As we pass the mid-point of February, all eyes turn to Barcelona for the first of the two pre-season tests. As the field prepare to lay down their first bits of rubber with the new machines, we have a number of questions we are hoping the tests may be able to answer.
While we know that the first of the test sessions are generally no more than a shakedown for all the teams, making sure everything is in order, after a few days of running we should slowly start to see how things will slot together for the 2016 season.
Haas – Can they take on the mid-field?
Whilst Manor have languished towards the back of the field since they joined the grid back in 2010, Haas begin their campaign feeling bullish, and going after the mid-field. It is never easy to join the F1 grid, and history is littered with newcomers whom have fallen away after suffering poor results, even a team with the resources of Red Bull Racing only managed a 7th in their first constructors challenge.
Haas have the benefit of joining the field with Ferrari as a technical partner, which should provide them with a strong foundation to build upon, a fact which has many people, including Haas himself, believing that they could just spring a surprise in their debut season. Aside from a powerful base, there is also the question of whether midfield runners have made large performance gains, or whether a few may slip backwards into the grasps of Haas & Manor.
Haas has on many occasions specified that 2016 will be a year of learning and mistakes, and it is hard to think that the biggest challenge is going to be how quickly they can recover from their mistakes. While the team may be new to the grid, it is most certainly not made up of beginners. They have put together a strong driver pairing, with the experience of Romain Grosjean taking the lead, and Günther Steiner (formerly of Jaguar & Red Bull Racing) taking charge from a team principal perspective. It is, however, the first time the team will be taking to the circuit together, after months of working at their headquarters. Reliability is going to be the key for them in the early stages, as they find their feet.
Will Renault outpace Red Bull?
The very public falling out between Red Bull Racing and Renault in 2015 may have provided some headlines, but the fact that Renault have decided to rejoin the grid with a full works team in 2016, means we have to wonder whether RBR are really going to be given the opportunity to maximise their power units. We know that in the Red Bull camp, the Renault engines will be rebranded as TAG Heuer in 2016, but what remains to be seen is whether the Renault power unit is a) up to scratch this year, and b) whether the RB12 will be able to get the most out of it.
While Renault suffered slightly in 2015, there is a lot more confidence around Renaults 2016 power unit since their involvement with engine wizard Mario Illien,which many are tipping to be an important step forward in their development of the new unit, with Sky Sports’, Johnny Herbert, saying: “He’s[Illien] a very clever man who produced some very good engines and of course, that was the start of Mercedes and we know how good that has ended up being as well”.
Additionally, Toro Rosso, who are running a year old Ferrari engine in 2016, are remaining bullish that they themselves can outpace their sister team. It will be an interesting mix up to see how the primary red Bull Racing team fare under their new engine guise.
Have Ferrari closed the gap?
Over the past few campaigns, Ferrari have emerged as the only real challenger to a dominant Mercedes team, and we are all wondering whether they will have closed the gap over the winter. While we know that the first test isn’t going to necessarily give us an answer as to which team is fastest, it will give us an idea as to whether we are in for another completely dominant year for Brackley boys and girls.
We’re fairly certain that Ferrari are going to be making great strides forward with their 2016 challenger, but the question remains how much more they have gained over Mercedes, who are already well ahead of the pack. Mercedes have had the benefit of being able to turn to their 2016 development earlier than the rest, and the Ferrari drivers are confident of steps forward, but not certain that they can match or surpass Mercedes. In a recent interview with motorsport.com, Kimi Raikkonen said there were no guarantees that they will have made large enough strides, saying: “The aim is to make another step – but that depends what happens and what the other teams will do. Will it be enough?”
In reality, we probably won’t know for sure until qualifying in Melbourne, but at least the testing will give us an idea of whether or not they’ve taken one step forward or two steps back.
Can Mclaren get on the podium?
2015 was a tough campaign for the newly reformed Mclaren-Honda team, languishing at the back of the grid with a severe lack of power. Through it all, the team have remained optimistic that 2015 was a mere speed bump on the way to a successful partnership, albeit with moments of tension throughout the year.
When it comes to testing, the British team are going to be hoping that things go much better than they did 12 months ago, where very little running was done. A strong, reliable test session in Barcelona could pave the way to a more successful 2016 run, although there are a number of areas that require improvements for the power unit to be up to scratch.
There are few who would be hoping for a team with the history of Mclaren to sit at the back of the grid, and the big wonder is whether the team led by Ron Dennis can get itself into the points, or, dare we say it, podiums.