2022 F1 Barcelona test: Shakedown time

Lewis Hamilton dressed like a Star Wars character, intriguing sidepods on the new Red Bull and rows of 18-inch Pirellis. James Elson takes in the scene at F1’s ‘track session’ in Spain while finding out who’s getting the most from their cars

Final corner in Barcelona at 2022 F1 testing

World champion Max Verstappen familiarises himself with the RB18 in the winter sunshine

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This apparently, is how the momentous new Formula 1 car test days used to feel in the ‘old days’. The sharp sun brings everything into focus at Circuit de Catalunya, with team members nipping round the paddock like insects disturbed by a torchlight in a basement. Suddenly turbos burst into life, wasp-like wheel guns whirr and rubber squeals upon getaway, and F1 2022 is all systems go.

Well, sort of. Officially this is a ‘pre-season track session’ rather than traditional Testing with a capital T. And the reason for that, as so often with F1, is TV rights. Bahrain has paid significant amounts to have sole broadcast rights for the only other session – happening March 10-12. But without TV crews this has had the effect of Barcelona feeling more special and exclusive.

Journalists all try to take their place in a frenzied media room. One writer – who has been reporting since the mid-2000s – tells us that this level of anticipation hasn’t been seen for several years in F1.

Lewis Hamilton in sunglasses and face mask in Barcelona pitlaneThe media centre is situated above the garages, looking onto the pitlane – the floor begins to rumble with engine noise as the countdown to 9am begins, and journalists hurry over to windows, pressing their faces up against the glass like children just to catch the first glimpse of F1 2022 in anger. The moment finally comes, as George Russell heads straight out in his new Mercedes, the Briton immediately putting his team top of the time sheets. Lewis Hamilton (right)displaying a Zen-like calm watches on from the Merc pitwall.

The cerebral effect is enhanced by his outfit: a flowing robe and hoodie combination that brings to mind Luke Skywalker, the Jedi from the Star Wars films. He slinks up and down the pitlane, checking out the new competitors…

In the flesh and in the wild, as opposed to under studio lights at the official launch ceremonies, this new generation of the world’s fastest racing machines really are a sight to behold.  George Russell’s glinting Mercedes; Max Verstappen’s ominous Red Bull; Sebastian Vettel’s elegant Aston Martin – it has to be said that all the cars look sensational, low-slung with their flicked, shapely wings – it seems like the new regulations have pointed designers to creating beautiful F1 cars again.

Straight off the bat they exhibit high levels of traction out of Barcelona’s final chicane – Mario Andretti’s “painted to the road” quote to describe his Lotus 78 comes to mind. That car, of course, used the ground effect which grand prix teams are now utilising again. If they can follow each closely as per the new rules, surely the racing will be both fast and furious.

2022 AlphaTauri AT03 in f1 testing

The hard work starts for AlphaTauri

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2022 Red Bull car in F1 testing

A chief talking point in Barcelona was Red Bull’s striking undercut on the sidepod

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However with retro aerodynamics comes old problems. Some cars were reportedly starting to ‘porpoise’ on track – the aerodynamic phenomenon whereby the car’s downforce begins to interact with its suspension, causing it to break the airflow underneath and start rocking back and forth – an extremely unpleasant experience for any driver. Not seen in simulations, it will provide designers with another headache to cure as the season progresses.

Away from the track, a series of press conferences gives the teams the chance to fire the starting gun on the rivalries to come. And Red Bull and Mercedes immediately picked up where they left off last year. After Lewis Hamilton missed out on an eighth world championship as a result of unprecedented official decisions, he seemed eager to keep fanning the flames. “I just want to add we need to make sure we’ve got non-biased stewards,” he said in a salvo towards the FIA.

“Race drivers, some are very, very good friends with certain individuals, some travel with some individuals, take a more keen liking to some.

“I think [we need] people who have no biases, and are super central when it comes to making decisions.”

Red Bull and Mercedes team principals Christian Horner and Toto Wolff had obviously spent some time working on their calm and measured statements.

“I think that maybe we share differences of opinion over Abu Dhabi,” said Horner, whose car carries the No1 this year. “But, you know, that’s now done and dusted and all focus is very much now on 2022.

“What you did see last year was a fantastic competition from the first race through to the last race. We hope that there’s going to be an equally exciting year — ideally a little less exciting at times.”

“Verstappen appears to be taking it slightly easy so winds up sixth”

His thoughts were echoed by Wolff who was asked whether he had enjoyed last year’s rivalry between the teams. He sounded as if he had been a lot happier when Mercedes was dominant. “Enjoying?” he said, sounding faintly amused. “I don’t know if I enjoy it but it’s part of the job.“It got fierce at times and brutal but there’s a lot at stake: it’s a Formula 1 world championship and there is the fighting on track and the fighting off track for advantages. I agree with Christian. We need to move on.”

Back on track, the two teams trade fastest laps early on, with both cars appearing on the money until one outlier comes along – Charles Leclerc.

Ferrari has laid so much hope on their 2022 challenger, the F1-75. What’s just as important is the reliability, and on first glance the Cavallino’s handsome challenger has this – it clocks up 80 laps in the morning alone, with a quickest time of 1min 20.165sec (almost four seconds off the fastest time at Barcelona last year) before he hands over to Carlos Sainz.

Not far behind is Lando Norris – can McLaren truly make it a “big four” this season? Its MCL36 is in among the leaders on the first morning, but behind a similar order of sorts to last year emerges.

Rear of 2022 Mercedes W13 at F1 testing in Barcelona

George Russell was out in the new Mercedes W13 on Wednesday morning – and was quick

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Sebastian Vettel and Yuki Tsunoda come in fourth- and fifth-fastest, while Verstappen, the anomaly, appears to be taking it slightly easy so winds up sixth, but 80 laps in a morning’s work tell you all you need to know about the car’s strength.

Behind him follows the Alpine of Fernando Alonso, Williams of Nicholas Latifi, Haas of Nikita Mazepin and ailing Alfa of test driver Robert Kubica, but the car is fixed and sent out later with new pilot Valtteri Bottas at the wheel.

The cars’ turbo hybrids still possess a throaty roar – we might not quite be in V10 territory, but having several rush past you on the pit straight is still nothing less than an exhilarating feeling. Despite the racket though, the first morning test session is serene in another way: it passes by almost without incident. As far as we can see, there are no big breakdowns or offs. Nothing like the turbo failures of 2015 for the McLaren–Honda, nor Juan–Pablo Montoya or a similar early-2000s charger having a pre-season smash when budgets were bottomless. It’s all a bit less chaotic these days.

How much can be divined from this early run out is open to debate. Already there is talk of sandbagging and systems check laps. In fact, one of the most revealing elements was Red Bull’s striking sidepods – not shown on the launch car – which take the RB18 in different direction to all the other teams. When we head to Bahrain for the second and final pre-season test though, the wick will be turned up, the pressure will be greater – the competitive order might be turned on its head, and once again at the season’s opening race at the same venue.

Will the Ferrari still have a turn of pace in the desert? Can McLaren keep up its recent momentum? Or will the F1 intrigue still be about Verstappen vs Hamilton, and Red Bull vs Mercedes?  That’s the ironic thing about testing. Fans and those in F1 alike are desperate for it to happen after an off-season, eager for grand prix racing to reveal its secrets. A lot of the time though, these events pose more questions than answers.

Whatever the order is though, one thing is beyond doubt: F1’s most anticipated season in years is up and running.