The new Formula One season starts on March 14, with Friday practice, and the first race on the March 16.
It promises to be a fascinating season, with new regulation changes looking like they may have shaken the order up somewhat dramatically compared to last season, at least for the first race.
The teams head to Australia for the season opener having completed twelve days of pre-season testing, split into three four day sessions. The last two tests were held in Bahrain, and by the end of the final test it’s possible to draw some early assumptions on how the teams are faring.
While reading anything into lap times in pre season testing is dangerous, as fuel levels are unknown and it’s not always clear what programme teams are carrying out, duration of running, reliability, and characteristics of the cars on track can give you a few pointers as to which teams are faring better than others.
Constructors and drivers championship winners of the last four seasons, Red Bull Racing, have not fared well, and that would be putting it mildly.
Looking at the launch pictures of the car it again appeared that Adrian Newey had put together the best package aerodynamically. The rear of the car in particular being a work of art, the undercut of the side pods curving in to form an extremely tightly packaged back section, much more so than any other team.
But on the track, it’s been a different story, reliability problems have seen them clock less than half the mileage of Mercedes and Williams, and less than Caterham. A lot of their problems seem to be cooling related.
New regulations for this season have seen the introduction of one point six turbocharged V six engines, replacing the two point four litre normally aspirated V eights prior to this.
The turbocharged engines require more cooling than their predecessors. In addition there is now a motor generator unit running from the turbo (known as MGU-H, the H is for Heat) as well as the Kinetic motor generator, (MGU-K) MGU-H takes energy from the turbo, and can be used to spool the turbo, slow it down, or send the energy for storage in a battery.
MGU-K garners kinetic energy from the rear axle under braking, and uses it to boost engine revs, or store it in the auxiliary battery. This all requires more cooling than would have been needed last season. This is where we return to Red Bull, a team who have a history of being tight on cooling, and Newey may have been too aggressive this time.
That tight rear end may not have allowed sufficient room for the cooling exits, and possibly positioning of internal auxiliaries may have compromised their cooling requirements, as we have seen with them over the last five years, notably with KERS batteries.
Despite their lack of mileage, lap times that they have set don’t seem way off others, and they have been running conservatively, so if they can rectify their issues I’m sure they will be right in contention as the season goes on.
Renault has struggled with a few gremlins relating to software with their new engines, and as it stands, Mercedes engine runners have fared better. Mercedes are looking in great shape, and will be the favourites heading into the first race.
They have completed the highest mileage of all teams, including full race simulations. It looks to be a great package as well, the best looking nose aesthetically, parallel front wishbone geometry, which helps keep a bigger front tyre contact patch, and will help stability and tyre warm up.
They’re lower front and back wishbones are very close together, something not seen on other cars, they in fact divulge into one section quite close to the mounting points on the body. This means there is one less component in the way of the airflow, and may help with airflow alignment as well.
The engine cover is a neat design and not to bulbous. As well as completing a lot of miles, from the little that can be read into the times, both drivers have been close the top of the time sheets, at this stage they are looking very good for Australia.
McLaren look to have gone in a better direction than last season, their approach to the new lower nose regulations, while not as attractive as the Mercedes, is probably best of the rest. They have reverted to push rod front suspension, and have a very similar front geometry to the Mercedes.
The engine cover isn’t quite as tightly packaged as Mercedes, but they appear to have allowed for adequate cooling, both in side pod radiator inlet size and exit area at the back. They have run an innovative rear suspension design with ‘blockers’ moulded into the rear wishbones, trying to replace some of the lost downforce from the elimination of the lower beam wing in this seasons regulations.
They have had a positive pre season, completing good mileage. It’s hard to garner how quick they will be on raw speed at this stage, but reliability is going to be extremely important and they have had fewer problems than most.
Ferrari has had a positive pre season, perhaps not in quite as good shape as some of the Mercedes power unit teams, but has completed the third highest mileage. They have retained they’re front pull rod suspension, they’re wishbones are a lot higher than Mercedes and McLaren, and at a more aggressive angle of attack.
This is perhaps not as stable a solution as the two silver liveried teams. They have also gone in a different direction in terms of front wing design. The Ferrari nose swoops at full width all the way down to its lowest point, with a small gap allowing airflow underneath.
Most other teams have a thinner minimum regulation width nose element protruding from a wider and higher nose section. These strange looking lower nose sections are to comply with the new front wing regulations, demanding a lower nose of a certain area as the crash structure.
Most teams have provided a minimum size protruding style nose so as to keep the rest of the nose as high as possible to get as much airflow under it to the cars floor as possible, as this will feed the diffuser, and help overall down force. That Ferrari have a smaller area for air to pass underneath may explain why the car looks like it lacks a bit of rear down force in comparison to others.
