Who won Formula One’s ‘winter world championship’?

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    If there’s one thing more simultaneously engrossing and frustrating than trying to understand Formula One’s driver market silly season, it’s attempting to decipher Formula One preseason testing.

    ‘Notoriously unpredictable’ is the phrase quick to any Formula One scribe’s hand at this time of the year, and for good reason – sandbagging and showboating are rife, and even in the event they aren’t, it’s almost impossible to know either way.

    But what we do have to go on is the hard data, and from that we can glean some useful indicators for the season ahead.

    1. Ferrari and Mercedes are close
    Traditional showboater Ferrari unusually finds itself labelled with the sandbagging tag in 2017.

    Kimi Räikkönen set testing’s best lap – a one minute 18.634 seconds – on the final day, but it was Sebastian Vettel’s similarly quick lap the day before that had chins wagging when he delayed applying the throttle out of the last corner.

    Was it a crude attempt to hide the pace of a car trackside observers have lauded as effortlessly quick from rivals? Mercedes thinks so, and Lewis Hamilton has suggested Ferrari could be the leading machine.

    The Silver Arrows completed an understated test in a car that looked great but unspectacular, recording 650 more kilometres than anyone else but setting a fastest time more than half a second slower than Ferrari’s.

    This battle is too close to call. If Melbourne has the pair competing, the difference this season will come down to development power, which Ferrari sorely lacked last season.

    2. Don’t count out Red Bull Racing
    It was always going to be impossible for Red Bull Racing’s RB13 to match the Mercedes-beating hype, but its preseason debut nonetheless underwhelmed.

    Its lap total was merely thereabouts and it failed to set a headline time, ranking in the middle on both counts.

    Dan Ricciardo smiles at press conference

    More concerning still is that Daniel Ricciardo admitted his team had lost its way with the set-up – hardly of serious concern, but it raises gentle questions about the team’s early grasp on its new car concept.

    It escaped few, however, that the preseason-spec RB13 appeared relatively rudimentary, and given Red Bull Racing’s ability to pump out powerful updates in short order, any performance deficit to Ferrari and Mercedes should be closable by the European leg of the season starting in May.

    3. The midfield is close, but no cigar
    Happily, the close midfield action that kept three season of Mercedes domination alive is set to continue in 2017 – but the downside is that the midfield podium heroics of yesteryear seem long gone, with one team principal venturing the gap from the top the middle to be as much as 1.5 seconds.

    Williams seems to have regained its title as the best of the rest, but no better. It set the third-fastest time of the preseason, and despite rookie driver Lance Stroll’s two shunts in the first four days, the team completed the third-highest number of laps.

    Behind Williams looks a real slog for supremacy. Force India is ably abetted by its Mercedes power unit but appeared skittish. Haas is consolidating on its standout debut season admirably. Renault has taken a significant step forward, but power unit problems left it down on mileage and off the pace.

    Toro Rosso, however, bore the brunt of the Renault motor’s unreliability, completing fewer laps than the French works team. Its aggressive design was good enough for the fifth-fastest time, but a paltry 2719 kilometres has left it open performance and unreliability unknowns.

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    4. Never use last year’s power limit
    Sauber’s 2016 near-death experience not only compromised the 2016 programme but hampered preparations for 2017 – so much so that the Swiss squad decided to buy cut-price year-old Ferrari engines to bring stability to its development.

    Toro Rosso had done the same thing last year, but a rapid decrease in competitiveness ensured it signed itself an up-to-date deal this season.

    Stability is certainly what Sauber has – it completed a commendable 788 laps – but its performance has suffered dramatically, borne out by it being slowest-of-all and a woeful three seconds off Ferrari’s pace.

    The 2017 regulations place more emphasis on aerodynamic performance, but with more aero comes more drag, and the easiest way to counteract drag is to add power. Sauber’s power unit is effectively frozen, meaning the backmarker will move only further back this season.

    5. McLaren-Honda is making everyone else look good
    Optimism quickly turned to despair and then horror for McLaren-Honda when it became obvious that Honda’s newest power unit was a crippling disappointment.

    The first iteration of the motor suffered serious internal combustion problems, while the second edition caused such significant vibrations that the car electrics broke, leading Fernando Alonso to lash out against the manufacturer.

    This column last week outlined the terminal threats to McLaren-Honda’s viability, but an unexpected side effect of the partnership’s worrying lack of competitiveness is that the problems of the rest of the grid appear relatively minor.

    Lost in the storm of failing Honda power units are Renault’s own reliability concerns, suggestions Mercedes’s updates aren’t bringing expected performance and that some are chronically unreliable, driver concern that overtaking will be significantly harder this year, persistent uncertainty around Pirelli’s new tyres, and Haas’s ongoing brake issues, to name but a few.

