As the 2019 Formula One world championship looms large, another four days of testing to allow the field to further acclimatise to their new machinery, comes first in Barcelona this week.
Whether it was seeing the new liveries with the 2019-spec front-wings, new drivers or drivers at new teams – the initial four days of testing in Spain had much to be hyped about.
The test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya saw arguably the most reliable Winter test since Formula One’s hybridisation in 2014, with just over 4,000-laps completed in total by the ten teams.
Ferrari came out of the box the most impressive and if the grins of the faces of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and his crew at the end of the first day weren’t encouraging enough, then only ultimate success in 2019 will be.
The Prancing Horse showed strong reliability and speed, having plugged in the fastest lap on the first two days between Vettel and his new teammate in 21-year old Charles Leclerc – who in his maiden outing with the Scuderia, appeared right at home.
Though despite having had a more subdued start to the pre-season, the defending world champions in Mercedes AMG turned over more laps than their rivals in red – edging them out 610-laps to 598.
Reigning driver’s world champion in Lewis Hamilton was high in his praise for Ferrari during the test, remarking that they are “very, very strong.” Whilst his under pressure to perform teammate Valtteri Bottas conceded that the Silver Arrows “need to make improvements,” to cure the handling issues found with the W10 chassis in its maiden outings.
Many do believe though, that Mercedes AMG are sandbagging and come the opening round of the championship in Melbourne, that we’ll see the W10 challenger turn up the wick. This belief is once again fuelled by the number of laps that Hamilton and Bottas completed on the harder compound tyres.
Regardless of sandbagging or not, it is fully expected for both Ferrari and Mercedes AMG to be the title contenders for 2019 and the question now is that behind them; how far will Red Bull Racing be?
Now powered by Honda, who enjoyed their best pre-season since their return as a power-unit supplier in 2015, the former four-time constructor’s champions were also buoyed by their most reliable start to testing in the hybrid era.
A total of 957-laps was completed by both Red Bull and their junior team in Toro Rosso and the fact that Honda have two symbiotic outfits at their disposal, is only going to strengthen their rate of development. And with the reliability seeming positive – the attention will shift to performance.
The midfield is shaping to be the most closely matched, that it is in recent years and the race towards the coveted fourth place in the standings is going to be hotly contested.
Between Renault, who topped the timesheets on the fourth and final day of the first Test and have their driver line-up bolstered by the arrival of Daniel Ricciardo and Alfa Romeo (formerly Sauber), who themselves boast a fresh line-up of 2007-world champion Kimi Räikkönen and Ferrari junior rookie Antonio Giovinazzi – the battle for fourth is going to be an intense one.
Behind them is where the intrigue remains, with Racing Point (formerly Force India) having not debuted a full 2019-spec chassis at the test, Haas having encountered numerous niggling issues on their black and gold VF19 and McLaren showing one-off glory laps yet demonstrating less than impressive long-run pace.
The biggest loser from the first Test was without a doubt Williams, who didn’t even turn a wheel on their new Rokit sponsored FW42 until the third day of running. The exciting all-new line-up of reigning F2 champion George Russell and the highly anticipated returnee Robert Kubica, only completed a meagre 88-laps.
Plenty of questions are being asked of the once great championship winning force, though another four days of testing should truly expose the plight that faces Williams in 2019 and potentially the future of their technical chief in Paddy Lowe – who has come under scrutiny over the past week.
Indeed, there was much to be gleaned from the opening four days of the Formula One pre-season, but before the curtain raiser on March 17 in Melbourne – the teams have one final opportunity to get their bearings, ahead of what shapes to be another mega season of grand prix racing.