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Karun Chandhok's pre-season analysis and predictions

Mercedes and Ferrari usually dominated the front row in 2017.

By Karun Chandhok
C4F1 technical analyst

I always enjoy going to the pre-season Formula 1 tests. There’s a sense of optimism across the paddock where every team feels that “they’re going to be better than last year”.

There’s a lot of intrigue and complexity surrounding the pecking order at the end of testing because these days people use different types of tyres and different times of the day on top of varying levels of fuel and power modes.

All this makes it very difficult to draw any definitive conclusions, and really we will only get that answer after the first four flyaway races.

Every year, I try to pick the same spots around the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona to watch the tests. It’s a great track to walk around and watch at close quarters as you can see a whole range of corners and areas where cars show their strengths and weaknesses.

Fast corners, slow corners, changes of direction, braking or traction – they can all be judged by your eyes and ears – and pretty much every year my list matches up with the lap times because there’s nowhere to hide at Circuit de Catalunya.

So here are the teams ranked based on my trackside viewing and analysis of their lap times through the week:

 

1. Mercedes vs 2. Ferrari

Last year, Ferrari looked like they were a real match for the Mercedes in pre-season testing and when we got to Melbourne, that certainly proved to be the case. This year however, the Brackley squad seems to have taken another good step forward.

Visually the car is a logical update on their 2017 championship winner, but it’s obviously had all the right changes to make it much more user-friendly. Watching Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas out on track, they are able to metronomically hit the same line lap after lap with remarkable consistency. And speed.

Mercedes have been very smart about not showing their hand with the faster tyres, but make no mistake – a quick look at the race runs shows very clearly that they’re a step ahead of the pack. I reckon that gap is about four-tenths of a second at the moment, and unless they have some dramatic chassis imbalance when they use the softer tyres – high unlikely – they are unquestionably on top.

Watching at the very fast Turn 9 right hander, Bottas carried an unbelievable amount of speed through the apex without even a full lift of the throttle on the medium tyres, with fuel on board. In contrast, when watching either the Ferrari or the Red Bull on the long run, they just didn’t have the grip to carry the same speed through.

 

The change of direction with the front end seemed to be a good step forward from last year. When you watch either between Turns 2 and 3 or further around the lap in the final sector, the Mercedes drivers are able to change direction incredibly sharply when they have a sequence of corners.

This allows them to just open up the line to the second part of a sequence and carry more apex speed than anyone else.

This is particularly worrying for the opposition, as the one opportunity that they had last year was on slower, twistier circuits like Monaco or Budapest. Clearly that area of weakness has been focused on and dealt with.

 

The headlines from the last week of testing show that Ferrari were fastest on three days and Red Bull on the other one. However, come qualifying in Melbourne, I think the entire paddock will be pretty shocked if anyone other than a Mercedes is on pole position.

Watching the Ferrari out on track, it’s clearly a fast car. Last year in pre-season testing it looked like an easier car to drive than the Mercedes, but this time whenever the drivers try and lean on it a bit more and extract some more speed, it just doesn’t seem to be there.

Watching at Turn 4, for example, Kimi Raikkonen would charge in and try to get the nose to bite, but it just doesn’t dig in and pivot in the same way the Mercedes does. That rotation that they need mid-corner to get the car to turn while carrying the apex speed they want just isn’t there in the medium and slow-speed corners.

Watching at Turns 11 and 12 shows the stark difference between the lazier Ferrari and the sharper Mercedes in changes of direction.

 

3. Red Bull vs 4. Renault vs 5. McLaren

The RB14 looks like Red Bull have carried on their progression from the end of last year, where their chassis was working brilliantly. It’s really very hard to fault the car out on track in the slow and medium-speed corners, and the braking stability into Turn 1 and 10 looked excellent.

In the faster corners, however, the Mercedes still looks like it’s got a bit of an advantage. When you look at Turn 9, for example, on the race runs, I noticed Daniel Ricciardo had a much bigger lift than Bottas, and every time he had a go at just a bit more apex speed, he just ran out of road.

Red Bull’s weakness could still be in the power department. Renault seem to have made good progress on the reliability front, with some good testing mileage being banked by Red Bull and the works Enstone team. I hope this means they can turn up the power a bit more in qualifying, but insiders still reckon they are going to be about 40 horsepower down on the Mercedes.

