If it looks quick
Two and half years. 30 months. A lifetime in Formula 1 terms. That’s how long before the opening test of the 2014 F1 season Mercedes started working on their all-conquering, constructors’ and drivers’ title-winning F1 W05 Hybrid car.
Going into 2015, is it any wonder they’re still light years ahead of their opposition?
Maybe, as the Brackley-based super-team were this time last year, they’re shocked. Stunned at their rivals’ lack of advancement, surprised that no other team is able to complete, with apparent ease, a race simulation (or two!) on every day of the test.
One gets the distinct impression that there’s already a healthy amount of morale-busting mind-games being deployed by the Stuttgart-funded crew. The audacity of opening-day multiple pit stop practices amazed everyone present and certainly had the desired effect on their paddock-based adversaries.
I’m sure, when designing the F1 W06 Hybrid, the Mercedes nerds didn’t need to produce the 17 different cars they did when planning the 2014 challenger, but from the purposeful look of their latest racer they have surely done a fantastic job. As the 1976 world champion James Hunt liked to opine, ‘If a car looks quick it almost always is.’ Had James been fortunate enough to see the latest ‘Silver Arrow’ I know he would have approved.
Standing trackside at Jerez – as any member of the international media corps present could but less than a handful bother themselves to do – one can observe the handling characteristics of the shiny new, and mostly dull (liveries-wise) 2015 machines.
The two extremes – to my eye at least – are provided by Mercedes and Toro Rosso. No prizes for guessing which is racy and which is wretched! Struggling to make decent speed with the breathless and near-silent Renault 'power' unit puffing away in their STR10, young chargers Carlos Sainz and the even younger still Max Verstappen are encouraged to brake hard and late. Bucking wildly, the car looks very poor when the anchors are thrown. Slow in the turn and wayward on exit, the dark-blue-and-red-liveried car looks a troublesome handful to conquer. In the two fast left-handers two thirds of the way through the lap it's as if the front of the chassis isn't connected to the rear, and the car appears to pull this way and that as the driver saws erratically at his steering wheel. The Italian team’s brave – some would say foolhardy – decision to employ two young and inexperienced pilots may prove to be their undoing. Developing a car is generally the work of experienced minds…
Once back in the garage, the sight of the Toro Rosso crew wearing their electric shock-resistant rubber gloves for hours on end – apparently there was a batch of faulty batteries – hardly conveyed an air of calm!
If the Red Bull junior team’s performance provided the Jerez test nadir, then its zenith was undoubtedly delivered by the world champions.
Louder, faster, more powerful, more drivable, a silver/black blur swooshes past. Must be an F1 W06 Hybrid. Smooth, sure-footed, rapid and reliable, this track-eating machine looks set to destroy its hapless opposition.
I fear the writing is on the wall. At the end of a victorious 2014 campaign the team already enjoyed a mighty technological lead. As long ago as the summer of last year the Mercedes customer teams – Williams and Lotus – were advised to significantly increase the cooling efficiency of their 2015 cars. More cooling requirement generally means more power delivered so, with an engine conservatively estimated to be producing 50+ bhp more than last year, and knowledge of 2014 failings that will surely have been exhaustively researched, diagnosed and eradicated, prospects don’t look good for many non-Mercedes drivers to be visiting the top step of the podium.
Around and around, lap after lap, the silver cars’ every blast down the start-finish straight represents one more twist of the knife, one more stinging turn of the silver-arrowed dagger in the backs of the fumbling, befuddled, head-scratching crews of the Stuttgart team's rivals.
Don’t be fooled. Try not to get too caught up in scarlet fever. Ferrari may have grabbed some headlines and ‘know-it-all’ Twitter-trended following a few ‘quick’ laps by Messrs Vettel and Raikkonen, but they’re still way off the pace. New Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene is a marketing man. Honed in the fine art of selling cigarettes for his former paymasters Philip Morrris, the James-Bond-villain-esque-looking Italian knows all too well the value of positive headlines in Ferrari-obsessed Italian newspapers.
Running heavy with fuel and low on engine speed, Mercedes were very happy to hone their car’s reliability, aero and electrics. Far too clever – in a wholly Germanic way – to run light and fast, the team resisted the temptation to set a quick Jerez lap time.
Come this month’s two Barcelona tests there’ll be more of the same. Race distance runs, practice pit stops, systems checks, aero evaluation, all will be carried out in a methodical and professional fashion. Eventually, of course – when all is present and correct – the power unit map will be turned up, fuel levels will be lowered, softer tyres fitted, and Lewis and Nico will be told to impress. When that happens and the F1 W06 rips up the Barcelona Tarmac in a blistering display of polesitting pace, one can only imagine the despair etched on the faces up and down the F1 paddock.
‘Mercedes are taking the piss!’
Christian Horner’s prophetic Jerez test words will be more apt than ever…