Alonso has shown in previous seasons that he relishes a slightly over steer-based setup on street circuits especially, so this may not be a disaster for Ferrari. Also the Ferrari power plant seems to be looking better than the Renaults, which puts them ahead of quite a few teams at the moment.
Williams look as though they could be one of the teams to have come out of the new regulations in the best shape. Massa with the quickest time set in Bahrain; Mileage completed only second to Mercedes, and very few problems for Williams.
They managed to complete they’re whole test programme, including race and qualifying simulations. Williams may have hit upon a good compromise with the FW36, and will be in with a great chance of a podium finish in Australia.
Force India is another team that look like they could have used this opportunity to move up the ranks this season. They, like Williams are using a Mercedes power plant, have had a solid pre season, both in terms of distance covered and lap time comparison.
They have also fared excellently in the driver market, lining up with Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez this season. Perez unlucky not to keep his McLaren seat and capable of producing solid drives.
Hulkenberg has shown to be an excellent driver, and if it weren’t for their financial constraints, would have signed for Lotus for this season. Expect both to make it into Q three and score points in Australia. They have also produced what looks like a solid all round car.
Toro Rosso have produced what looks like a very good all round car with the STR9, conventional front and rear suspension geometry should help with tyre life, the rear wing is mounted to the diffuser floor via the endplates, eliminating the need for support pillars which increase drag.
They struggled with issues in testing though, and reliability could be a problem. If they can overcome this they have already shown significant developments to the car in Bahrain, with a new front wing and re-profiled side pods, so if they can continue a good development curve they have a solid starting point with nothing to radical that could escalate problems.
Lotus has provided another different front wing solution, with a ‘twin tusk’ concept. The nose is split, with two protruding elements, one slightly longer than the other to comply with the regulations.
The idea behind this is to increase airflow to the floor, which should help overall downforce levels, particularly helping to feed the diffuser and increase rear grip. They have kept a low side profile to the nose all the way back to the front bulkhead, which will help to condition airflow to the front of the side pods and undercut section. The front suspension follows the Mercedes and McLaren route, albeit with the steering track rod mounted lower.
This helps lower the centre of gravity at the front. The rear suspension is quite aggressive, particularly the top wishbone sloping angle to the gearbox. Lotus missed the first test, and has struggled a lot in the next two tests, so are somewhat behind most teams.
Raikkonen has departed for Ferrari, replaced by Maldonado who partners Grosjean. Expect them to get stronger as the season goes on, but they will do well to score points in Australia.
Sauber’s new C33 looked to be a very neat design and a solid platform to start from. They’re nose support pillars are mounted further back on the wing, and the nose curves in from here to form a thinner structure further forward.
They have kept the nose section as high as possible to get as much air between the pillars to the front of the floor as they can. The suspension front and back is of conventional geometry, and should help continue they’re good tyre usage characteristics of previous seasons.
They look to have played it safe in terms of engine cooling, with larger area radiator inlets than Ferrari, who are running the same power unit, but this isn’t a bad thing, and further developments can be made as the season progresses. The team have had a few issues in testing, they and Lotus having the most on track stoppages.
Sutil has joined Guttierez this season, and has had a couple of off track excursions, so maybe they haven’t hit upon the right set up yet. While not reading in to the time sheets to much, it may be hard for them to break into the top ten as it stands, and Q two qualifying positions would seem a good starting point.
Marussia have completed relatively few miles in pre season testing, although improved significantly in the last test in comparison to the previous Bahrain test, where on the first day Jules Bianchi only completed three laps!
They have a settled driver line up with Bianchi and Chilton both staying with the team. Marussia look to have continued along a similar methodology to last season, get the basics right and don’t over complicate things.
This worked for them last season as they managed to finish above Caterham. It remains to be seen if they can climb any higher, but it’s always tough for the teams with less funding to compete with the big spending teams.
Caterham have completed fairly decent mileage, which considering they have a Renault power plant is no mean feat.
But, they look to have the worst aerodynamic profile of any team. The nose assembly is not pretty, and that is putting it mildly. They have also changed to pull rod front suspension, which may take a while to get used to, and as McLaren found last season, takes longer to make changes to.
An all-new driver line up for them signals the return of Kamui Kobayashi, joined by GP2 graduate Marcus Ericsson. It looks like it could be a hard season for Caterham, but if they can find reliability early on, it could be enough to get a position just outside the top ten in an early race if there are high attrition rates for other teams, that is often all you need to beat other non points scoring teams in the constructors championship.
I’m sure they will be aiming a little higher than that though.
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