On the whole, I would say the two teams are very evenly matched. Conveniently they even did race runs at similar times of the day, which helped us peg the gap between them as being fairly even. They will need a big step forward with updates to catch Mercedes, though.

The works Renault looks like a proper factory team for the first time in years. They have two hotshots in the cockpit, solid funding and good people on board. The car looks good and balanced out on track, and apart from a gearbox glitch on the final day they generally had very good reliability.

It’s been a very impressive turnaround in the last 18 months – who can forget the woeful qualifying in Baku 2016 where the yellow cars were on the back row of the grid!

Renault look like they’re at the sharp end of the battle for fourth with McLaren, and about half a second behind Ferrari and Red Bull. That’s a good starting point for a team rebuilding and I’m really interested to see how they progress in this battle against McLaren because, although they may be slightly behind on one lap pace, they have better reliability.

 
McLaren’s performance has been the biggest talking point of the pre-season tests. All through the winter, F1 fans around the world were praying that the switch to Renault power will allow Fernando Alonso and McLaren to be fighting up at the sharp end once again.

McLaren had a catalogue of reliability woes, and when the car was running the team chose a strategy of testing with softer tyres than anyone else for most of the time, which made it hard to draw any conclusions as to their true pace.

Finally, however, on the last couple of days we saw some long runs from Stoffel Vandoorne and some decent medium-length and short runs from Fernando Alonso which confirmed that, on pace, McLaren certainly have the potential to be the fourth-best team.

But is that enough for the Woking squad? That’s an interesting question that a lot of people in the paddock are asking. At the end of the day, they now have the same power unit as the Red Bull and have spent the last few years claiming they had the best chassis on the grid.

The world should probably cut them some slack for the first four flyaways until they start to gel properly with Renault. But from Barcelona onwards, McLaren really need to be matching Red Bull.

At the moment, unless they sort out the reliability gremlins that hurt them in testing, they really aren’t going to be racking up the points or getting the crucial running they need on a race weekend to get the car set up right.

What’s been worrying for the team is that they’ve not just had the same issue again and again, but instead a whole variety of problems. There are clearly some installation issues going on there which are different from what the works Renault and Red Bull teams have – burnt bodywork and holes being cut into the engine cover were clear giveaways that all isn’t well.

Out on track, the papaya and blue car does look balanced and confidence inspiring. Fernando Alonso certainly wasn’t shy of throwing it around when he came straight out of the box, and the car seemed to be responding well.

The front end tucked into the apex of the medium-speed corners like Turn 7 very well and, while it didn’t look as comfortable over the kerbs as the Mercedes, which was frankly like a limousine on a bed of air, it still looks like it has the potential to be fourth best.

6. Haas vs 7. Williams

On the penultimate day of testing, Kevin Magnussen produced a lap on supersoft tyres which made the entire paddock sit up and take note. When you applied the tyre offsets, the Haas suddenly seemed like the fourth-fastest car out there, which had the other midfield teams scrambling for the long run sheets to analyse and gauge really where the US team is.

Out on track, the Ferrari-powered Haas did look like a very good and balanced car, so they could well throw a curveball to Renault and McLaren.

For the past two years, Force India and Williams have locked out the “best of the rest” territory behind the top three teams. This could be a tricky ask for the two Mercedes customers this year as Renault, McLaren and Haas all seem to be more competitive than in 2017.

When watching trackside, the Williams looked unpredictable on corner entry, which is just confidence-sapping for the drivers. Rookie Sergey Sirotkin did look like he had a bit more consistency on the final afternoon before handing over to last year’s debutant Stroll but on the whole, the team have had a big design change and it looks like they need a bit more time to understand how to get the most from their car.

8. Toro Rosso

Toro Rosso and Honda’s reliability has been the other big surprise of winter testing. The team completed the third-highest number of laps out of anyone, and when you watched out on track the front end of the car – particularly in the medium and slow speed – looked like it was working very well. I’m really interested to see where they are in the pecking order when the engines are turned up for qualifying!

9. Force India

The Force India also looked very tricky to drive but they’re counting on a big update for Melbourne, so we’re probably better off reserving judgement on them at the moment.

10. Sauber

Sauber’s 2018 car looks to be quite different to its predecessor and now with funding from Alfa Romeo, the updated Ferrari engine and Charles Leclerc in the cockpit, they should be a good step forward. However, from what we saw in Barcelona it does look like they’re still a few tenths behind the midfield pack.

Virtual Statman: Read Sean Kelly's season preview

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