It’s just two weeks to go now until lights go out on the new Formula One season at the Bahrain Grand Prix and we’ve just had our first glimpse at what every team’s 2021 offering can – and crucially can’t – do.
Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren were some of the standout performers, as were Alpha Tauri and Red Bull, but some glaring issues with Mercedes will give its rivals cause for optimism come race day – albeit it potentially misplaced.
Here’s everything we learned from this weekend’s pre-season Bahrain testing…
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RICCIARDO’S SAFE PODIUM BETS
As the pacesetter in both of the morning sessions, Daniel Ricciardo will be delighted with what he saw from his first outing in the MCL35M.
McLaren is powered by Mercedes engines this year after moving on from Renault and had the tough task of integrating the new power unit into the existing chassis. That left the team cautious of its chances this year, but a strong three days on track in Bahrain will have eased any fears they had about reliability.
McLaren had moved quickly in the off-season and were already on track in Silverstone to shakedown the car before Ferrari had even launched its new effort and the hard work was clear for all to see.
Ricciardo topped the first two morning testing sessions, while teammate Lando Norris was amongst the quickest in the first two afternoon tests, leaving McLaren “really sitting pretty” heading into the curtain raiser, according to F1 commentator Ted Kravitz.
“They don’t imagine they’re faster than Red Bull or Mercedes, but they think they’re closer – much closer than previous seasons,” he said.
Lando Norris noted that they were “a little bit more confident” than they were last year as McLaren still remained cautious about what they’ve given their drivers this year.
Team boss Andreas Seidl added: “Once again, the competition is looking very tight between the teams. The stability of the regulations makes it likely that we’re in for another close season of Formula 1, with plenty of battles ahead.”
Whatever happens, this has the potential to be the best car Ricciardo has driven for a while and early suggestions are he will be pretty safe making any podium bets with Zak Brown this year.
SEEING ISN’T BELIEVING WITH MERCEDES
Mercedes had a really indifferent testing session which will bring hope to all of those watching on – particularly Red Bull – as Lewis Hamilton got himself in a spin twice and Valtteri Bottas managed just a handful of laps on the first day due to a series of gearbox issues, something that seemed to also affect Aston Martin, who is running the same design this year.
The new W12 was described as “snappy” and “unforgiving” by its drivers and there will be a lot of long days in the garage between now and the start of the season.
They finished up only the fifth-fastest team all up and finished bottom of the lap count but take it with a pinch of salt, because that’s what Mercedes will be doing. They’ve seldom lit up the timesheets in testing over the years and it’s had little effect on them becoming seven-time world champions.
“Mercedes have got very high standards for themselves, and by their standards, it hasn’t been a good test,” said Sky F1’s Martin Brundle.
Mercedes’ long runs were a lot more competitive than their single-lap times but the team still conceded that the data showed they are not as quick as Red Bull just yet.
“The lower fuel work was a more confusing picture, we didn’t gain enough and we need to go and look at our approach as far too many cars were ahead of us on pace,” Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said.
“We’ve had issues in recent years with pace in winter testing and managed to make good progress before the first race but we may have our work cut out this time.”
Mind games? Possibly. Only time will tell.
RED BULL A ‘DIFFERENT ANIMAL’ IN 2021
What is clear to see is that this has been Red Bull’s most impressive testing for a long, long time and the gap between the top two is as close as it’s ever been during Mercedes’ decade of dominance.
Max Verstappen has been begging his engineers to give him a car that he can really go and take on Hamilton and Mercedes with and he may just have it.
“They’re looking strong,” said Hamilton. “They’re going to be a different animal this year. “Having seen them win the last race [in 2020], you can only assume they’re going to be right there, if not at the front, of the first race [of 2021]. It’s going to be a great long battle with them through the year.”
Red Bull has kept it’s 2021 challenger close to its chest all throughout the build up to the weekend and you get the feeling that they are quietly confident that they can cause Mercedes so real problems this year.
Asked if this was his best-ever pre-season testing, Verstappen said: “Yeah, definitely I think it has been the best. But it doesn’t give you any guarantees. We’ll find out through the first race weekend where we are.
“We always look in to what we can improve. For sure there are some things we want to work on. But I guess every team has that.”
If Verstappen was to put the car on pole in two weeks’ time and then claim the 25 points as winner, you wouldn’t be shocked on the basis of this performance, but they will also be harbouring hopes of two drivers on the podium regularly for the first time since Ricciardo left as Sergio Perez slipped into the seat effortlessly.
Whatever happens, it looks like it’s going to be a big year for Red Bull.
SMALL STEPS FOR FERRARI
In 2019, Ferrari made headlines in pre-season testing because of how fast they were. In 2020, they made headline for how slow they were. In 2021, they’ve been somewhere in the middle.
It was a much quieter testing period for Ferrari, who are looking to turn the corner and leave a dreadful 2020 season behind them and move forward with their new, younger driver line-up.
Based on how they performed in Bahrain, there isn’t going to be a quick fix to escape what could be an even more competitive midfield than last season.
The big Achilles heel which caused last year to be their worst in four decades was the inability to generate any straight-line speed – something which appears to have been addressed this time around.
The engine seemed to pass the reliability test too, with Alfa Romeo joint-top of the mileage charts.
Carlos Sainz also appeared to settle in well, clocking the third-quickest time on the final day of testing, as he and Charles Leclerc were both happy with what Ferrari was providing them with.
“We said it was important for us to address the speed on the straight and that’s not only engine power, it’s the drag of the car,” said Mattia Binotto. “I think if we look at our speed, it has certainly improved compared to last year relative to the competitors. It doesn’t seem to be such a disadvantage.”
Whether the steps made this year are big or small will remain to be seen, but it looks like they’re at least in the right direction.
THE MIDFIELD SCRAMBLE
The midfield looks like it will be hotly contested this year, with McLaren, Ferrari, Alpine, Alpha Tauri and Aston Martin will all be scrambling for the best of the rest tag, with McLaren appearing to be top of the pile after testing.
Fernando Alonso, complete with a metal plate in his jaw after fracturing it during a cycling accident last month, looked like he’d never been away and will be Alpine’s big trump card to play in the midfield battle. Esteban Ocon also looked good after a season of racing in Ricciardo’s shadow last term in what appears to be a reliable car.
Alpha Tauri look handy as well with their new driver Yuki Tsunoda repeatedly turning the timesheets purple during the final testing session. He will be the first F1 driver born in the 21st century when he makes his F1 debut in two weeks.
Aston Martin’s return to the sport is one of the biggest things to look forward to, especially as they are expected to build on the strong foundations laid by the formerly-named Racing Point in 2020.
However, they didn’t complete as much mileage as they would have hoped and they were dogged with technical problems with gearbox issues and turbo problems. But that is what testing is for, to iron out these creases.
Sebastian Vettel completed the fewest laps of any race driver although his 117 was “more than we expected… given the hiccups we had”.
“Overall I’m positive,” said Vettel. “Probably it’s impossible to say because we didn’t conclude all the running to really compare in terms of performance with others but it looks to be very tight and hopefully we’ll be in the mix and have some fun.”