- Three-day pre-season testing concludes in Sakhir, Bahrain this past weekend
- Weekend results suggest Red Bull could finally be able to match Mercedes this season
- 2021 campaign begins at Bahrain International Circuit on March 28
SAKHIR, BAHRAIN – As the opening round of 2021 Formula 1 season edges ever nearer, what did we learn this past weekend from pre-season testing in Bahrain?
Mercedes show early rust
As another Formula 1 season hurtles relentless toward us at the end of the month, Mercedes approach the new campaign with the spectre of their grip on F1 having only tightened, since they introduced their AMG power unit in 2014.
With another campaign now less than a fortnight away, surely it will be case of history repeating in 2021? Well, possibly not.
Its now seven years-in-a-row the Silver Arrows have romped to both the World Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship, but after three days in Bahrain, the German manufacturer may not have it all their own way this time around.
When Valtteri Bottas suffered early gearbox problem in the new W12 car, Mercedes perhaps knew the writing was on the wall for testing. Even the reigning and record-equalling Lewis Hamilton rarely spins in pre-season, but the Briton also failed to get to grips with his new car.
Managing just a cumulative 304 laps over the three days, the story was very different from Barcelona in February of last year, having topped the mileage charts.
Perhaps the critical element this term however, is that Hamilton in particular doesn’t feel comfortable with his new drive’s rear end not behaving in the way he is used to. The team were also concerned by their lack of performance on low fuel.
Though these of course are mere early indicators of form, with only 12 days left to the start of Bahrain race weekend on Friday week, Mercedes have much food for thought.
Red Bull hint at potential
As Mercedes laboured in the Bahrain heat, Red Bull meanwhile, gave their biggest indicator to date that they are ready to compete head-to-head with the team they were so spectacularly inferior to during 2020.
Entering the Austrian manufacturer’s latest era with the arrival of Sergio Perez, the new RB16B looked to be the real deal, in contrast to last year’s testing, when Max Verstappen appeared decidedly disgruntled with elements of the car.
It’s no secret that due to the Honda engine, Red Bull are the best performers in warmer conditions as a general rule, but both Perez and Verstappen reported good stability in the car’s performance.
The biggest thing of note however, was that according the data compiled over the weekend, Red Bull could already have a staggering 0.5s advantage over Mercedes in terms of short run pace, an area where they had held a sizeable deficit in the past.
Ok, so we may have seen false dawns for Red Bull before, but this time, there is genuine optimism that Mercedes and indeed Hamilton, may just have a fight on their hands. Christian Horner, for the time being at least, will have a wry smile on his face.
Alpine’s airbox engine will stand out…
Perhaps the most eye-catching sight of this past weekend in Bahrain was Alpine Renault’s new-look car, with a noticeably wider new airbox and engine cover fitted to the A521 behind the driver’s head.
A design not immediately apparent from the team’s launch earlier this month, Alpine are looking to build on a promising second half of last season, and will definitely stand out on the grid this term.
The look is quite a departure from the rest of the paddock, and as Executive Director Marcin Budkowski stated to F1.com, he was a little taken aback at some of the comments toward their new model.
“I am a bit surprise by the amount of body shaming on our car. Bodywork shaming I would say.
It’s a technical choice. We found that slimming the sidepods was a positive direction which is nothing new really. So we’ve repackaged and relocated some of the bulky things in the car and put them behind the air inlet.
So, yes, it gives a fairly spectacularly bulky shape in the car, but it works for us. Yes there are centre of gravity compromises but usually aero performance wins over weight and centre of gravity.”
With Fernando Alonso making his F1 return this season, both he and teammate Esteban Ocon had largely uneventful weekends.
As the latter completed 128 trouble-free laps with the third-best time on Friday, Alonso meanwhile, set the second-best time in his maiden run in the car on Saturday morning, logging 58 laps.
McLaren also boast new aesthetic
Across the paddock in the McLaren garage, one of the three British teams this season also were showing off their own innovation, and although not as immediately obvious as Alpine’s, it could nevertheless be pivotal to their season.
The new diffuser – the same vital component in Brawn’s 2009 success – has been to some part replicated, although this year, the rules around the device have been changed, as part of a push to reduce the cars’ downforce.
McLaren drew the attention of rival teams’ technical directors in Bahrain as a result, and though questions remain over the legality of the new design, McLaren appear to have found a loophole, having used computer animated design to achieve their results.
Despite having lost Carlos Sainz Jr. to Ferrari this season, McLaren’s line-up looks to have huge potential and as strong testing showed, Daniel Ricciardo‘s 173 racked-up laps over three days, included the car being competitive throughout.
Teething problems for Aston Martin
As Aston Martin embark on a new era having been rebranded this year, testing data brought little in the way of excitement, indeed, there are signs that of the two ‘newest’ teams in the paddock, it could be they that struggle in the early going this season.
Looking to wipe the slate clean after their reputation was dented as Racing Point last year, Team Principal and owner Lawrence Stroll‘s designs for Aston Martin were underlined by their glamourous launch only weeks ago, involving 007 himself, Daniel Craig.
But the team may be papering over the cracks with aesthetic, whilst underneath problems lie. Encountering gearbox issues with their Mercedes transmission here, there was a turbo issue too, exacerbated by an electrical problem.
As a result just 314 laps were clocked, a tally that bettered only Mercedes and moreover, was 100 shy of AlphaTauri’s test best.
With something of a loose cannon in Sebastian Vettel entering the fold, Lance Stroll will have probably wanted a more streamlined transition in Bahrain also, but after a less than perfect weekend, Aston Martin go into the first race of the season, rather undercooked.
The 2021 Formula 1 season begins over the weekend of the 26-28 of March, at the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir.
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