Formula 1

McLaren & Mercedes set to headline final F1 pre-season test

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Barely three weeks after the 2015 cars turned their first laps at Jerez, F1 teams are set to make their financial preparations ahead of the first Grand Prix at the final pre-season test which begins on Thursday.

In the first eight days of running it has been a tale of a potential resurgence at Ferrari, a difficult rebirth for McLaren-Honda and Mercedes continuing to look the dominant force on the Formula 1 grid.

But in theory the first two tests have had very little meaning in terms of predicting who will feature where when the business of racing gets underway in Melbourne, Australia in just two-and-a-half weeks time.

For now Mercedes do comfortably look the team to beat, and Nico Rosberg's fastest time on the medium compound tyre in Barcelona was faster than all of their expected rivals had gone on the faster soft compound Pirelli, but long run pace in the second test looked quite even between the Silver Arrows, Red Bull and Ferrari.

Even then, however, the data accumulated and analysed by those in the know mean very little ahead of this week's final test.

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That is because we can expect to see some different-looking cars, a little more engine power and even a little less fuel being used as team's test their machines in the specification they will use at Albert Park.

So far we've seen teams stick to their usually quite secretive launch-spec designs which are often more basic and created to allow for smoother testing to ensure the mechanical side of the car is working as it should. This week, however, we may see a few new aerodynamic innovations and more aggressive bodywork to complete the final preparations before the trip Down Under.

The lap times seen last week in Barcelona were already pretty impressive, but Mercedes rivals will be keen to show they too can match the Silver Arrows and Ferrari have already said they were saving their full race simulations for this week.

Will the Silver Arrows continue to up the ante?

The question is then, will Mercedes go any faster? Everybody may have gotten very excited by Nico Rosberg's 1:23.3 on the final day but the W06 will still have plenty of performance left in hand given they are usually one of the more conservative teams when it comes to hiding their true pace in pre-season.

The same applies for the long runs after all, Mercedes didn't look as dominant over 15-20 laps than they did over one so will they be a little more aggressive this week, we will have to wait and see.

Key themes to follow

And what of their rivals, what should we expect from them this week in Catalonia? Well for Ferrari it will a focus on long runs and completing the 66 consecutive laps of a race simulation that will give us the most clues as to where they stand.

Have they been using a little less fuel than those around them or is their impressive pace upto date really genuine?

At Red Bull they enjoyed their most successful test since the V8 era in Barcelona surpassing 100 laps on three of the four days without major mechanical issues.  However, you still got the sense that the former world champions were still only in cruise mode with high fuel and the engine turned right down.

Therefore this final test could be a little more about getting this 2015 'Bull into its stride and perhaps focussing more on performance.

Renault's power unit has certainly been more reliable than it was last year but now its time to see if they can be more of a match for Mercedes in a straight line and be an easier beast to tame for the four Red Bull drivers across the two teams who have admitted its drive-ability remains a weakness.

Then there is Williams who have had a very quiet pre-season completing good mileage without setting any headline lap times.

They were the team, however, who set the fastest time in the final pre-season test in Bahrain last year and so we could see the first real indicators as to where the surprise team of 2014 will feature on the grid this year.

McLaren look to rebound from tough week

At the other end of the scale is McLaren whose difficult start since their re-collaboration with Honda has been one of the other key stories of the past few weeks.

Things got worse on Sunday as Fernando Alonso was involved in an unusual crash at relatively slow speed but remains in hospital under observation despite being given the all clear.

There have been a range of theories put out as to why the Spaniard crashed from him fainting at the wheel to possible electrocution but McLaren have since said the wind, which also caused Carlos Sainz Jr. to crash at the same place without causing reason for concern, was the main factor in the the two-time champion's accident.

His continued recovery means he will likely miss the final test this week with Jenson Button and possibly Kevin Magnussen being used to complete the final preparations.

While racing director Eric Boullier suggested last week that the team had only got half of what they had wanted to do in testing so far, the Frenchman has said that the focus is now more on finding what could go wrong in Australia, what could cause the cars to retire and ensuring reliability is the aim at the final test.

Certainly the team have had a number of positive starts to test days before issues have blighted them around lunchtime so if they can get a full day in the books then they could reach the 100-lap mark which is always seen as one of the main barometers to a successful day.

If that can be reached then the team insist the raw pace of the car and power unit is there it is just reliability that continues to hold them back.

The midfielders

Away from the top teams Force India are hoping to use their 2015 car for the first time in Barcelona this week. The team completed tyre tests with the 2014 car last week and also gave Mercedes reserve Pascal Wehrlein two days of running behind the wheel.

Lotus have had an interesting pre-season completing good distances and in Barcelona some quick lap times on the softer tyre compounds but have also had perhaps the worst reliability with the Mercedes power unit, their car was among the most aggressive in terms of rear packaging at the first test and was perhaps the cause for their greater mechanical issues so solving those will be the aim this week.

Sauber also had a difficult weekend in Barcelona with gearbox and other mechanical issues hitting the C34. The team didn't produce the same near-chart topping lap times than they did in Jerez in the first test but the team remain confident the new car is capable of returning them to the points scoring positions, something they couldn't do last year.

Finally Toro Rosso who have had a very productive pre-season and completed the most laps of any team in Barcelona last week. Their rookie drivers Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. have been able to get plenty of miles under their belts ahead of the season and also managed some race simulations but for the final test we could expect the focus to change with a look to improving the car and set-up work as the drivers get used to their new surroundings.

Can anyone match Mercedes?

It will be an important four days at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and we can expect a continued improvement in lap times from all the teams on the grid, just whether any can make a strong argument to be considered valid competition to Mercedes in Australia remains to be seen.

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