You may have watched Formula 1 pre-season testing and are now thinking, Max Verstappen and Red Bull have got this championship in the bag haven’t they. Think again.
Without doubt, the RB19 is currently the car to beat as it was very quick out of the blocks – a trait that we saw for most of 2022.
Sergio Perez set the fastest time of the test during the final session, 0.359 ahead of Lewis Hamilton whilst Carlos Sainz didn’t go for a flyer on on Saturday evening in Sakhir.
As we know, simply looking at the timing sheets in testing and picking out a pecking order from it doesn’t really work.
You don’t know about the fuel levels, engine modes, have to factor in whether teams are experiment with setups, what time of day was it and more.
It’s the long run pace and balance of the car where you can make a much clearer judgement. Red Bull are ahead, but not by miles.
Red Bull’s unusual F1 test
Red Bull‘s most impressive day actually came on Day 1 of the pre-season test when Verstappen was behind the wheel.
During the evening session, Verstappen predominantly focused on long runs and was lapping in the low 1:36s on the C3 compound. That will mean nothing on paper, but nobody else over the next two days of testing got close to that, apart from a blistering Fernando Alonso.
To do that on the first day of testing is simply brilliant. That was Red Bull’s high point though and backs up Christian Horner‘s revelation that they were “on a different programme to everyone else”.
Red Bull look like they went for pace on the first day and were experimenting with setups and parts for the rest of the test, before Perez delivered his excellent one-lap pace in the final session.
A small comparison for that lap by Perez is, it was already faster than Red Bull‘s best times in qualifying for the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix, so they have found a lot of pace.
The RB19 looks so easy to drive though, in any conditions and you could feel the confidence from Verstappen when speaking to the press. Ferrari have more to come though and Mercedes are well placed.
How far are Mercedes behind Red Bull?
There are no signs of the big, heavy punches which Mercedes fans will have been hoping for, after they had their worst season for over a decade in 2022. However, they are not too far off.
A very poor second day saw sensor issues and a hydraulics failure for George Russell put a big dent into Mercedes‘ hopes, especially with such limited testing.
They bounced back relatively well, although Russell‘s race simulation was not exactly flattering as he lapped in the 1:40s in his first stint on the C3 tyre, which dropped to the low 1:39s on the C2 and into the mid-1:37s on the C1 compound – the fuel coming down of course after each pit stop.
This simulation was conducted when the track temperature was at its highest and the ultraviolet from the sun slowed conditions, which explains a lot of the poor pace.
Hamilton looked good in the car though during Saturday afternoon, riding the kerbs nicely and was really pushing the limits of the W14.
He did that in 2021 too during testing and it feels like Mercedes are in a similar position this year. They are clearly behind Red Bull, but the gap is definitely recoverable and their certainly seems to be more to come.
For example, the rear wing was very draggy but the team will bring a new one for next week’s race, so there’s some free time there, if that works as intended.
“We are trying to make sure we hit the ground running,” Hamilton told the press.
“I think we’ve had a couple of difficult days. Some of the limitations we had last year are still present. Yesterday [Friday] was particularly was difficult. The first day didn’t feel too bad.
“The bouncing that we had has pretty much gone, so that’s a that’s a huge step for us. It’s nice to drive without the bouncing. But there are still some underlying things that we’re working through.”
Big question marks about Ferrari
Then we have Ferrari, which, out of the whole grid, are very difficult to read. Ferrari ran a low downforce rear wing throughout the test, which you might think is normal, since Bahrain has long straights, but we didn’t see the true downforce of the SF-23.
In 2022, Ferrari went for the approach of going for fast lap times which made them look very strong, and that was proved in the opening races.
But we all know they were found out later in the season with their race pace and tyre degradation against Red Bull.
This is likely why they have experimented so much with setups and didn’t do too many fast runs in Sakhir. I am quite certain Ferrari will have a different car and new parts this time next week, so Scuderia fans shouldn’t be too concerned yet.
“I think we’ve had a good test in terms of reliability, managing to do all the tests that we wanted to do coming into this week here,” said Sainz.
“Having a good test doesn’t mean having a good car. But the the most important is that we’re having a good test and this is giving us good learning in all the aspects.
“I’m a lot happier with how testing is going [compared to 2022]. I managing to test a lot more things, understand better the car – the direction that I might want to go in the future, come back, try different things.
“This is something that last year I didn’t manage to do very well. It compromised a bit my first half of the season. This time, I feel like I have a much clearer understanding.”