Thursday’s Hot Topic: Who is winning the F1 development race?
New regulations present new opportunity for a new season. They also create the conditions for an in-season development race, as new rules open up new avenues for designers to exploit. Spain, the curtain-raiser to the European season, is traditionally the place where teams introduce their first major upgrade package of the year – and it looks like most haven’t disappointed…
We’ve been treated to some cracking racing so far this season, but the battle off-track has been just as intense. Designers and engineers have been busy researching, designing and building new parts that were aimed at being ready for the Spanish Grand Prix, before then turning their attention to the next batch that will be introduced across the upcoming races. It’s relentless.
Understandably, then, there was lot of activity in the pit lane on Thursday at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, with photographers, journalists – and even rival team members – keen to catch a glimpse of the new hardware that will make its track debut in Friday practice.
Spain’s 4.655km track, to the north of Barcelona, is a favourite for F1 testing because of its distinct layout. The spread of fast, medium and slow speed corners tests front and rear grip and makes set-up a challenge.
With drivers having spent so much time lapping this track – Romain Grosjean was trying to tally up how many with his trainer this week and reckons it was more than 10,000 – teams have plenty of data and can therefore get a good read on their progress from pre-season testing to now, as well as a strong understanding of how their new package is performing.
Mercedes vs Ferrari
Mercedes, the championship leaders, have been operating with supreme efficiency this season, resulting in four successive one-two finishes. They haven’t always necessarily had the quickest car, but they have done the best job and kept their mistakes to the absolute minimum.
They have consistently brought updates so far this year, and on initial inspection, they’ve stepped it up for Spain. Another new front wing was spied down at Mercedes, along with new mirrors and a new bargeboard arrangement, the latter aimed at improving the airflow around their unusual sidepods.
One of Ferrari’s weaknesses last year was that, while they brought updates to the car, they didn’t always work – and on some occasions, particularly towards the end of the year, made the car worse. There was positive news on this subject in Baku, when the new aero package they brought was praised by Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.
They’ve kept their foot on the gas in the development stakes for Spain, bringing another sizeable aerodynamic package. Like rivals Mercedes, they have a new front wing, which features a revised endplate, as well as a new engine cover complete with a longer tail.
And there’s their power unit update, of course, which they have brought to the track two races early. The update is focused around improving performance and fuel consumption. In tandem, supplier Shell have delivered a new lubricant, also ahead of schedule.
The chasing pack
Mercedes and Ferrari’s closest challengers Red Bull are bringing a “subtle” update, which they hope will deliver “a step forward”. Traditionally, this has been a strong swing for the Milton Keynes-based squad, their chassis suited to the sweeps of Barcelona while their RB15, which oozes downforce, suits Monaco.
Of those behind them, Haas have probably brought the more dramatic improvement, boss Guenther Steiner describing the update as “significant” while Romain Grosjean has gone as far as saying the Haas is “pretty much a brand new car”. The package includes a new floor, front wing, bargeboard arrangement and mirrors.
It’s a new approach from Haas, who last year opted to only bring a small update in favour of allowing for more development time back at the factory. They need a big step forward in Barcelona this year, though, having seen their opening stint of the season plagued by those round pieces of rubber.
Their strategy is to run the update only on one car – Racing Point incidentally are planning to do the same – with Romain Grosjean getting the honour. That will allow for back-to-back testing of the update, as well as hopefully deliver further understanding of where their tyre issues lie. If all goes to plan, Kevin Magnussen will get the update in time for final practice on Saturday morning, ahead of qualifying later in the day.
They won’t have the benefit of the new Ferrari power unit, though, with fellow customers Alfa Romeo also missing out. It is anticipated they will have the option to take it next time out in Monaco or at the following race in Canada, where the extra power will be particularly useful.
Elsewhere, Racing Point have a series of aerodynamic and mechanical upgrades focused around the front end of the car, while McLaren have a sprinkling of new parts across their 2019 challenger. Toro Rosso are operating a rolling development system, rather than planning big updates for certain races, so expect some improvements – including to the rear wing – but nothing substantial.
Renault have a “number of reasonable upgrades” on the chassis, as well as a new specification power unit, specifically an improved internal combustion engine that is aimed at improving power, while over at Alfa Romeo, they say the upgrades they are brining are focused on helping fine-tune what Kimi Raikkonen already feels is a very good car. And then there are Williams, who are focusing on gathering data on test items, which are mainly mechanical.
Friday should be interesting, then, with teams keen to clock up the mileage. Many will be running split programmes, which means the timesheets will be even more skewed than usual. Who will have the most successful day? And whose update will prove to have made the biggest step? Watch this space.