Three, four or six?
You can pick any of those numbers, and they all tell exactly the same story after the latest – and final – Formula 1® pre-season test at Barcelona. In last week’s four-day test, the best time was more than three seconds faster than the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix pole time, more than four seconds faster than the equivalent test last year, and more than six seconds faster than pole in 2015.
That last figure is the most significant, as the benchmark given for this year’s regulations was to be five seconds quicker than Barcelona 2015. The season hasn’t begun yet, and that’s already one target smashed. The fastest time of the whole test was a 1m18.634s posted by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen on the final morning, interestingly on the P Zero Red supersoft tyre, as opposed to the purple ultrasoft.
That beats the fastest lap of Barcelona ever seen during a race weekend (1m19.954s set by Rubens Barrichello with Brawn GP in Q2 of the 2009 Spanish Grand Prix) but it’s not quite the fastest lap ever of Barcelona. During testing in April 2008 Felipe Massa managed to squeeze out a 1m18.339s with Ferrari.
Kimi says that he could have gone quicker than his own time in testing last week though. “If we want, we can go faster but that’s not the purpose of the test,” the Finn told reporters in Barcelona. “Obviously you try to go as fast as you can, whatever we decided to do. There’s a lot of things that we can improve and do better, but that’s a part of testing.”
Of course, it’s not just the fact of going fast that matters. It’s how you go fast that makes a difference too. The nature of more downforce and wider tyres inevitably leads to cars that corner a lot faster than they did before, which is why the drivers have increased their winter training programmes, specifically focussing on building up strength in their neck muscles to counteract the bigger g forces. And for once they have been unanimous: the new generation of 2017 cars are a lot of fun to drive.
It’s the same verdict for the new tyres as well. A different brief has been handed to Pirelli this year: to produce tyres with less degradation and fewer peaks of temperature. One of the things that the drivers specifically requested for 2017 was tyres that recover rapidly even if they are pushed to the point that they overheat.
So now the drivers can back off for just a little bit, and then the tyre will be back to how it was before, rather than cooked beyond the point of no return. It means that the drivers can keep pushing throughout the length of a stint, which met with a firm thumbs up.
That’s not to say that there’s no degradation: just that it’s more spread out. Tyres with zero degradation, while entirely technically possible, would detract from the sporting spectacle and kill off strategy in an instant. Drivers would automatically choose the softest tyre and stay on it until the end of the race. Where’s the fun in that?
The numbers add up
During the eight days of testing in Barcelona this year, the 10 teams and 22 drivers covered 7427 laps: around 112 Spanish Grand Prix distances. To do so they used 2572 tyres: or 643 sets, if you prefer to look at it that way. These figures actually aren’t so far off the equivalent totals for the Barcelona test last year – except back then there was an extra team (with Manor Racing having fallen by the wayside in 2017). So that points to a generally high level of reliability, which is a remarkable achievement for these brand new cars, running for the very first time. Leading the way was Mercedes, clocking up 1096 laps, 628 of which were driven by new recruit Valtteri Bottas. As a result, the Finn is the driver with the most laps under his belt heading into the new season.
Despite the huge amount of data that has been collected, it’s only of real use to the individual teams themselves rather than rivals or outside observers. Only they know how much fuel is in their car, exactly which set-up and specification is being run, or how hard the drivers are pushing. The permutations are almost endless.
Lap times in testing do provide teams with some answers, but that’s not much use to the rest of us, who don’t know the questions. Only when we get to Australia do the gloves finally come off. In just two weeks, there will be no places left to hide.