By Neil Leverett
- Formula 1 teams complete six days of annual winter testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain
- Mercedes’ innovative DAS steering system headline maker, as Lewis Hamilton seeks a place in history this season
- Red Bull Racing appear closest in running to Swiss manufacturer, with Renault leapfrogging Ferrari also in initial speed tests
BARCELONA, SPAIN – After six days of Formula 1 pre-season testing concluded this past weekend, what did we learn from winter prep 2020 in Barcelona?
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Just over three months on from Lewis Hamilton lifting his sixth World Drivers’ Championship in Dubai, Formula 1 once again prepares to emerge from its’ winter hibernation, now less than a fortnight away from Round 1 of the 2020 season in Melbourne.
As growing concerns over the Coronavirus outbreak threaten to place a large asterisk over the calendar, preparations are nevertheless now full-steam ahead for another campaign of frenzied screeching of tyres and roaring of engines over 22 weekends, across all four corners of the sporting globe.
Barcelona was once again the scene of annual winter testing to signal the imminent arrival of the new season, and after two sessions of three-day testing over the past two weeks, what did we learn from Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya?
Mercedes unveil DAS
Surely the biggest headline from Spain was Mercedes’ unveiling of their latest innovative measure to remain ahead of the competition, with the introduction this season of a DAS system set to be used.
The Dual Axis Steering mechanism will be unique in that with little still known about it in action, DAS appears to change the alignment of the front wheels. That in turn is controlled by the driver by pulling and pushing on the steering column.
Designed to to heat the car’s tyres more evenly, the system should allow faster acceleration out of the corners and on circuits with longer straights, the Mercedes-AMG engine should give the team a further edge over the rest of the paddock.
Team Principal Toto Wolff and Head Technician James Allison were understandably keeping their cards close to their respective chests less than a fortnight out from the season opener, and Hamilton himself also admitted he had had little practice with it, whilst also stating DAS could be rotated through the season.
As the Briton told F1i.com:
“Hopefully it’ll make a huge difference.
At the moment I don’t really use it a lot to be honest. Sometimes you practice with it, sometimes without it. I don’t know how much we’ll be using it.”
Bottas threatens Hamilton history
The new season brings with it once more the hope of a competitive World Drivers’ Championship, and though in the past those same pipe-dreams have fizzled out before the season even enters its’ summer period, 2020 may just be different.
Dawning a new decade in F1, Hamilton stands on the verge of sporting immortality now just one title from claiming an history-equalling championship number seven, and in so tying Michael Schumacher‘s number of wins.
In the Briton’s way stand the like of Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and the increasingly consistent Charles Leclerc of course, but perhaps the biggest obstacle in his path comes in the form of teammate Valtteri Bottas.
Winning two of the last five races last season, the Finn continues to be the ultimate number two for Mercedes, but after clocking a 1:15.732 – not only the fastest of the field but also Hamilton in testing – Bottas now stands in the Mercedes’ garage as something of a silent assassin for the coming term.
Red Bull nearest rivals?
With the Swiss manufacturer having won the Constructors Championship for the past six years, it is not only Hamilton with a target on his chest, but his team also. Having held off the challenge of Ferrari in the past three seasons however, signs in Barcelona were that it may instead be Red Bull who pose the biggest threat to Mercedes’ growing motorsport monopoly.
It was Red Bull who were the last manufacturer other than Mercedes to win in 2013 with Vettel and Mark Webber in their ranks, and despite completing only the fifth-most number of laps in Catalunya, Verstappen’s 1:16.269 on Day Six catapulted them to the second fastest time of testing – behind Bottas.
Aside from champion Hamilton, the Dutchman was arguably the standout performer of last season and now partnered with Alex Albon as his teammate – who consistently finished inside the top six for the second half of 2019 – team head Christian Horner will be quietly confident of his team’s chances in the upcoming eight months.
Reliability in the past has been a thorny issue for Red Bull but with both Verstappen and Albon satisfied with the new RB16’s early performance, the Milton Keynes-based outfit could be in for a intriguing season. Concerns remain for Round 1 however, and though a step forward looks to have been made, Australia could yet burst said bubble of optimism.
Renault edge Ferrari in speed tests
The name of the game in Barcelona was to get as many laps under the belt over the six days and though it was predictably Mercedes clocking 903 laps over the fortnight, Ferrari were hot on their heels with 844.
Though finishing second in terms of distance, Scuderia would have been concerned by their lack of pace, indeed Charles Leclerc was only the fourth-fastest – in terms of quickest driver per team – clocking 1:16.360.
Instead, it was Renault who struck a blow to the Prancing Horse’s early aspirations, with Daniel Ricciardo recording a faster 1:16.276 on the same soft C5 tyres – just .007 behind Verstappen himself in the speed test charts.
That may have more to do with Ricciardo aiming to become the first Australian to podium in Melbourne for the season opener – denied the Perth driver in 2018 – but having stumbled out of the blocks during the past two seasons, Ferrari will be hoping Barcelona was just a minor setback in preparations.
Racing Point tease impact
The 2020 season not only rings in a new era, but the re-birth of a number of teams across the paddock not least BWT Racing Point – formerly known as Force India – who could be set to make a sizeable impact in F1.
Now powered by the Mercedes M11 EQ unit, the Silverstone-based British team clearly have a goal for the future with both Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez having signed on – with the latter until 2022, to take his time with the team to eight years.
Whilst not expected to challenge the F1 hierarchy – far from it – their main rivals in Williams and McLaren all clocked times below that of Racing Point in Barcelona – although McLaren were one of only three teams to go past the 800- lap mark in Catalunya.
In season’s past we have heard similar stories with Haas Racing in case and point, but SkyF1’s Ted Kravitz believes the team that finished seventh last year are the real deal and their showing in Spain hinted they will not just be making up the numbers in midfield this term.
As technical director Andrew Green said himself rather coyly to Sky Sports ahead of the season opener:
“There’s a reasonable package to come in Melbourne. We’ve only just started.”
Round 1 of the 2020 Formula 1 season is scheduled to take place at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia between 13-15 of March.
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