F1 testing: Inside the times

by Mark Hughes on 2nd March 2018

Who was really fastest in Barcelona? Mark Hughes examines the first times of F1 in 2018

So what messages did the lap times tell us during the gaps between the rain and snow of Barcelona testing, week one of two? Well, the pattern looks broadly familiar but with a few twists of particular intrigue. The fastest three are Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, with the Merc showing an advantage in single-lap pace, but trailing slightly over a stint. The new McLaren has yet to show any pace, Stoffel Vandoorne’s headline lap times being flattered by a very big tyre compound advantage.

Wednesday was snowed-off, Monday only a few were setting fast times either through run programmes or the state of the track with its much smoother new surface. The really significant numbers were seen on Tuesday and Thursday. Once its surface dried, the track temperature got up to as high as 13/14deg C even though the ambient was never anywhere close to that. It was enough to allow the tyres to work – with a lot of preparation and effort on the part of the driver – but just the slightest backing off could take them back out of their temperature window.

The following analysis is based on trawling through the laps of every car on every day and some assumptions around that. The most significant of these is what lap time difference there was between the various tyre compounds in use. In these temperatures, the normal offset between them did not really apply. Most teams did most of their running on either the medium or the soft compound – and the consensus seemed to be that there was virtually nothing between them in terms of performance. If you were going to do very long runs, the medium would perhaps be slightly faster by the time you’d got down to low fuel levels. Whereas for shorter runs, with lower starting weights, the soft possibly had a slight edge. The Mercedes seemed to prefer the medium while Ferrari and Red Bull concentrated on the soft. There was a big performance boost – of around 1.3sec – from there to the super-soft favoured by Haas, Fernando Alonso and Toro Rosso. The hyper-soft – used only by Vandoorne – was significantly faster even than that. By perhaps a further 0.6sec, according to at least one team engineer.

The second assumption is about fuel levels. For the purposes of comparison we’ve assumed the cars were fuelled only for the stint length they ran but we have no way of knowing such was the case or whether there were significant differences between teams on this policy. We have made an educated guess of a fuel use of 1.5kg per lap, with each kg of weight costing 0.035sec.

As for tyre degradation, it was very low generally on the new surface. But actually, apart from a couple of outliers, there was relatively little spread between the age of the tyres when drivers did their fastest laps. It was slightly higher for the top three teams (between eight and 12 laps) than the rest (between four and eight). The outliers were Sauber and Toro Rosso, who did their best times at the end of very long runs and therefore with tyres perhaps 0.5sec or so slower than most of the rest.

We’ve adjusted for all those variables and come up with the numbers below. So, with the proviso that there are many assumptions and approximations – and that some teams will have more performance to bolt on for Melbourne than others – here’s the rough approximate order of one-lap pace:

  1. Mercedes (total 306 laps). Up until the final day the Mercedes W09 didn’t look decisively faster than either the Ferrari or Red Bull. It was always very quick in sectors one and two - which emphasise aero efficiency – but was consistently slower than its two rivals in the slow final sector. But whether through a set-up change that kept the rear tyres from getting too hot or through Lewis Hamilton finding a better groove there than had Valtteri Bottas, it was competitively quick even in its weakest sector on Thursday. By our reckoning Hamilton’s best lap – fuel and tyre adjusted – was around 0.3sec clear of Vettel’s Ferrari. But that was only on a single lap basis. On the long runs, Hamilton’s best would have had him 2.4sec behind Vettel at the end of a nine-lap stint. Although super-quick over a single lap, we’ve yet to see the Merc complete as good a long run as either Ferrari or Red Bull. Just a different run programme or indicative of an actual trait? That could be the single most important question of the off-season.  

+0.3sec

  1. Red Bull (total 207 laps) and Ferrari (total 298 laps). Vettel was The Man on Tuesday, and actually went slightly faster on Thursday, but not by enough to prevent being shaded by Hamilton. However, his best long run had him averaging 1m 20.9sec over nine laps, which was an exceptional pace and the best long run anyone put together all week.
  1. Red Bull didn’t get the cleanest of runs after Daniel Ricciardo had headed the times on Monday. Max Verstappen suffered technical problems on both Tuesday and Thursday but he was quick when he ran. One very long run he made on Tuesday of 23 laps looks especially interesting: taking out the obviously slow laps (for either traffic or perhaps trying to keep the tyres alive), he averaged just 0.2sec slower than Vettel’s much shorter best run on Thursday.

 +0.6sec

  1. Renault (total 273 laps).  The RS18 looked best of the rest after the big three by a very useful margin, though uniquely it did its fastest time on the Monday – in the hands of Nico Hülkenberg.

+0.5s

  1. Williams-Mercedes (total 275 laps). Robert Kubica reported the FW41 to be a “powerful performer” in some respects but had some initial balance issues that needed further work. Lance Stroll was well into the car’s groove on Thursday afternoon and managed to string together a sequence of laps that seem to place the car initially towards the upper midfield.

+0.5s

  1. Haas-Ferrari (total 187 laps) & McLaren-Renault (total 249 laps). This is a respectable pace for Haas, a worrying one for McLaren. Kevin Magnussen found the Haas to respond well to the super-soft tyre but even accounting for that tyre’s supposed 1.3sec advantage over the soft most others were using, the new VF18 looks promising – though Roman Grosjean continues to struggle with front locking.
  1. At McLaren the headline numbers looked good, with Stoffel Vandoorne second quickest on Thursday – but that was using the hyper-soft, a much quicker tyre than anyone else. He remained on this compound throughout his running and taking account of its performance boost puts the McLaren around 2sec off the Red Bull. However it’s believed to have been running in compromised form, possibly related to a problem with exhaust temperatures that brought a premature end to its Tuesday. If the engine was being run rich to control exhaust temperatures, it would cost significant performance. Fernando Alonso spent most of his time on the super-soft but wasn’t particularly fast either. A lot of question marks surround the MCL33 at the moment, but hopefully it will show its true potential if it can run in uncompromised form next week.

+0.3sec

  1. Force India-Mercedes (total 166 laps). Even compared to the other teams, Force India was spending a lot of its time aero mapping and we probably haven’t seen a representative lap from it yet. The team says it will be concentrating on performance testing next week.

+0.4sec

  1. Toro Rosso-Honda (total 322 laps). The Honda ran very reliably throughout the four days, actually completing more laps than any other team, but as yet not very quickly.

+ 0.3sec

  1. Sauber-Ferrari (total 282 laps). The Alfa-liveried car has yet to go as well as it looks.

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