2016 was meant to be the year that everything changed.
After two seasons of being subjected to defeat after defeat by the dominant Mercedes team, it was hoped that the rest of the Formula 1 field would make huge strides and give the German manufacturer a genuine challenge at the front of the pack.
And yet after just four days of testing in Barcelona, that prospect looks to be in tatters.
If anything, Mercedes might be further ahead than ever.
What unfolded earlier this week at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya was unlike anything we have seen in testing in recent few years. Often, no matter how good a team is, there is always something that goes slightly awry. After all, it’s testing – that’s what it’s for.
But Mercedes was bulletproof. The W07 broke cover on Monday, with Lewis Hamilton getting the first run out in it. While most of the teams tentatively completed a set of one-lap runs at first to ensure all of the systems were running smoothly, Mercedes’ immediately began to put in the laps. It was as if the car had come straight from the last race of 2015 in Abu Dhabi, ready to go again.
The mileage that Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg racked up in the four days of running was frightening. In total, the W07 completed 675 laps, amounting to 3,142 km or 1,952 miles.
That’s enough for the car to have driven from Mercedes’ factory in Brackley, England, to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, and then get within 30 miles of returning home again. Or, if the team had wanted to keep going, it could have driven to Africa, getting the car just beyond Marrakesh in Morocco.
The enormity of the achievement was not lost on defending world champion Hamilton.
“The reliability of the car this week has been just incredible. It feels strong, it feels solid, it just keeps going and going… I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
“It’s been a gruelling week for the whole team – running between 150 and 190 laps every day. But I’d say it’s probably been the best test we’ve ever had. Certainly the best I’ve ever seen.”
The mileage accumulated was such that Mercedes opted to split its running between Hamilton and Rosberg on Wednesday and Thursday, giving them each half a day, the explanation being that running two half marathons in two days is easier than running a full marathon in one. The team appeared to have surprised even itself.
It wasn’t just the raw reliability of the car that was ominous though. Mercedes arrived at the test and kept bolting on a number of new parts, including a multi-element barge board and a bold new front wing design featuring narrow support pillars attaching it to the car.
All that Mercedes is yet to do is truly unleash the car over a single lap. Neither Hamilton nor Rosberg featured in the top 10 times of the first test as neither attempted a fast lap on the ultra-soft or super-soft tires like their rivals. Ferrari came away with the spoils, topping three of the four days, but most still see Mercedes as the clear front-runners.
That’s not to say that Ferrari is not stronger than it was last year. The new SF16-H is well-packaged and looks very smooth on track in the hands of both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. The power unit appears to be working well once again, with technical partner Haas’ on-track debut also reflecting this.
It appears that Ferrari may be further ahead of the rest of the field than it was last year, but still not within striking distance of Mercedes.
Williams had a quiet test, with the true pace of the FW38 remaining a mystery, while Red Bull will be hindered by the Renault power unit’s ‘hangover’ from 2015, making fighting at the front unlikely to begin with. The initial noises about the RB12 chassis have been positive though – a speciality of sorts at Milton Keynes, of course.
Instead, Force India appears to have emerged as being ‘best of the rest’ behind Ferrari and Mercedes. Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez both laid down an impressive pace in the VJM09 during each of their days of running, and although both are refusing to get ahead of themselves, the early signs are encouraging.
Another team that impressed was Toro Rosso. Despite running a 2015-spec Ferrari engine, as expected, it is clearly an improvement on the Renault power unit. The STR11 seems reliable, and with more parts to come as the team continues to play catch-up from the late change to Ferrari engines, the team will only grow stronger.
The same can be said of Haas, who enjoyed the best test debut in the recent history of F1. From the word go, the team was laying down an impressive mileage and pace with the VF-16 car, prompting Esteban Gutierrez to admit that it had exceeded all of his expectations. There were a few teething problems typical of any new team, but these were of no major concern.
Sure, Haas isn’t anything like Lotus, Hispania or Virgin were when they debuted in 2010, but it is still a brand new team. It has only properly functioned for six days.
However, it already feels like a team that has been in F1 for years and years. Gutierrez and teammate Romain Grosjean avoided making any predictions, but points at some stage in the first few races would come as little surprise after such a strong start in testing.
Another team to shine was Manor. The MRT05 is a car that has been worked on for a very long time, and with Mercedes power, it certainly was expected to be a big step up from last year’s car which was muddled together just so the team had something to race with.
The early pace is still very encouraging. We’re not talking midfield running or probably even points, but certainly solid progress. Pascal Wehrlein looked at ease during his first two days, and while teammate and fellow rookie Rio Haryanto did make a couple of errors, those will be ironed out with the more track time he gets.
Another team looking to recover from a tough 2015 is Renault, which debuted the R.S.16 car following its takeover of Lotus over the winter. Problems limited to Jolyon Palmer to just 79 laps in total on Monday and Tuesday, but teammate Kevin Magnussen had a better time of it, racking up more than 250 over his two days.
Like Red Bull, Renault will continue to struggle with its power unit to begin with at least. The wider issues that blighted Enstone’s efforts in 2015 won’t disappear in an instant, and this year may very well be a formative one for the French manufacturer after its F1 comeback. The first test was a bit of a baptism of fire, but that was perhaps to be expected.
McLaren did things in the opposite order to Renault. The new MP4-31 had a strong opening two days before everything went awry on Wednesday and Thursday, with issues leaving both Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso on the sidelines for large portions of the day.
It had all started so well. Alonso may have once again had to dismiss the never-ending quit rumors, but he admitted he was pleased with the new car, saying McLaren could even have the best chassis by the Spanish GP – a clear dig at Honda that it still has work to do with the power unit.
Improvements have been made in that regard, as even Alonso admitted that the deployment of the power unit was better. It may not be enough to make McLaren a front-running team by any means, but regular points should be more possible this year if first impressions are anything to go by.
Finally, we have Sauber, who is a bit of an anomaly given it tested the 2015 car, and therefore cannot really be judged. The C35 will break cover next Tuesday at the start of the second test.
If you hoped that 2016 would be the year that everything changed, think again. Ferrari is certainly stronger than it was last year, but Mercedes remains on another level. They would never admit to it, but one would imagine both Hamilton and Rosberg are already readying for an intra-team fight for the title once again this season.
It may only be testing, and all of what we see on track must be taken with a pinch of salt, yet Mercedes’ showing looks to be an ominous sign of things to come in F1 this year.