Mercedes fastest … but don’t write off F1 2020 just yet

12:37 AM ISTLaurence EdmondsonF1 Editor Close• Joined ESPN in 2009 • An FIA accredited F1 journalist since 2011BARCELONA, Spain -- The first day of testing never gives away too many secrets of the upcoming season, but there are still lessons to be learned.Here, we look at the main talking points from a productive day of track action…

12:37 AM IST

  • Laurence EdmondsonF1 Editor


      • Joined ESPN in 2009

      • An FIA accredited F1 journalist since 2011

BARCELONA, Spain — The first day of testing never gives away too many secrets of the upcoming season, but there are still lessons to be learned.

Here, we look at the main talking points from a productive day of track action for all ten teams.

The fastest F1 cars of all time

Although we advise against reading too much into times during testing, the one thing the opening day in Barcelona told us was that the 2020 Formula One cars promise to be the fastest in history. Perhaps that’s no surprise as teams usually target two seconds of development per season and the regulations and tyres remain unchanged from 12 months ago, but the progress shown on Wednesday was impressive nonetheless.

Despite using the second hardest tyre compound in Pirelli’s range, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton finished the day 1.185s faster than the best time from the opening day last year and just 0.755s off the fastest time overall during testing in 2019. Given that the first day of testing is all about aero tests, finding baseline setups and flushing out gremlins, we can expect big gains over the next five days of testing, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the track record – a 1:15.406 set in qualifying by Valtteri Bottas at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix – is beaten by the end of next week.

By the time these cars start racing in March, we can expect lap times to fall and the new records are likely to stand as unbeatable benchmarks for some time to come. That’s because the changes to the 2021 regulations will see lap times go up by roughly 3.5s next year, and given the restrictive nature of the new rules, the speed of progress is expected to be slower than in recent years.

“I really like the fact that records that have stood for many years have fallen in the last two and that Formula One cars of current generation have smashed every record that existed,” Mercedes technical director James Allison said. “But I find it slightly sad to think that 2020 is likely to be a high-water mark for some years but I will just enjoy it while it lasts.”

Make the most of F1 2020 while you can!

Mercedes fastest … but don’t let that put you off

For anyone other than Mercedes fans, a first glance at the timesheets might be enough to put you off F1 this year. After a day in which all cars ran reliably, Mercedes held the two fastest times and Racing Point, which has a car closely based on last year’s championship-winning W10, was third fastest. But it wouldn’t be testing if we didn’t remind you (again) NOT to read too much into the times.

To add some historical context, Mercedes has won every championship since 2014 but in all those years it has only once finished the first day of testing fastest. That’s not to say that Mercedes won’t be right at the front of the grid from the first race of the year, but it’s a reminder that today’s times mean very little without the context of tyre compounds, fuel loads, engine settings and run plans – the vast majority of which are unknown.

What we do know is that Hamilton set his time while alternating between fast laps and cool down laps — a sign a driver is pushing reasonable hard as the cooldown laps are needed to recharge the hybrid system and give the tyres a break. By contrast, Charles Leclerc, who finished 11th fastest for Ferrari, said his team did not consider any performance running and focused mainly on checking the data from the car correlated with the data the team has been logging back at the factory in simulations over the winter.

A pink Mercedes

When the new Racing Point emerged from its garage on Wednesday, a number of rival teams made a double-take as it cruised down the pit lane. The similarities with Mercedes’ championship-winning W10 were even more striking than the car’s pink livery, and it doesn’t take an F1 engineer to play a very difficult game of spot-the-difference.

After finishing a solid seventh in last year’s standings, the team owned by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll is targeting a leap up the grid in 2020. In order to do that it has changed the aerodynamic concept of its car and leaned on its technical partnership with Mercedes for new inspiration.

Under F1 regulations, teams are allowed to purchase engines, gearboxes, hydraulics and suspension from rivals but the survival cell (chassis) and bodywork geometries must be of their own design. But in taking Mercedes’ front and rear suspension, the basic aerodynamic concept of the Racing Point has had to come into line with Mercedes and what better way to make progress through the midfield than mimic the best in the business.

See if you can spot the difference…

2019 Mercedes

2020 Racing Point

A similar relationship has existed between Ferrari and Haas in recent years and the American team has ‘borrowed’ a number of design traits from the famous Italian team for its own car. But the Racing Point is remarkably similar to last year’s Mercedes and also represents a concept change for the team compared to its 2019 car. Speaking to Auto Motor und Sport, Racing Point technical director explained that the use of Mercedes suspension front and rear and the switch to the world champion’s Brackley wind tunnel last year meant a new way of thinking was necessary.

“We have been working in the Mercedes wind tunnel since May last year,” he said. “It makes more sense to follow their concept than to build a Red Bull. All the tools and test procedures in the Mercedes channel are tailored to this concept.”

However, copying a design is one thing, understanding it is another. Due to the significant departure from last year’s design, Racing Point will need to learn fast this week while its rivals, on the whole, refine their pre-existing concepts.

No team is in trouble

Along with some impressive pace, teams also completed impressive mileage on Wednesday. All ten cars completed over 100 laps and there wasn’t a single red flag for a stoppage on track, mechanical or otherwise. While that isn’t a huge surprise given the stability in the regulations, it represents huge progress for Williams — which still had a car in pieces back at the factory at this point last year.

The British team was routinely over a second off the pace of the next fastest car in 2019, but the early signs are that it has made a decent step this year. The FW43 was the first car out of the pit lane and George Russell, who was at the wheel at the time, said it was a significant milestone for the team.

“We had an intense morning planned and to get everything in, it was important to get out from the beginning but also off the back of last year it was psychologically important for all of us. It was important for everybody who has worked day and night back at the factory to see their car go out first.

“From the struggles of last year, it was incredibly tough times for the people back at Grove last year, when they are working absolutely flat out to try and make things ready and work in double time. So it was a relief for all and now we can get cracking with our test programme.”

The fact Russell’s fastest lap was only 1.1s off Hamilton’s fastest at the end of the day also bodes well for Williams.

The secrets of testing

For the first time in pre-season testing, teams have been banned from using screens to block the view of cameras and rival teams looking into their garages. The rule was brought in to improve the show for F1’s live TV broadcast this week, but it was a photograph early in the day that provided the most entertainment.

As Charles Leclerc made notes on his initial laps in Ferrari’s new car, a photographer snapped the A4 notepad he was holding. Although it didn’t give away any truly valuable details about the new SF1000, it was interesting to read that Leclerc had noted some understeer through slow corners on his second run.

— Charles Leclerc Fan Page (@LeclercNews) February 19, 2020

It didn’t take long for Ferrari mechanics to block the view into the garage by routinely standing in the opening as their colleagues carried out work on the car. Expect more fun and games over the coming days.

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