Can Mercedes do what no team has done in F1 and dominate the sport for a third consecutive year? Teams have won three or more championships in a row before – most recently Ferrari in 1999 to 2004 and Red Bull in 2010 to 2013 – but no team has dominated to nearly the extent Mercedes did in 2014 and 2015 for three straight seasons. Two weeks of pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya suggest that, while Mercedes head into 2016 as the clear favourites, it might be tough for them to repeat their record-breaking feats of the past two years.
Mercedes still look mighty – particularly when it comes to reliability. Over the eight days of testing, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg racked up a whopping 6,024km between them – 45 per cent more than their main rivals at Ferrari and less than 100km shy of the massive total Mercedes managed over 12 days of testing last year.
When it comes to pace, there’s only so much we can tell from testing. The headline lap times mask the fact that the teams have been running different programs, tyres and fuel loads. Mercedes were clearly more interested in finding the limits of reliability than showing off their absolute pace, for example. That’s why Ferrari topped the timesheets on five of the eight days, and ended up with a fastest lap a quarter of a second faster than Mercedes’. Kimi Raikkonen set Ferrari’s quickest lap on a set of Pirelli’s new ultrasoft tyres, whereas Rosberg set Mercedes’ on the slower soft tyres.
But even on the same tyres, Ferrari looked very impressive: Raikkonen’s fastest lap on the softs was 0.013 seconds faster than Rosberg’s. Account both for tyres and for the fact that Rosberg was (probably) carrying more fuel at the time, as the BBC’s Andrew Benson has, and Ferrari seem to be around 0.3 seconds a lap off Mercedes. On race simulation runs, Ferrari look to be within half a second a lap of the Mercedes – a significant improvement on last year. (At last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel’s fastest race lap was 1.6 seconds slower than Rosberg’s, despite both running the same tyre strategy.)
So, from what we can tell from testing, it looks as though 2016 will see a closer battle between Mercedes and Ferrari at the front. Williams seem to be in much the same position as last year: competitive, but not quite as quick as the two top teams. Their main battle may well be with Force India, who improved greatly with a ‘B-spec’ car in the second half of 2015 and seem to have taken another step forward over the winter.
Red Bull and Toro Rosso could both also be in the mix for ‘best of the rest’ behind Mercedes and Ferrari, but a lot depends on how their new engine arrangements go after a lack of power in 2015 strained their relationship with Renault to breaking point. Red Bull continue to use Renault power units, but with new Tag Heuer branding and Ilmor improvements that they hope will provide more speed as the season unfolds. Toro Rosso, meanwhile, will use 2015 Ferrari engines, which proved reliable and quick but won’t benefit from development over the year.
Renault have re-bought the team they sold to become Lotus in 2011, bringing much-needed investment, but the team has lost its two biggest assets from 2015: Mercedes engines and driver Romain Grosjean (who’s left for newcomers Haas). McLaren have clearly improved on their dire 2015 package, both in terms of pace and reliability: they managed almost twice as much running over eight days of testing as they did over twelve last year. Both teams will likely be stuck in the midfield, and may struggle to make the top ten on pace alone.
At the back are Sauber, Manor and Haas. The three teams managed significantly less running in their 2016 cars than the rest of the field: Sauber because theirs wasn’t ready until the second week, and Manor and Haas due to reliability issues. Their fastest lap times, adjusted for tyres and fuel, were all around two to three seconds off Mercedes’ and Ferrari’s. If Haas can overcome their teething troubles, it could be a pretty impressive debut season for the American team, at least compared to the last three new teams – Virgin, Lotus and HRT – who spent 2010 unable to compete with even the slowest of the others.
Manor, meanwhile, seem to have taken a huge step forward – unsurprising as they have a brand new car instead of the year-old chassis they ran in 2015, the same 2016 Mercedes that will power the world champions instead of year-old Ferrari engines, and a very promising rookie driver in Mercedes-backed Pascal Wehrlein. Wehrlein’s fastest lap was more than six seconds faster than the team’s best lap in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix last year. Still, they needed a huge step forward just to catch up to the back of the rest of the field.
For all we learnt, pre-season testing left a lot unanswered. Can Ferrari really match – or even beat – Mercedes? Will McLaren’s improvements let them fight with the likes of Red Bull and Williams, or just move them into competition with Renault behind? Where will Haas slot in? And can Manor finally compete with more established teams like Sauber? Luckily, we won’t have to wait long for the first answers when the cars hit the track in anger in Melbourne, on 20th March.
- Guest Blogger Jonathan Jones, political researcher and F1 fan who writes about US politics for the New Statesman