A new Formula 1 season means new cars, but still a familiar game on the first day of Barcelona testing – playing out on a beautiful winter morning as drivers get their first sense of what they are going to have to work with in the season to come.
Different teams are in different states of preparation in these early laps and unsurprisingly it’s Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull – and perhaps more surprisingly, McLaren – who are the first into serious running and the earliest to complete the regular validation runs.
The braking areas are showing up and the outside tyres are leaving their lines through the corners to give the circuit that nice lived-in, active look.
The track is way grippier than at this time last year. The braking area for Turn 1 is spectacularly short – way past the last braking board at 100 metres.
Some drivers, notably Kevin Magnussen, are using the flat kerbing on the outside approach of the turn to widen the corner’s angle of attack, the clatter of his outer tyres over the serrations leaving an audible signal of his approach.
This is the beginning of a fascinating sequence, for the way this is linked to Turns 2 and 3 as it snakes up the hill reveals a lot about the cars even in these first faltering steps of the new season.
The most notable sensation of the Renault and McLaren isn’t so much how they look, in fact, but how they sound
Standing outside the approach to Turn 3, looking down the hill, you get a real appreciation of the S-sequence, the cars hard over on the right-hand exit kerbing of Turn 2, then turn left to get further to the outside of the track width so as to open the angle for the long, fast right-hander of 3. There isn’t time to get the ideal line, but the more grip you have the less of a compromise you need to make to that line.
Through here in these early stages, the Red Bull and Mercedes look best and it is their outside left tyres that form the outer strip of black on the grey track. It is George Russell’s Williams that has to turn into Turn 3 from the most acute angle.
Although lacking in grip, the Williams is drifting nicely out of 2 and at least appears to be quite nicely balanced.
The Red Bull in particular changes direction aggressively and only it and the Mercedes are changing up just before turning into Turn 3 rather than just after, like the rest.
The Ferrari looks strong here too, Charles Leclerc keeping up a lot of momentum, but not quite as grippy.
The Renault, Haas and Racing Point look sweet, easy-driving things but without the aggressive grip of the top cars. The most notable sensation of the Renault and McLaren isn’t so much how they look, in fact, but how they sound. The latest Renault power unit is incredibly smooth. You can even hear the hissing of whirring cogs from the energy recovery as it passes.
The Mercedes remains the most raucous, the Ferrari the highest-pitched, and the Honda retains its distinctive off-beat cylinder cut on part throttle that makes it sound like a two-stroke.