What we learned from F1 preseason testing

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At the dusk of the final day of preseason testing in Bahrain, Formula One’s revolutionary new-era car edged closer to making its race weekend debut, set down in less than a week at the same Sakhir circuit.

The 2022 season arrives with much anticipation and hope. It sees the introduction of the most radical set of technical regulations F1 has ever seen. The return of ground-effect aerodynamics headlines what are supposed to be cars that will be able to race more closely than their predecessors.

Despite being heavier and racing with an all-new 18-inch Pirelli tyre, the cars have shown that they’re not going to be as slow as predicted when the initial show car was revealed in 2019.

Reigning world champion Max Verstappen set a blistering time on the final day of testing on the softest tyre, the C5 compound.

(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The Dutchman’s best testing time of 1:31.720 compared decently to his 1:28.997 pole position time in the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix. It capped off what was overall a positive test for Red Bull Racing, who appear strong in not only their single-lap pace but also their long-run pace.

Eight-time constructors champions Mercedes finish off their preseason with Lewis Hamilton famously stating, “At the moment, I don’t think we will be competing for wins”. That’s coming from the outfit famous not only for sandbagging in prior seasons but also for having brought an intriguing sidepod package to the Bahrain test.

The Mercedes car’s lack of sidepods – given how radically narrow they were by comparison to the launch-spec W13 shaken down in Barcelona – turned heads in the Bahrain paddock and could be the first aspect of a car in this new era that sees a protest.

Nevertheless, Mercedes continued to struggle with porpoising, the unintended consequence of the reintroduction of ground-effect aerodynamics. The intense chattering of the car, as seen in Barcelona for the first time in decades, occurs when the aerodynamics underneath a car pulls it down to the road. When the floor touches the track surface, it stalls, zeroing the downforce and releasing the car, only of the process to repeat.

The severity of the porpoising wasn’t foreseen in the countless hours of wind tunnel and CFD work conducted, but surely the bright minds of Formula One will quickly develop solutions as the development war ramps up.

If Mercedes and Hamilton claim that they won’t be in a position to win races, then it’s easy to see Ferrari being up there with Red Bull Racing, and two-time race winner Charles Leclerc hailed what he claims to have been the “smoothest” preseason he’s ever had.

Ferrari’s reliability was next to none given what we’ve seen in the past and what other teams, such as McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Haas, have experienced so far this year. A new power unit, which as part of the regulations will be frozen now till the end of 2025, and a radical aero package have many anticipating good things from the Scuderia.

The same couldn’t be said of McLaren, particularly in Bahrain, where they were not only hamstrung by an ongoing overheating problem with their brakes but also had Daniel Ricciardo miss the entire three-day test to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis – and just seven days out from the first free practice session.

McLaren completed the fewest laps of any of the teams in Bahrain, with kist 200, but Lando Norris alone had the most laps of any driver.

It was a smaller total than even Haas, who had their freight arrive late on the first day and were given dispensation to run an extra four hours outside the regular sessions to make up for it. The embattled American outfit also welcomed the return of former driver Kevin Magnussen, who’ll take the second seat alongside Mick Schumacher.

The overall competitive spread appears tighter at the end of preseason testing, and the likes of Alpine, Aston Martin and AlphaTauri are potential surprise packages heading into the season proper. Williams, Alfa Romeo and Haas still make up the rear of the field, but they shouldn’t be as far adrift of the midfield as in previous seasons.

On the occasions that two drivers have been seen trying to ‘race’ each other have been ultimately positive as well. It’s a welcome sight to see drivers following each other more closely through the corners, which means, above all, that the regulations may deliver its promise of closer racing if nothing else.

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