By Adam Tate, Associate Editor
The 2018 Formula One season is finally upon us. After the long winter break, all 10 teams hit the track this morning at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain.
While the full picture of who is competitive, who has got it right, and who has got it wrong won’t fully form till the end of testing next week, there are meaningful things we can gleam just from breaking down the first day’s running.
The biggest caveat in doing so are two variables that made today’s running rather different than the first day of school in year’s past; the bitterly cold weather, and the circuits fresh pavement.
A massive cold front has most of Europe, even normally sunny Spain in a rather deep freeze at the moment. Such cold temperatures are far from ideal for getting the tires up to operating temperature. Add in the fact that the Pirelli compounds on offer this week are far from their final form and discerning meaningful data becomes even more difficult.
The track was also repaved this winter and some of it re-profiled to appease the officials of MotoGP. According to Pirelli these changes should account for lap times two seconds quicker than last year by the time of the Spanish Grand Prix in May.
Testing was a relatively uneventful affair today compared to years past, and lacked the power unit failures and drama that had become commonplace. This is a good sign for all the engine manufacturers and the teams as each driver will have just three power units at their disposal before incurring any penalties this year.
Fernando Alonso had a much publicized off during the sixth lap of his first stint when a wheel nut worked loose on the right rear of his McLaren MCL33. The spin and subsequent trip in the gravel trap forced the McLaren team to undertake repairs and cost the team some running, but the home crowd hero was still able to complete 51 laps for the day compared to the miserable 28 from a year ago.
All signs point to the first partnership between McLaren and Renault to be a fruitful one, but the team will be under quite the microscope. The trifecta of Renault powered teams including the works squad from Enstone and Red Bull will be some of the most scrutinized outfits this year and many expect them to fight for third place in the standings.
Unsurprisingly the big three teams of Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull looked the strongest today. All three racked up a good number of laps and appear set to pick up where they left off in 2017. The biggest surprise on day one was the running order.
Things are clearly off to a good start for Red Bull, as Daniel Ricciardo set the fastest lap of the day at the wheel of the RB14 on medium compound Pirellis. He also had a day high 105 laps, which was 12 more than the next best runner of the day.
It was a trouble free run for the Aussie and so far Adrian Newey’s latest design looks good. The interesting sidepod treatment is one of the standout details in the field as the team seeks to emulate Ferrari’s aero gains in that area. The car looked solid and trouble free which is a welcome sign for a team that had nearly as many reliability issues in 2017 as McLaren-Honda. Interestingly Red Bull has followed conventional wisdom and turned down the inner flaps of their front wing. Last year they were the only team that left them upturned, an classic example of zigging when everyone else zagged.
Mercedes was next quickest on track, with Bottas just over a tenth of a second behind Ricciardo and also on the mediums. The Mercedes is one of the most evolutionary designs on the grid, but when you are starting with the strongest car, you don’t need to change as many parts as your rivals. All the trademark Mercedes features are there, the wide sidepod inlets, the long wheelbase, the low rake.
Were it not for the truncated sharkfin the casual fan would not be able to tell it apart from last year’s car. The bargeboards and tuning vanes are revised however and will be the key area of development not just for Mercedes, but most of the field this year.
Kimi Raikkonen and Ferrari were the next strongest today, just a few tenths off of Ricciardo and Bottas albeit on the soft tires. The Ferrari looks solid on track and of the big three looks the most complete at this early stage in the game. With most of the field doing their best to copy their high-top sidepod design from 2017, Ferrari has taken it a step further this year with very small inlets mounted right at the top of the sidepod’s 600 mm height limit.
Ahead of them are all manner of flow conditioners designed to not only take advantage of the larger undercut the high-top sidepods afford, but also to create lift in order channel air into the high inlets. It is a very slick looking piece of kit and one of the few truly new ideas seen so far.
The rest of the running was fairly straightforward with teams conducting reliability and systems checks. There were a lot of runs where the drivers slowed down on the straights then accelerated to a set speed which they then maintained for several hundred meters in order to gather aero data which will then be compared to the wind tunnel and CFD numbers.
One pleasant surprise was Toro Rosso. Compared to the miserable first day McLaren suffered last year, STR enjoyed 93 trouble free laps with their new Honda power unit en route to the eighth quickest time of the day for Brendon Hartley.
On the other end of the spectrum sat Force India, who just unveiled their car today. The VJM11 is running most of the same aero parts as last year’s car, but the choice to begin preseason testing with reserve driver Nikita Mazepin behind the wheel was an odd one.
The team was further hampered by a sensor failure that lead to a brake cooling issue which cost them time and limited their running to a pitiful 22 laps. The team punched well above their weight to secure fourth place in the constructors standings the last two seasons, but the squad from Silverstone will have a heck of a fight to keep that fourth position unless they can log a lot more laps soon.
The full times for each driver and their lap count is below. Last year’s first day saw just two cars dip below the 1:22 lap time mark, the Mercedes and the Ferrari. This year, Red Bull, Renault, and McLaren have all joined that club despite the less than ideal conditions.
Ricciardo’s top time of 1:20.179 is just over one second behind Lewis Hamilton’s 2017 pole position of 1:19.149. Considering the cold temps, and the tire and chassis evolution to come by May, there is every reason to believe Pirelli’s two second improvement target. We may well see cars lapping in the high 1:16’s by then.
The final drama of the day came not from the cars on track, but the weather as rain forced an early end to the day’s test for most. Only Ricciardo in the Red Bull soldiered on, first with intermediates and then full wets.
Snow is in the forecast for Wednesday and it has caused some team officials to consider cancelling that day’s running and moving it to Friday or adding another day to next week’s test on Monday.
Such a change would require the agreement of all the teams and though that is usually a sticking point for most issues, I don’t foresee a situation where any of the teams would be against trading a day of bad weather for a day of good weather and the chance to get more data ahead of the season to come.