After just three days of testing the teams and drivers are gearing up for the opening round of the 2021 season, here are some of the questions ahead of the final year of current technical regulations.
Mercedes in trouble
It was an unusually messy test for Mercedes, after years of topping both the time and lap charts they failed to to do either this time around. Things didn’t get off to a great start with Bottas having to sit out most of the first morning after a gearbox issue on his first installation lap forced him back to the garage. Another issue for Hamilton also saw him sit out a large chunk of his running and meant the German team completed the least amount of laps for the first time. They got one fastest lap as well with Bottas topping day 2 while Verstappen lead days 1 and 3. But even this effort was only good enough for 9th overall with Hamilton’s best time putting him 5th over all. To top it all off both drivers have complained of the car being very shaky and unstable with Hamilton suffering two spins one of which saw him beached in the gravel trap.
While almost ever year Mercedes seem to hit issues in testing but then dominate the season, with lack of time available to iron out any issues they could genuinely be in trouble for the first time in quite a while.
Red Bull on top
As Mercedes faltered Red Bull came out strong, Verstappen toping the time sheets on two days while Perez topped the final morning session in Bahrain. And while their lap count put them 7th overall, they had great consistency and both drivers seem very happy in the RB16B. This is an unusually good start for Red Bull who in recent years have started poorly then improved over the year meaning they have never been a real threat to Mercedes despite fighting for wins later in the year. But with Mercedes having problems and Verstappen now having an experienced teammate in Sergio Perez this could mean a much more promising year for them and even if Verstappen doesn’t get the drivers title there should be a much closer fight for the constructors.
While lap times are what make the headlines they aren’t the only measure by which the teams are judged. You can heave an incredibly fast car but if it can’t last a race distance you won’t be winning anything. As such it has been interesting to see it’s the mid-field teams that have achieved to longest runs with the top 4 teams in last years championship making up the bottom 4 positions on this years lap chart. Red Bull, Mclaren, Aston Martin (formerly Racing Point) and Mercedes completing 369, 327, 314 and 304 laps respectively while the top 4 teams of Alfa Romeo, Alpha Tauri, Ferrari and Alpine (formerly Renault) all managed over 400 laps (bar Alpine with 396). While this is likely down to the lack of time available meaning teams are forced to choose whether to give more time to race and qualifying sims, it will give those with more millage more data in terms of consistency and reliability.
One of the major headlines form 2020 was the landslide in Ferrari’s performance. We did start to see issues towards the end of 2019 when a directive front the FIA about engines saw Ferrari suddenly loose the speed they had gained over the summer break that saw Leclerc and Vettel score 3 wins between them and the former achieve 7 pole positions. This came to a head in 2020 as they regularly failed to get out of Q2 and struggled to score points ending the season 6th in the standings. But they appear to have got on top of the issue and look much better overall. Team principle Mattia Binotto said at the SF21’s unveiling that they have redesigned their engine and worked on several other problem areas and it shows. While an engine failure on day one did hamper Leclerc’s running, new teammate Carlos Sainz posted the 3th fastest time overall (although Leclerc could only manage 13th nearly a second slower than the Spaniard he was on a slower C3 tyre). And with the Italian team scoring one of the largest lap counts things are looking up for them though they still have it all to do to get back to winning races.
Aston Martin struggles
Given that last year Racing Point effectively had a 2019 Mercedes it was unsurprising how well they did over the season and with them doing the same again for 2021 and the take over legendary manufacture Aston Martin you’d be forgiven for expecting great things from the British team. But it hasn’t been completely plain sailing for them, as mentioned they had the second lowest lap count but they also struggled to achieve a fast time (probably not helped by them using Pirelli’s prototype tyre for much of day one) with Lance Stroll’s fastest only putting them 9th overall. In addition they hit a number of reliability problems with issues with the gearbox, turbo and electronics causing them to spend much of testing in the garage beating only Mercedes in terms of total laps. While this isn’t the end of the world and could just be teething problems it certainly won’t have been the test the team or newcomer Sebastian Vettel would have wanted.