F1 testing: What the winter taught us and what to expect in Oz

Another winter has come and gone and this time next week we will know who has won the first race of the season down under in Australia. The teams are as prepared as they can be for Melbourne’s curtain raiser on Sunday morning. I don’t know about you, but this winter seems to have flown by. 

The cars seem much faster than last season; Nico Rosberg’s fastest time in testing was some three seconds faster than teammate Lewis Hamilton’s pole position time at last year’s Spannish Grand Prix at the same circuit. I for one cannot wait to see what 2015 has in store for us. So as we wait in earnest to see what will happen this season, now seems like as good as time as any to reflect on what we learnt over the winter and what to expect next weekend.

Mercedes – Nico Rosberg (6) and Lewis Hamilton (44)

As you would expect without a big shake up in the rules heading into the next season, if testing is anything to go by, then Mercedes look to be the class of the field once again. Whilst it was Ferrari that grabbed the headlines over the course of the two tests, Mercedes for the most part kept their cards close to their chest and then dealt a mighty blow to the competition. The defending champions set the two fastest times at the final test with Rosberg leading Hamilton. Williams on reflection look close to the ultimate pace. Mercedes set their fastest time of the test on a tyre that is said to be 0.8 of a second slower than the super-soft compound that Williams’ Valtteri Bottas used on his fastest lap. Whilst the Finn set a time of 1:23.063s, it was Rosberg that went fastest of all with a 1:22.792s. This really does put the pace of Mercedes into perspective.

Williams – Felipe Massa (19) and Valtteri Bottas (77)

Williams started off quietly in Jerez before springing into life in Barcelona. The team have opted for the same line up that was highly successful last season, guiding them to their best finish in years, finishing 3rd in the constructor’s championship. Whether or not Wlliams have the budget in place to continue to develop the car as much as they will like remains to be seen. Although Mercedes are in the prime seat, don’t be shocked to see either Bottas or Massa on the top step of the podium on merit at some stage in 2015. 

Ferrari – Sebastian Vettel (5) and Kimi Raikkonen (7)

Behind Mercedes the title for “best of the rest” looks to be a three way fight. Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull all seem clear of the midfield pack. Ferrari look to have a much better package than this time twelve months ago. The power unit has seen huger strides in terms of development. Whilst having a strong chassis and power unit is one thing, harmony is another. Ferrari, at this time of asking, seem to have all the ingredients for a stronger showing this season. Out goes Fernando Alonso, in comes four-time world champion Vettel, not exactly a bad replacement is it? The prancing horse has impressed many throughout the winter. Ferrari did not manage to put together a race simulation until late on into the proceedings which would not have pleased the team. When push came to shove and the team used the super-soft tyres the once mighty Ferrari were around half a second slower than Mercedes. Although it is quite a margin, it is still progress nonetheless.  

Red Bull – Daniel Ricciardo (3) and Daniil Kvyat (26)

Red Bull shocked everyone with their version of a camouflage livery during the winter and it is just a shame that it did not hide the disappointment that surrounded the team’s winter campaign, but then again it was nowhere near as bad as last winter! The car as a whole seems to be strong, but once again it seems as if the problems that the once dominant force in F1 encountered last year will halt any real progress, the Renault power unit. 

The hardest thing for Red Bull is knowing that they have the chassis in place, but it is out of their hands, as although Renault have made progress from last season they are still lagging behind in terms of delivering performance from their power unit. If those problems aren’t fixed by the start of the European races it could be a season stuck behind Williams and Ferrari for Red Bull.

McLaren – Fernando Alonso (14) and Jenson Button (22)

The less said about the winter that McLaren Honda had, the better. After a torrid end of season test in Abu Dhabi with the Honda engine, it got worse and worse for the team. Their pre-season eventually culminated in Alonso crashing on the exit of Turn Three, the accident leaving him with amnesia and beliving he was back in the year 1995. Reserve driver Kevin Magnussen will drive for McLaren in Melbourne. The team feel as if they have a fast car on their hands but the problem is just trying to get the car to do a consistent run. The McLaren spent the majority of its time at the bottom of the time sheets or on the back of a low loader being driven back to the pits after yet another issue with the car. Martin Brundle of Sky Sports F1 believes that we will not see a competitive McLaren until the start of the European season. McLaren have not won a race since the back end of 2012 and that search for a race win looks as if it may go on for another year.

Lotus – Romain Grosjean (8) and Pastor Maldonado (13)

Lotus have had quite a turnaround. Last season was nothing short of a horror show for Maldonado and Grosjean, thankfully for their drivers and the team things look an awful lot brighter in Enstone. The car has been praised by both drivers. The team faced delays in getting the E23 to testing, but once they got there, they impressed. Posting quick times and topping the time sheets, Lotus have reason to be looking ahead to a much better season in 2015. Much of that has to do with the Mercedes power unit; Renault’s woes were clear to see last year, but with Mercedes power this season, both Grosjean and Maldonado look set to be point scorers on a more consistent basis this season. But just where will Lotus be in the pecking order this year? We won’t really know until qualifying day in Australia but if you talk about a team on the rise then Lotus instantly spring to mind.

Force India – Sergio Perez (11) and Nico Hulkenberg (27)

Force India are another team that had problems in getting their 2015 challenger ready for the season opener and, much like Lotus, Force India can be pleased with what they have achieved in their limited running time. The VJM 08 broke cover on the final two days of the proceedings and were instantly reliable. In terms of reliability and mileage, Force India fell just shy of the amount that McLaren managed over three tests in two days. Are Force India ready to be competitive from the off? Probably not, as they have admitted themselves that they are behind the game, but once upgrades arrive to the car they could once again be a force to be reckoned with, just like the majority of 2014 where the team scored a podium with Perez in Bahrain. 

Toro Rosso – Max Verstappen (33) and Carlos Sainz Jr (55) 

Two rookies are at Toro Rosso this season in the shape of Sainz Jr and Verstappen. The pair had an awful lot to learn over the twelve days of testing in Spain but the World Series by Renault 3.5 champion Sainz Jr set the ninth fastest time of the winter on day three of the final test. The team introduced a new car at the final test and prior to this the Toro Rosso seemed to be the least impressive of the 2015 machines. The new car seems to have failed to address many of the issues that the team encountered in the early stages of the winter with traction seeming to be a big issue for the new car as well as handling. It could be a struggle for the new boys.

Sauber – Marcus Ericsson (9) and Felipe Nasr (12) 

After a highly impressive debut for the all new blue Sauber, performance over the last test in Barcelona has dipped. Yes it is reliable, but is it fast? In all honesty, no. The only team to cover more miles in Spain were the mighty Mercedes. As impressive as that is, it counts for very little if you are towards the bottom of the times when it comes to the crunch, and when I say crunch I do not mean literally, as Nasr and Williams reserve driver Susie Wolff’s colliding in Barcelona was a dose of reality for the team that scored no points in 2014. If slow and steady is to win the race then Sauber are in great shape. 

Manor Marussia – Will Stevens (TBA) and TBA (TBA)

Manor Marussia have announced that they will be racing in 2015. Armed with a 2014 Ferrari engine and an upgraded 2014 car until the new chassis is ready they will be in Melbourne and on the grid. Only one half of their driver line up has been announced, Brit Stevens racing for the team after making his debut last season in Abu Dhabi for Caterham. Their other driver will be announced later this week.

With all that said, bring on Melbourne!