    In sum preseason testing has hinted at a season of unpredictability, with teams up and down the grid forced to re-stake their claims to territory after a rules reset. There is no obvious victor, in contrast to the three seasons past, and nor is any team assured of last place.

    The only thing we know for certain is that F1 2017 will be an intriguing story, and the wait for the first chapter is less than a fortnight away.

    Testing by distance
    Team Laps Distance
    Mercedes 1096 5101.88 km
    Ferrari 956 4450.18 km
    Williams-Mercedes 800 3724.00 km
    Sauber-Ferrari* 788 3668.14 km
    Force India-Mercedes 785 3654.18 km
    Haas-Ferrari 715 3328.33 km
    Red Bull Racing-Renault 684 3184.02 km
    Renault 597 2779.04 km
    Toro Rosso-Renault 584 2718.52 km
    McLaren-Honda 425 1978.38 km
    Testing by time
    Team Time Gap
    Ferrari 1:18.634
    Mercedes 1:19.310 0.676
    Williams-Mercedes 1:19.420 0.786
    Red Bull Racing-Renault 1:19.438 0.804
    Toro Rosso-Renault 1:19.837 1.203
    Renault 1:19.885 1.251
    Force India-Mercedes 1:20.116 1.482
    Haas-Ferrari 1:20.504 1.87
    McLaren-Honda 1:21.348 2.714
    Sauber-Ferrari* 1:21.670 3.036

    * Sauber is using 2016 Ferrari power units

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    The Crowd Says (5)

    • Roar Rookie

      March 14th 2017 @ 5:09am
      Chancho said | March 14th 2017 @ 5:09am | ! Report

      I recall this time last year Ferrari had a fuel pump issues, which not only hampered the team in the final test, but all the customer teams as well. So it’s been good to see them come through the testing relatively unscathed.

      I really pray for a good fight between Ferrari and Mercedes this season, and I hope Bottas comes out swinging too… I don’t relish the idea of Hamilton running away with it.

      • Columnist

        March 17th 2017 @ 3:29pm
        Michael Lamonato said | March 17th 2017 @ 3:29pm | ! Report

        Yeah, hopefully there’s a good battle between Hamilton and Bottas regardless of how involved Ferrari becomes. The new formula is tipped to favour Hamilton as a driver who really wrings the neck of his car, but I’m hopeful Bottas will be able to build to a solid level. He’ll need to develop a killer instinct, though, in the same way that Roberg eschewed some of his on-track meekness to win.

    • March 14th 2017 @ 5:32pm
      SonOfLordy said | March 14th 2017 @ 5:32pm | ! Report

      Talk about right place at the right time for Vettel.

      He looked all but finished in 2016, but if he can just beat his 37-year-old teammate who hasn’t fired a shot in about 5 years he could very well be a 5-time champion.

      If Mercedes is quickest again then all Hamilton has to do is beat the guy who barely beat an aging Massa in the same equipment and he’ll be a 4-time champion of the world.

      I don’t know who is more undeserving?

      • Columnist

        March 17th 2017 @ 3:31pm
        Michael Lamonato said | March 17th 2017 @ 3:31pm | ! Report

        I think what’s going to be really interesting is to see if Raikkonen and continue his resurgence. These cars are a little bit more old-school and in the style of the cars Kimi drove when he was excelling in the sport during his early career. On the other hand Vettel should have his confidence back in the team if the car is good —I think the internal disorder really got to him last season. Should be interesting either way.

        As for Bottas, don’t write him off yet. Mercedes wouldn’t have picked him up if they thought he was no good — they may as well have gone for the more straightforward and cost-effective Wehrlein.

        • March 17th 2017 @ 4:34pm
          SonOfLordy said | March 17th 2017 @ 4:34pm | ! Report

          The last time the cars were similar to what they are now was 2008 and Vettel in the Toro Rosso was at times outdriving Hamilton in the McLaren.

          I think it’s more about Vettel declining that Kimi resurging. He thought he would roll into Maranello and emulate Schumacher’s achievements, and that all looked possible when he won his first race for Ferrari in only his second start at Sepang 2015. The car probably suited Kimi more last year, but remember that Vettel was coming into Kimi’s team in 2015 not the other way around and Vettel got better results than Kimi from the start.

          Since then it’s been tough going and I think he’s frustrated and doesn’t deal well with frustration/adversity.

          Bottas seemed like the best of what was available. I think his results vs Massa have been disappointing for someone in his prime right now.

          It’s already been demonstrated that Hamilton can do whatever he likes in that team and the team will have his back every time. He’s the number one driver, the championship charge will be built around him, Bottas will be on a hiding to nothing really and is only a stop gap before the driver market opens up at the end of the year.

          I hope I’m wrong, and never thought Button or Rosberg would prove to be so difficult for Hamilton to contend with so you never know.

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