe a few wins, especially if Renault takes full advantage of the abandonment of the engine token system and is able to give them a more powerful engine.  Yes, there is a lot of promise and a lot of hope for Red Bull this year.  They may even win a race or two, but an outright title chase looks like its off the cards for this year.

Predictions: 3rd place in Constructors .  VES: 2 wins, 5th in WDC.  RIC: 1 win, 6th in WDC.

 

Mercedes

Now that Brittany (coughs) I mean Nico Rosberg has retired and gone back to his true love of being a pampered trust fund baby with crippling Daddy issues, Mercedes have brought in some real talent who drives to win rather than drives not to lose, the next Finish Monotoned Wonderboy, Valteri Bottas.

Bottas and Hamilton are a truly terrifying combination, even if they seemed less than dominant in preseason testing.  Their car and their engine seems to have retained its winning form and style, but they do not appear to be the out and out favorites like we have seen them be the past two or three years.  Mercedes engine, as stated above, is the cream of the F1 crop, no questions asked.  The up to 90 bhp advantage will clearly help the team on some of the more power hungry circuits, like China and Bahrain early in the year or Spa and Monza later in the season.  They have kept up with the aerodynamic ideals used in years previously, just updated for the new regs.  Their nose continues to avoid the so called ‘thumb nose’ and instead maintains  a far more esthetically pleasing traditional looking nose.  With only Toro Rosso copying Mercedes in this design, one has to wonder if the boys at Merc are missing something other teams are not.  But then again, they’ve won the past three years so who the hell am I to judge.  The other intriguing aspect of their car is the suspension which, like the front wing, is also very similar to Toro Roso.  With the main wishbones of the front suspension raised, it seems the team have been able maximize downforce out of a part of the car that, according to regulations, isn’t supposed to generate downforce.  Now, this seems like a great solution, until the wishbones snap themselves riding over the bumps over Monaco or Baku.  This could be the wave of the future with F1 suspension, I don’t know, but it could also fall under the category of the Walrus Nose and the Fan Car.  Only time will tell.

All in all, despite being pipped by Ferrari over the course of testing, Mercedes put in the most mileage, and with the exception of a few engine bugs, they look good.  Damn good.  I would be incredibly surprised if there is a race where we don’t see at least one Mercedes driver on the podium.  That said, despite all the lovey-dovey, I’m so glad to be working with my teammate B.S. coming out of Brackley, it is till to be determined just how Bottas and Hamilton will act on track.  Yes, Rosberg and Hamilton were less than bosom buddies, but there was no doubt that the two pushed each other harder than any other teammates on the grid and as a result, the team was able to enjoy win after win.  Will that be the same for Bottas and Hamilton?  Honestly, I think it could be.  Despite being hungry to win back his title, there is a definite chance that Hamilton may discount his teammate as a No. 2 driver.  But don’t expect that to last.  Bottas is quick, hungry and eager to prove himself.  Things could get very interesting if he is able to take the fight to Hamilton from day 1.  Bold prediction: Lewis sleeps on qualifying in Melbourne and Bottas takes his first ever pole position from his teammate.  Sparks start to fly and by round 7, the two crash into each other.  That said, Hamilton puts in an insane 2nd half of the season on the way to his 4th WDC.

Predictions: 2nd place in Constructors. HAM: 6 wins, 1st in WDC. BOT:2 wins, 4th in WDC.

Ferrari

ALL ABOARD THE HYPE TRAIN.  Yes, the boys in scarlet look good once again.  But they’ve done this to us so many times in years past.  They look great in preseason testing, but then proceed to royally screw themselves over through a frustrating series of mistakes and bad development ideas.  So, will this year be any different?  Mayyyyyyybeeeee?  Ferrari did certainly looked good in testing.  They were consistently running fast and managed to set purple lap times while actually lifting off in the final sector.  They’ve managed to put more red back on the car, so for reasons unknown to me, they will do better this year (seriously, I don’t understand the superstitions of the Tfosi and I never will).  But more importantly, their car has some significant changes and differences to their rivals that may turn out to be Ferrari’s keys to success.  Most noticeably, the side pods of the car are markedly different than anything else on the grid.  Looking at the car, the side pods and air intakes look a little strange, almost as if they were drawn on to the car by a kid trying to color within the lines.  But when you start to break it down, they make sense.  By raising the air intakes, Ferrari has managed to reduce the amount of hot, turbulent air entering into the engine.  Instead, the air now has a clear, unrestricted path to the intake.  This should allow the engine to run at higher rate, owing to the reduced temperature of the intake air.  Obviously, it still remains to be seen, but I have believe this will allow Ferrari to run their engine at a higher wick, and therefore, allow for them to make up for the performance gap to Mercedes.

As for driver’s, Ferrari’s team still very much represents the ‘old guard.’  There is no doubt that Vettel and Raikkonen are talented, but I firmly believe that this may be Kimi’s last year in the sport.  He’s getting older, he’s got kids, and lord knows the hangovers have to be getting to him by now.  Since rejoining Ferrari, he has shown moments of his old brilliance, but has done little to remind us of The Iceman of old.  Vettel on the other hand, after stomping to 3 victories in his first season with the team, reverted back to his ‘nobody understands me, everybody hates me, I wish I wasn’t born’ phase last year (I halfway expected him to put out a moody emo-album by about Hungary).   Granted, in some cases his frustration was justified, looking at you Kvyatt.  But for the most part it made everyone watching remember why we kind of hated Sebastian Vettel when he was the young upstart at Red Bull.  Regardless, Vettel is a 4 time world champion and you don’t do that by not being able to drive.  When he has a car under him, the man is nearly unbeatable.  And this year, Ferrari just may have given him that car.  I don’t think he will be able to beat Hamilton.  Lewis has too much to prove this year and when he is on form, nobody, not even Vettel, can beat him.  But Seb should be able to lead his team back to glory with a constructors championship.

Predictions: 1st in Constructors.  VET: 6 wins, 2nd in WDC.  RAI: 4 wins, 3rd in WDC

 

All in all, I think this year will be a battle of Hamilton vs. Vettel, something we’ve all been clamoring to see for years.  But what the hell do I know, I’m just a racing nerd who loves this sport.

Check out the updates coming tomorrow and Wednesday as I break down the midfield teams and the backmarkers.

 

File Under: Pre-Season, F1, What the Hell Do I Know?

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