It was great to be back in the paddock for the final winter test in Barcelona – and to see the cars on track.
I really enjoy testing. It reminds me of why I fell in love with Formula One in the first place, watching the cars, the engineering brilliance, the game of cat and mouse, everyone hiding their true performance and sifting through the data. For a geek like me this is all good fun.
The cars have got that wow factor back – I think that was missing for the last four or five years.
I remember my first few times watching an F1 car on track during testing at Silverstone in the late 1990s, seeing Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and DC; the speed and commitment - your eyes couldn’t believe what they were seeing!
Standing trackside in Barcelona that impressive element was back again, especially when you take into account the lap times the cars are doing now.
Both the Mercedes and Ferrari looked flat through Turn 3, and they certainly will be when they take the fuel out and put the faster tyres on for qualifying at the Spanish Grand Prix later this season.
Even at the Circuit de Catalunya’s Turn 9, those cars were nearly flat, just into the lift, on their low-fuel runs. Red Bull struggled a bit on the race runs but when they had less in the tank they also looked really good.
Silverstone will be a great track to watch 2017’s cars in full flow, especially at the speeds they will attack Becketts. Suzuka will be impressive as well because by then the development of the cars will have really ramped up.
Apex speed through turn 9 is IMMENSE! Ricciardo and Vettel not a big lift at all. Bottas a bigger lift through here. pic.twitter.com/uqqw7tytA6— Karun Chandhok (@karunchandhok) March 9, 2017
It’s been fantastic to see the drivers excited about the cars again. There’s a real bounce in their demeanour, an excitement about how good the cars are to drive. I think that’s also been missing for a while.
Who’s leading the pack?
I believe it’s Ferrari and Mercedes who have the edge after eight days of testing.
The reigning world champions Mercedes seem to have been hurt more than Ferrari or Red Bull by the FIA’s clarification on the rules surrounding suspension.
The W08 car doesn’t look as comfortable on track as the Ferrari, which just looks as though the drivers can lean on it a bit more and looks comfy to drive.
The Mercedes is still very, very quick but, in contrast, it looks a bit nervous and a bit edgy.
Despite everything that Lewis Hamilton has been saying publicly about Ferrari being the ones to beat I still think Mercedes head into the new season as the favourites – as they should on the back of three years of dominance. I’m sure we haven’t seen the full potential of the Silver Arrows and we probably won’t until we get to qualifying in Melbourne.
It does seem though that Ferrari will be pushing them much harder than they have done in recent times, which is impressive considering they didn’t win a race in 2016.
What about Red Bull?
Red Bull have built a fast car, there’s no doubt about that, but once again the team is struggling with the reliability issues of the Renault package.
From what I understand they’ve got an issue with the ERS packaging and therefore they’re not able to turn the engines up and run the power unit at max power as often as they would like.
That puts them third best for now but if Renault can get on top of the reliability and keep pushing on with the development in terms of power then there is no reason why Red Bull can’t be in the mix.
My guess is that they’re waiting to see what the lay of the land is after testing and then see how much downforce they need to chase.
Of the top three teams Red Bull are the ones we need to watch out for in terms of seeing what updates they bring to Melbourne and the subsequent races. I can see them bringing more updates compared to Mercedes and Ferrari.
Taking over the champion’s seat
Valtteri Bottas has taken over world champion Nico Rosberg’s seat at Mercedes and it looks like the Finn has settled in well.
You know if a driver is comfortable in the car when he’s able to go lap after lap after lap in a very metronomic fashion – and that’s what we saw from Bottas in testing.
He was at the same pace, hitting the apexes, line and length, every single lap. That’s a sign that he’s already at one with the car.
Whether he can challenge his mighty Mercedes teammate this season we will only find out when we get to Melbourne as I don’t believe Hamilton shows his hand in pre-season testing.
I suspect, just like he did with Rosberg, Hamilton is going to try and play mind games with Bottas early on, not show his full potential and then deliver a shock to Bottas in Q3 of qualifying in Melbourne. It’s also worth remembering how good the three-time world champion is around Albert Park.
On the flipside Bottas is probably aware of this, he may be thinking ‘I know he will have three or four tenths in his pocket when it comes to Q3 so I’ve got to be prepared for that’. If we’re thinking about it, I’m pretty sure Valtteri is too!
Midfield closing up
The midfield battle is super-close. The Haas looked really good in testing but I still think they haven’t got on top of their braking problems and I was trackside when Romain Grosjean went off on the last day in Barcelona.
Renault seem to have made progress. I was really impressed with new recruit Nico Hulkenberg while Jolyon Palmer seems to be the unluckiest bloke on the planet when it comes to reliability in pre-season testing.
The car doesn’t yet look great over the bumps and kerbs but it’s still a big step forward from last year.
From what I’ve seen Williams, who have Felipe Massa out of his very brief retirement to partner rookie Lance Stroll, head the midfield battle.
I was pleasant surprised by what I saw of the teenager in the final stages of testing. He’s quite an inexperienced rookie, having not done GP2, and had a tough first week in testing with a couple of incidents.
Here's Kimi on those mediums... Hulkenberg also looked good on the Ultras but think that Williams and Force India still ahead of Renault pic.twitter.com/phJvuuJ2EQ— Karun Chandhok (@karunchandhok) March 10, 2017
The Canadian looked like he’s settled into a good flow at this test and I came away from watching trackside with a pretty good impression. He’s a fit young guy and on his quali run on the ultra softs tyres he made a mistake so there is more lap time there too.
Where it will be tricky for him is going to circuits that he doesn’t know like Melbourne and Shanghai but on the whole I was quite impressed with what I saw.
McLaren in the mire
I’m really, really saddened by the situation at McLaren, who had a difficult pre-season testing.
The team is a big part of Formula One and has an incredibly talented driver line-up with Stoffel Vandoorne, arguably the best rookie to have arrived in F1 since Hamilton, alongside Fernando Alonso, who we don’t need any more adjectives for. Yet they could hardly do more than 10 laps in a row all week.
The car kept stopping and it’s impossible to judge where they are in terms of performance because they couldn’t get any mileage on the clock. At the moment they won’t be able to get through qualifying without a problem never mind a race.
Fernando just came past in the recovery vehicle - gave me a wave & shrug that said "yup, me again in the recovery truck & not the race car"— Karun Chandhok (@karunchandhok) March 10, 2017
It’s really disappointing because we want to see a race team like McLaren-Honda right up there. What Alonso will do now depends on his motivation.
Star technical challenge
From patrolling the pit lane in Barcelona, there’s no question that the work Ferrari have done on the sidepod of their car is amazing.
The area around the bargeboard and the leading edge on the sidepod are just stunning, they’ve obviously put a lot of time, effort and resource into perfecting that area of the car. That area of the regulations got freed up in 2017 and the detail on the Ferrari is incredible.
We are going to see a much higher rate of development this year than we’ve seen in previous seasons.
I’m pretty confident by the time the cars go to Australia and then by the time we go racing for the start of the European season they will have a load of significant updates across the board.
Expect the unexpected
I predict 2017 is going to deliver a fascinating world championship - because we may not be able to judge the form based on the first few races. I’m hoping we do need to be a bit more patient before we judge the pecking order this year.
The first Grand Prix is just around the corner in Australia but we shouldn’t be able to see what happens in Melbourne and decide that writes the formbook for the rest of the year – which means we should be in for a very exciting year on Channel 4!
Join Karun and the C4 team for highlights of the Australian Grand Prix on 26 March.