In the build-up to preseason testing, much was made of the fact that the new-for-2014 regulations would result in far slower cars than their V8-powered predecessors. Indeed, early indications in Jerez suggested that the cars would indeed lack some of the ultimate lap time the 2013 cars had. But in Bahrain, many of these original fears have been quelled.
Red Bull was in more familiar territory during today’s running. No, not at the top of the time sheets. I mean in the garage.
Sure this was not an ideal day for the reigning world champions, but some solace, if only a minuscule amount, can be taken from the fact that Marcus Ericsson in the Caterham managed nearly 100 laps, far more than any Renault-powered car has achieved in a single day of testing so far. A great step forward for the perennial back-markers.
But the headlines today, finally, consisted of something other than Red Bull’s woes, and it pertains to something the fans have been harping on about far longer than the world champions’ reliability issues: speed.
Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes topped the time sheets today with a lap time that suggests the 2014 season will be far from the sloth fest many have been predicting. To put that time, and indeed the other chart-topping laps from Wednesday and Thursday, into perspective, take a look at Nico Rosberg’s pole position time from 2013. The Briton’s 1m33.263s lap around the Bahrain International circuit today was just under two seconds off his teammate’s pole position last year. This is impressive stuff considering no team, much less Mercedes, is anywhere near the performance limits of their cars. No one knows exactly where those limits are yet, but we do know they are yet to be explored.
Even Nico Hulkenberg’s fastest lap on Wednesday marked an important statistic in that it was faster than the fastest race lap from the 2013 Bahrain Grand Prix set by Sebastian Vettel. This was important to note, as it assured the doom-mongers early in the test that all was not lost.
Kevin Magnussen’s blistering lap time the next day was impressive, not only for it’s giant 1.5 second advantage over the rest of the runners, but because it wasn’t part of any qualifying simulation, as many assumed when it was first set. The only reason the Danish rookie was running the Super-soft tires at the time was so he could get a feel for the change in grip levels between the different compounds before he was introduced to them at the first race. A good move by the team, as understanding grip levels could be the last thing on the team’s mind when it come to preparing for the fast-approaching season opener in Melbourne. This isn’t to say that Mclaren aren’t on solid footing in the performance department. Speaking to AUTOSPORT, Williams’ Valtteri Bottas had some words regarding Magnussen’s impressive day two lap time: “No matter what tires, what fuel load, it’s still a very good lap time, and they are definitely one of the very strong teams.”
One important thing to keep in mind about all of this, though, is that the new cars are sure to be very close to their 2013 predecessor’s at some tracks and further away at others. Much of that difference will have to do with the track characteristics and the nature of the cars’ power delivery.
For instance, some of the lap time similarities at Bahrain are down to straighline speed, of which there is plenty on these new cars. The long straights at the Sakhir circuit coupled with the lack of downforce means that the cars are at least 20 km/h faster than the 2013 cars. That’s bloody fast, considering most were above 300 km/h down the main straight last season. They could be pushing 200 mph on a regular basis. This bodes well for tracks like Monza and Montreal, where long straights are punctuated by chicanes for practically the entire lap.
At tracks like Monaco, Singapore and Abu Dhabi, lap times could be farther away than the 2013 benchmarks for exactly the same reasons the cars will be fast in Monza: lack of downforce. This will mean cornering speeds are much lower. Add to that the difficulties most of the drivers are having with traction because of the huge levels of torque produced by the power units and their various energy systems and you’ll get lots of sideways action and, perhaps, slower-than-normal lap times.
So, the fears over the season being less exciting because of slow cars can be put to bed for the most part. All of this is convincing evidence enough that these cars have plenty to offer in terms of speed. But the main hurdle to overcome is that of fuel efficiency.
Jenson Button completed a successful race simulation today, but noted that it won’t be a simple task in race conditions.
“In testing it’s relatively easy to do because you just drive around really slow,” Button told AUTOSPORT. “I think we are all going to find it tricky [in the race].
“There’s a lot of fine-tuning that’s needed for everyone.”
The task of completing a race, much less winning it, will be far less straightforward this year. The teams must balance fuel usage so that enough is being fed to the engine for performance, but not too much is wasted before the car finishes the race. This will be very difficult to master, and with some teams still struggling to string together long runs, time is running out for the mastery of fast conservation.
Mclaren’s simulation was just one step in a series of many towards racing in Formula One this year. Do not underestimate how complicated the races will be this year, because they could be even more so than we ever expect.
With one day of testing left before the final round in a few days’ time, long consistent runs must be the priority. With Renault still lagging behind Mercedes and Ferrari, hopes for a full recovery before Australia are dwindling fast.
Images courtesy of Mercedes AMG F1 and Mclaren Mercedes