Barcelona: Faster cars with lower lap times was one of the aims set for the new 2017 Formula One regulations and it can at least be checked off after day one of testing, even if the target has not yet been skewered quite as spectacularly as was expected. There is plenty of time yet but as Red Bull’s chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, pointed out at the Circuit de Catalunya, looking for mere speed will not make a successful new formula — it is the competition that counts.
It was Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes who went a second quicker than the fastest time set in practice here last year, with 1.21.765, while the 2016 mark was also bettered by Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari and Williams’ Felipe Massa.
Not the three to four seconds a lap that has been predicted but, given that this is the first day out of the box for the brand new cars, those sort of times are still expected.
The new rules were also designed to make the cars look better on the track and that too can be considered a qualified success but one to which Newey gave short shrift. “The styling is subjective,” he said. “If I am brutally honest, trying to introduce the illusion of speed by having swept front wings, swept sidepods, a swept rear wing endplate is just a little bit wacky races.” Rather more vital to the success of F1’s new direction, will be how the cars match up at the sharp end. “Whether the races will be better is wholly dependent on whether we are lucky enough to have two teams with very similar performance throughout the championship,” Newey said.
“The memorable years are where you do not simply have two drivers from the same team battling for the championship but two drivers from different teams battling, and it is impossible to know at the moment.” It has escaped no one’s notice here in Barcelona that it was the Mercedes, dominant for the past three seasons, that looked ominously quick. Especially on the soft rubber, they not only looked remarkably stable through turns two and three but also, in terms of grip, appeared to be on rails through the LaCaixa hairpin at the end of the back straight.
Quick then and thus far bulletproof, with the team also clocking up a hugely impressive 152 laps. Hamilton was among several drivers to emphasise the increased downforce of the new cars, as had been expected under the new aero-regulations. “It has been a solid day, a positive day,” he said. “A great first day of running. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us. This is day one, we have to get the balance perfect, today was all about ticking off all the lists of checkpoints and getting the mileage and reliability.” Red Bull have been touted as the pre-season favourites to take the fight to Mercedes, with emphasis on aero-regulations playing to Newey’s and the team’s strengths, while the new Renault engine was expected to have made a healthy advance over the winter. However their day did not go cleanly, with Daniel Ricciardo losing track time to sensor and battery problems.
They have time to improve however and a performance that chief engineer Rob Marshall drily described as “somewhat down on expectations,” with a best time of 1.22..926, can be expected to drop with some solid running. Ferrari will be pleased with their opening, logging 128 laps and Vettel setting some good times, in stark contrast to McLaren who were beset by engine problems and managed only one installation lap in the morning session and 29 in the afternoon — a situation that the team admitted was unexpected and baffling, given the car had run trouble-free over 100km on Sunday for filming purposes.
To be fair to the rule-makers, this year’s cars do look more aggressive, even given the preponderance of some of the ghastlier shark fins on display — the Haas is a notable exception. They sound better too — the engines trackside are throatier and while no V8s, are noisier as well, while the fat Pirelli rubber is an aesthetic compliment for which F1 has waited too long. The shark fins, vertical extensions to the engine bodywork designed to channel air over the rear wing, may yet be modified, with Ferrari, Haas and Williams all adopting in Barcelona the “T-wing” extension that was first seen on the Mercedes — who are currently evaluating it instead of the shark fin.
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