Formula 1’s most famous team Ferrari looks like a different kind of beast in 2019-spec, following a change at the very top and a dramatic shift in atmosphere. But was the SF90 Prancing Horse as strong as it looked when it hit the track in the first pre-season test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya?
“Unbelievable”. That’s how Sebastian Vettel described his first day back at school, as testing got underway last Monday. The German was delighted with his day’s efforts as he clocked the fastest time, 0.397s ahead of anyone else, as well as the highest lap tally – a staggering 169 laps. His team mate Charles Leclerc was equally as impressive and happy when he got behind the wheel a day later.
Now, as we often say, laptimes are largely irrelevant during testing. Why? Well we don’t know the fuel loads each team are running, we don’t know what aero set-up they're doing, we don’t know if they push for a whole stint or push early on and then back-off to complete other tests. Teams also try a variety of tyres (from the C1 hardest to the C5 softest, plus Pirelli’s unmarked compound for testing).
But Vettel, of course, will know what Ferrari were doing. The team may not know what everyone else was doing, but they are experienced and have a wealth of data that can at least give them a good idea. So the fact Vettel was so happy and so confident when talking to media says something.
But what about the cold, hard data. Does that back up the belief that Ferrari are the team to beat after the first week? Well let’s look at the best single lap of each driver. Here, Renault are top, after Nico Hulkenberg topped the times on the final day on Thursday. Ferrari were only the fifth-best team, one place adrift of reigning champions Mercedes and behind Toro Rosso and Alfa Romeo, with Leclerc and Vettel eighth and ninth overall.
But is this leaderboard an accurate reflection of what happened in testing? No, it’s not. As you can see, the top four teams set their fastest laps on the C5 Pirelli compound tyre, the softest of the five compounds. In contrast, Ferrari did their best lap on the C3. According to Pirelli, there is a 0.6s difference between C3 and C4 and the same gap between C4 and C5, give or take a few thousandths.
So in theory, we should minus 1.2s from Ferrari’s best time on the C3. If we were to correct all the times based on the gaps between the compounds, Renault drop down a ranking, which suddenly take on a very different picture.
Best single lap (adjusted times tyre-corrected based on Pirelli data)
Of course, this isn’t an absolute accurate reflection of where each team stands. Again, we don’t know the fuel loads or their respective programmes, but it does at least take away one variable and provide us with some data to base some conclusions on. And it makes very good reading for Ferrari.
Leclerc and Vettel and Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi, would have been the only drivers to get down into the 1m16s based on the corrected data. That’s phenomenal pace considering this is only the first week, where teams traditionally primarily focus on reliability.
As the chart below shows (Which hasn't been tyre-corrected), even with the harder C3 tyres, Ferrari were quicker than overall pacesetters Renault through the fast and flowing sector one at Barcelona (and only marginally behind their softer-shod rivals), and just a little slower through the final two sectors. Again, a real show of strength given the comparative performance levels of the various compounds.
With Alfa Romeo and Haas the second- and third-quickest teams after tyres are taken out of the equation, that makes it a 1-2-3 for Ferrari-powered cars, an ominous sign, particularly as Ferrari power also topped the PU charts in terms of mileage, with 1,345 laps. Honda and Mercedes were closely matched in second and third, but they were just shy of nearly 400 laps behind.
Mercedes were around half a second off the pace in fourth, in our corrected chart. We should add a caveat in here that the Silver Arrow rarely chase lap times in the first week. But they did turn their attention to performance runs late in the week, perhaps because they had completed so much mileage early on.
The compounds each team ran during test one
The reigning champions rarely use the softest tyres – in fact they went through last winter without even running the softest of them all. But that hasn’t been the case this year. Mercedes opted to run the four softest compounds plus the prototype whereas Ferrari have gone the other way and focused heavily on the middle tyre – the C3 otherwise known as the medium – as well as good running on C2 and a small amount on C1 and prototype.
Mercedes can take heart from the fact they topped the individual team mileage charts, as the only squad to break the 600-lap barrier. Both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have said that Ferrari look strong, with Bottas describing the Mercedes balance as on a “knife-edge” as they look to hone their package. But equally, Mercedes never tend to show their ultimate pace in testing, so their lowly position in the standings shouldn’t be seen as alarming for their fans just yet.
Red Bull were the sixth-best team on the timesheet, 0.734s down - tyre corrected - on Ferrari, and throughout the test were never a contender for one of the top times on any of the four days. But though Helmut Marko is boldly predicting race wins for Red Bull-Honda – which would be the Japanese manufacturer’s first since returning to F1 in 2015 with McLaren – the team are largely content to stay quiet and crack on with the task in hand.
The most popular compounds used in test one
Top of that list was mileage, which explains why they focused on the medium tyre more than anyone else, with 353 laps on that rubber. Honda have been woeful in testing in each of their four years back in F1. Not so this year, with their PUs clocking up a staggering 957 laps untroubled. The word inside Honda is that things are looking good and the unit is responding as they hoped it would to suggest good early correlation.
They plan to up the ante next week, turning up their performance settings, even trying some of their qualifying-specific modes (a weak area in the past) as they look to get on par with their rivals. That will be the true test of their reliability, but for now, there are happy faces across the board at Honda, Red Bull and Toro Rosso.
Mileage by power unit in test one
McLaren are operating a more humble approach this year and that continued into the first test as they kept their heads down and plodded on with their programme. While they finished second quickest in each of the first two days, our corrected data suggests they are still some way off the pace. But considering last year’s test was hampered by problems, the team – in transition after changes to their technical operation - can at least take heart from having a reliable run this year.
In contrast, Williams didn’t have so much to smile about after they managed just 88 laps of running having only got their car out and about on day three of testing. Given their lack of time on track, they are understandably last in the pecking order. But as they haven’t done any performance runs, it’s best we wait until next week before drawing any conclusions.
So to wrap up, as per usual with testing, the headline times only tell part of the picture. It is Ferrari who head to Test 2 on top. The paddock feeling is that they are strong, the team are emitting a feeling of strength and the data seems to back it all up. Round one to the Prancing Horse, then, but one more week of testing remains and they'll know better than anyone not to discount Mercedes, winners of the last five titles. The stage is set for an intriguing finale to pre-season. Buckle up!