Four things learned from the pre-season testing – and why there’s a grain of salt with it

Teams on the rise, favourites with a tough start, a competitive midfield and more

By Yuri Coghe
@yuricoghe
The three days of practice sessions in Bahrain offered teams the opportunity to gather a lot of data about the performance of their 2021 cars (Photo: F1.com)

Pre-season testing is a great, yet weird time in F1.

While fans are happy to watch their favourite drivers go full speed again after months, and seeing how the new liveries look on track is not bad either, every learning has to be taken with a huge grain of salt.

Why is that? For starters, some teams are not bringing their A-game on purpose. Mercedes, for instance, has been a king of not showing all their cards, keeping their best German poker face on until it’s finally time to celebrate the pole-position on the first qualifying of the season.

Whether teams are focusing on race simulations instead of qualifying ones or not completing laps with fast tires compounds, there are plenty of ways to focus on what’s actually important: and that’s acquiring data and making sure everything is working properly – not setting the fastest lap time.

All teams will now have two weeks to have their best engineers go over the huge amount of info obtained in the three days of practice. And while it’s obviously not enough time to completely change the direction of the car, any small fixes and tweaks can help activate the performance their challenger lacked in the testing.

Suffice to say, any pecking order or performance analysis done now can mean nothing when lights are off at the Bahrain Grand Prix in Mar. 28. Still, there are learnings, indeed. Let’s get to them.

1 – Red Bull is looking good

Red Bull and Ferrari have won 17 races each since the introduction of the hybrid engines in 2014, being the closest challengers, even if not that close, to the Mercedes’ dominance that saw them winning 102 in the same period.

Every year, the pre-season is filled with questions about whether Red Bull and Ferrari will be able to really contend for the championship. Even if Ferrari did fight for the drivers’ trophy in 2018 and especially in 2017, the answer is usually no.

For 2021, that hope is ignited once again, with Red Bull doing what it needed to be done in the pre-season to have Mercedes looking at its rear-view mirrors with close attention.

Red Bull has won 17 races since 2014 versus 102 Mercedes’ victories; Will things change in 2021? (Photo: F1/Twitter)

Max Verstappen led the Friday and Sunday sessions, with his Day 3 lap time being the fastest overall. With no machinery issues affecting Red Bull, except the engine cover coming off Sergio Pérez’s car, and a new and improved Honda power unit, maybe the time has come.

The addition of the experienced Mexican driver to put more pressure on Mercedes and Verstappen’s hunger for more wins and his first world championship certainly adds to the mix.

2 – Mercedes, not so much

The hype around Red Bull is not only based on their good performances in the pre-season testing. It’s also because Mercedes was far from their best.

Lewis Hamilton said the W12 is “just not quick enough”, and Valtteri Bottas called it “snappy and quite unforgiving”. Team boss Toto Wolff had more thoughts. “I always worry, sometimes for the right reasons, sometimes for the wrong reasons, but pre-season testing is always exciting because you always find the hair in the soup, things that are not good and we had quite some struggle in the first few days,” he said to F1.com.

Performance and complaints from the drivers not feeling comfortable in the car are not all there is to it. Mechanical issues limited Mercedes to 304 laps, the least of all 10 teams. The number is very indicative, as they led the lap count in 2020.

If one team is able to overcome a tough start, chances are the current seven-time driver’s and constructor’s champions Mercedes is the one to do it. However, for the first time in the hybrid era, not only some other team is rising, but they also seem to be on the way down.

3 – The middle pack should continue to be tight

Mercedes continued to reign supreme in 2020 with Red Bull having the second-best performing car. Other than that, aside from Williams, Haas and Alfa Romeo, who had the three-worst cars last year, all bets were off.

McLaren, AlphaTauri, Ferrari, Renault and Racing Point – the last two now Alpine and Aston Martin – will likely continue to put in a big fight in the midfield.

When it comes to pace, Aston Martin seems like they have what it takes to challenge for their target to finish third in the constructor’s standings. Much like Mercedes, though, gearbox and other mechanical issues were also a problem for the Canadian-owned team.

“We didn’t get a lot of that stuff done but it is what it is and we still have more, given some of the hiccups that we had, than we expected which is due to the dedication of the guys,” said Sebastian Vettel to F1.com after his Sunday session was cut short due to another problem with the car. Lance Stroll also commented on the sessions. See below.

McLaren, who swapped Renault for Mercedes as their engine supplier, also enjoyed positive days in Bahrain when it comes to pace – and the same thing can be said for AlphaTauri. In fact, rookie Yuki Tsunoda impressed. For Ferrari, the testing only extended the hopes of a much better 2021 season in comparison to last year, and Alpine didn’t do bad either.

All of these quick glimpses of info all point to one thing: the 2021 season middle pack should continue to be tight and provide a lot of entertaining and different podium-finishers.

4 – Williams seems to have a reliable and improved car

Nicholas Latifi only had the Saturday to take his brand new FW43B to the track, as Williams had test-driver Roy Nissani take the wheels on Friday and Latifi’s teammate George Russell take over on Sunday. But boy did the Canadian take advantage of his only day in charge.

He completed 132 laps, the most of every driver on the second day of pre-season testing. On Sunday, Russell ran for 157 laps, only coming after Kimi Räikkönen, who completed 165 with Alfa Romeo.

It was great news to Williams in terms of car reliability, and seeing Latifi and Russell on seventh and eighth in the Saturday and Sunday classifications, respectively, were also positives.

Latifi came close to his maiden career points in 2020 with three P11 finishes, and with six more races in the 2021 season calendar and a car that showed some signs of improvement and reliability, he for sure has a look to look forward to.

Further reading: Latifi’s confidence “on another level” heading into second F1 season


Read how the three days of pre-season testings in Bahrain went with F1total.ca’s daily reviews.

Pre-season testing Day 1 review: Red Bull leads, Ferrari has issues, Stroll finishes 4th.

Pre-season testing Day 2 review: Bottas bounces back, Latifi completes 132 laps, Alonso returns.

Pre-season testing Day 3 review: Red Bull leads again on the final day.

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