Making sense of McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull after day one

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BARCLEONA, Spain — Lewis Hamilton isn’t known for his love of preseason testing, but even the seven-time champion arrived early in the pit lane at the Circuit de Catalunya on Wednesday to witness the dawn of F1’s new era. He wasn’t due to drive his new Mercedes W13 until the afternoon, but with the morning sun still low in the sky he’d made his way from his motorhome in the infield to see what he was up against this year.

“This morning, arriving and walking down the pit lane and seeing all the different cars, it’s probably one of the most exciting and interesting seasons that I have ever embarked upon,” Hamilton said in a press conference before heading out on track in the afternoon.

“It will be interesting to see where everyone comes out and where we stand at the start of the first race.”

As he wandered down the pit lane, Hamilton lingered outside the Red Bull garage, keen to see what his rival Max Verstappen would be piloting this year. Of the ten new cars at the test, Red Bull’s was the only one that hadn’t been revealed before the garage doors went up on Wednesday morning.

The team’s launch a couple of weeks ago featured a show car rather than the real thing, and as the RB18’s yellow nose edged out of the garage on Wednesday it turned the heads of everyone in the pit lane.

The design of the Red Bull has been led by legendary F1 engineer Adrian Newey, whose cars have won 20 championships (drivers’ and constructors’ combined) over the past 30 years. Ideas from his drawing board have set F1 design trends under every regulation change of the past two decades, and there’s every chance the new RB18 will do the same.

The car features aggressively undercut sidepods, and a novel suspension setup with pull-rod at the front and push-rod at the rear — a feature only the McLaren MCL36 shares with the RB18 this year. It’s still too early to make predictions about whether Verstappen will have a car quick enough to defend his title, but the Red Bull certainly looks the part.

Speaking about the team’s productive morning session, in which Verstappen notched up 80 laps before Hamilton had even left the garage, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said the early signs were good. “We’ve just been working through a programme,” he said. “The lap count was good and the feedback from the drivers was encouraging.

“It’s already surprising how much performance these cars have got. They are certainly not going to be lacking in the high-speed corners, that’s for certain.

“I would say it was an encouraging morning getting to know the RB18.”

Even with the excitement of a new season, F1 is still struggling to shrug off the events of last December’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which saw Verstappen crowned champion ahead of Hamilton. During his press conference, Hamilton refused to answer further questions on the subject while his team boss Toto Wolff said the sport needed to move on.

Whether that will be enough to draw a line under the 2021 season remains to be seen, but when asked if he’d tracked down Verstappen to have his first face-to-face chat with the Red Bull driver since they shared a podium in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton made clear that he had not returned for his 16th season in F1 to make friends.

“I didn’t bump into him in the pit lane, but I saw him come by [in his car],” he said. “That’s probably as close as we will get this week.”

Who looked quick on day one?

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the new season is that the regulatory overhaul means there are no guarantees over who will be at the front of the grid at the first race. The smart money remains on Mercedes and Red Bull — who, between them, have won every F1 title since 2009 — but there is hype already building around former powerhouses Ferrari and McLaren.

That hype was added to when the two teams sat at the top of the timesheets on Wednesday, but before we get too carried away, it’s worth remembering that the first rule of testing is not to read too much into the lap times. For what it’s worth, Lando Norris’ fastest lap, a 1:19.568, was set at the end of the afternoon session on the C4 tyre compound (the second softest on offer) and was 0.6s than Charles Leclerc’s best effort from the morning on the harder C3s. But with no knowledge of fuel load, engine settings or how hard the driver was pushing, it’s all rather irrelevant.

It could be that McLaren is confident enough that it is experimenting with more extreme setups already or, more likely, it could be that no one has shown anything like their true performance just yet.

“I can be happy enough, but today is not about lap time,” Norris said. “I don’t care if I’m first or last. If anything it’s worst if you’re first as everyone thinks we’re amazingly fast which I don’t really reckon we are.

“But no, I think it was a good day in terms of the laps and the programme.”

Ferrari also looked impressive. The Italian team was fastest for most of the morning session, with Leclerc setting his best time early on a 16-lap run, suggesting it was not a low-fuel glory run. At this stage of testing, most teams head out with roughly half a tank of fuel as it provides a better baseline to gain useful information that can be compared with the CFD and wind tunnel data that has guided the development of the car up this point. But, again, without knowing for sure, comparisons of pure lap time are pretty much impossible — and even if we could remove all the variables and compare like for like lap times, the picture could shift again before the first race as teams ramp up development over the course of the two tests.

The first day of testing, therefore, is a better gauge of who might have some problems to sort out. The more issues a team has, the more it falls behind with its testing checklist and the more likely it runs out of time to get through everything it had planned ahead of the first race. Smaller teams without testing rigs at their factories often find themselves with more debugging to do in the opening few days of testing, and it was therefore no surprise that last year’s backmarkers, Alfa Romeo and Haas, both had shaky starts.

Reliability issues restricted Alfa Romeo to 32 laps and just four for most of the morning, while floor damage and a subsequent leak limited Haas to 43 laps. It’s not to say either team are in big trouble, but Alfa Romeo’s new recruit Valtteri Bottas admitted the lack of mileage had been a setback.

“Yes, we did have a few issues and, unfortunately, the issues we had were quite costly in terms of time,” Bottas said. “Some issues were from reliability, some issues were with mechanical things, but, luckily, we understand them completely and we know how to fix it. We just didn’t have enough time during the day to fix the problem.

“For sure today was compromised, we lacked quite a bit of mileage but at least we got some running and got some kind of idea how to progress for tomorrow. Now I just hope we can two good days in Barcelona, after this.”

Preseason testing continues for two more days at the Circuit de Catalunya before moving to Bahrain for three days of testing next month.

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