Winter Testing for the 2017 Formula One season begins this week at the Catalunya circuit in Spain. In a year of massive regulation changes, testing is likely to be a very busy time for the ten teams. Here’s what we need to look out for over the next two weeks.
WHAT IS THE POINT IN WINTER TESTING?
The teams will take part in two four-day tests. The first from 27th February to 2nd March and the second from 7th to 10th March. The tests will take place at the Catalunya circuit – the venue for the Spanish Grand Prix. This is the teams’ only allowed track time between now and the start of First Practice for the Australian Grand Prix, so is of the utmost importance ahead of the season.
DON’T TRUST THE LAP TIMES
Just because a team is fastest in Winter Testing, it doesn’t mean they’ll be fastest in Australia. There are plenty of unknown factors at play in Winter Testing – we won’t know what engine modes cars are running or how much fuel the cars have in them. We may see cars setting fast but unrepresentative lap times, or other teams sandbagging and not showing their true speed.
Prost were the quickest team during Winter Testing in 2001. The financial situation at the team was dire, so they ran on minimum fuel loads to grab headlines and attract sponsors. When the end of the season came around, the team had scored just four points.
Of course, sometimes there are exceptions to the rule of not trusting lap times. Brawn GP were a revelation in Winter Testing in 2009 and went on to dominate the opening rounds of the season and win the Constructors’ Title.
We may, however, get some idea of how much faster the cars will be this season compared to in 2016. The fastest lap set in Winter Testing in 2016 was a 1:22.765, set by Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari on the Ultra Soft tyre. It is predicted that lap times will be around three to five seconds quicker in 2017. The pole time for the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix was a 1:22.000, set by Lewis Hamilton.
Testing means long days and plenty of laps in F1 cars, often longer stints than in Grands Prix. The long turn three at Catalunya, which will be taken at 40km/h faster than it was in 2016, is likely to test the drivers’ neck muscles to the limit. Testing should be a real physical challenge for the drivers, who have been training all winter. If we see any driver dropping out for a day, then it could be a sign that their training regime over the winter hasn’t gone exactly to plan. Some drivers have said that they have gained up to 5kg of muscle over the winter. Lewis Hamilton seems to have taken a different approach to training over the winter than most, focusing more on cardio than building up muscle. Could that prove costly for the three-time World Champion?
Do Mercedes still have the engine advantage? Most likely, yes. But just how close will the Ferrari, Renault and Honda engines be? Honda and Renault especially have been keen to point out the gains on horsepower they have made, while Mercedes themselves have made an ‘unprecedented step’ according to Force India’s Andy Green. Again, lap times will be irrelevant. What we are looking for here is which engine can get the most laps in without hitting problems.
Toro Rosso, who take on Renault engines this season, had ERS difficulties on their filming day last week. That could be a sign of early troubles for the 2017 Renault power unit, but this week could disprove that.
Mercedes did the most running in winter testing last year, with 1,294 laps completed. That didn’t stop them from having engine issues throughout the year though – technical gremlins saw Lewis Hamilton sit out Qualifying on numerous occasions during the early part of the 2016 season.
TEAMS TRYING NEW THINGS
We’ve already seen the interesting looking T-wing attached to the rear of the Mercedes W08 – could we see more teams try one out? How about the shark fins? Mercedes surprised many by not featuring one on their car at the launch, however it is expected that they will test one at some point this week. Another likely major point of change between now and next week is the front wing and nose section.
The quest for every tenth of a second could lead some teams down some interesting paths over the coming days – but could too many changes show a team who are not comfortable with their car?
DRIVERS MAKING MISTAKES?
This will be the first time the drivers have driven the 2017 cars to find out what they’re capable of. With cornering speeds expected to be much faster this year, drivers will have to spend time adapting their driving styles to suit the speed of the car. This could result in more off track excursions, or an expensive week for some F1 teams. Be on the look out for drivers who put in consistently fast lap times – they’re likely to be the ones who are adapting well.
Fernando Alonso made a costly mistake in testing at Catalunya in 2015. He hit the wall at Turn Three, was knocked unconscious and airlifted to hospital. He missed the opening race of the season as a result of the mysterious incident.
Perhaps most telling to how competitive each car is will be the drivers’ and teams’ body language. If a driver looks particularly dejected while being interviewed about their hopes for 2017, then perhaps not all is well with their car for the season.
Could Renault do a Brawn GP? It’s unlikely, but nevertheless possible. Last year’s Enstone car was built around a Mercedes engine, which was then taken out and replaced by a Renault engine just weeks before Winter Testing. This year will be the first true test of what Renault are capable of as a manufacturer team. They already have their sights set on 5th in the Constructors’ Championship for 2017.