Headline test times are always to be treated with the utmost suspicion of course and there’s a whole lot of reading to be done behind those of the first day of 2021 Formula 1 testing today.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Red Bull – which headed the times with Max Verstappen – had real reason to be pleased and Mercedes had a very trying day, dominated by a transmission failure that kept it from running for the first two-and-a-half hours.
Other stand-outs were a highly promising-looking run from the McLaren-Mercedes, a hugely reliable Alpine in which Esteban Ocon piled on the laps and completed over two grand prix distances and a lot of positives from AlphaTauri.
But analysis beneath the headlines is dominated by the hugely variable track conditions.
The track was at its quickest when it cooled in the dusk, when its temperature dropped by over 10-deg C from the 42-43-deg it had been for most of the morning.
This swayed the competitive order in that the new Pirelli tyre, especially in C2 hard form, did not like the high temperatures. Most teams were basing their early running around this tyre – and for much of the time it simply wasn’t loading up sufficiently to generate good rubber and brake temperatures.
The sandstorm that engulfed the circuit in the afternoon made it even slower. And it was only in the last one-and-a-half hours as the circuit both cleaned up and cooled down that the tyres began to work properly.
So if you were Mercedes and had missed most of the morning – Valtteri Bottas completed just three flying laps by the time the transmission issue was fixed – and were still doing your hard-tyre baseline running as the others were trying out the C3 medium, your form was probably seriously under-representative.
At the very least, that’s what Mercedes must be hoping to be the case. Because as Lewis Hamilton took over the car in the afternoon, it was a handful.
The tyres appeared to be barely cutting through the surface on turn in and offered no traction on exit. It made for a fantastic demonstration of Hamilton’s car control, but his best time – set on the medium – was 2.3s adrift of Verstappen’s best.
No matter what their respective fuel loads, that showed a Mercedes W12 that wasn’t working.
In testing Mercedes typically never takes to the circuit with anything less than 60kg of fuel on board – which tends to be a little heavier than Red Bull, Ferrari and the others. But not by anything like as much as 2.3s-worth. That would represent a weight difference of around 65kg and there’s no way their weights will have differed by anything like that amount.
When any team is so far off, it’s invariably because it has not got the tyre temperature into its operating window.
Mercedes opted not to do its 100km filming day before the test and in hindsight that prevented it from encountering the transmission problem before testing began. Had it been able to carry out the intended run plan, progress could have been made with getting the tyres to work properly. Only then might we get a more realistic idea of how the W12 with its distinctive rippled floor might actually compare.
The Red Bull RB16B initially looked worryingly like last year’s at the same stage of testing – with lots of understeer but occasionally oversteer sudden enough to catch out even Verstappen, who spun early into his first run.
But the more the track improved, the better Red Bull looked relative to the others. Verstappen was around half-a-tenth adrift of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo in the morning, but a couple of tenths faster than that car in the afternoon, when it was being pedalled by Lando Norris.
Furthermore, Red Bull – unlike Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren or Aston Martin – managed to do a significant long run. On the hard tyre in the morning Verstappen did a 14-lap run at an average of 1m36.9s.
The only comparable long runs on the same tyre showed the Alfa Romeo on 1m38.3s (on a 16-lap run), Williams on 1m38.4s (on a 10-lap run) and Haas on 1m41.5 (on a 16-lap run). Although Ocon recorded the highest mileage for Alpine, he didn’t do a comparable long run. The others – Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren, Aston Martin, AlphaTauri – didn’t complete meaningful long runs.
Pierre Gasly was second only to Ricciardo in the morning for AlphaTauri. The rookie Yuki Tsunoda was further back in the afternoon with a programme prioritising getting him mileage rather than attacking the timesheets.
Charles Leclerc lapped the Ferrari within around 1s of McLaren in the morning and Carlos Sainz Jr was a similar amount adrift of it in the afternoon.
Aston Martin completed a satisfactory day’s running on heavy fuel load for most of the day. Lance Stroll did a lighter run on the experimental version of the C3 medium (it’s theoretically the same spec as a standard C3, but manufactured in a different Pirelli factory) and lapped around 0.1s faster than the Ferrari.
Ocon actually set the third-fastest time of the day – but did so on the rarely-seen C4 soft tyre. On the medium the Alpine seemed to be at around the Ferrari/Aston Martin pace. As did Alfa Romeo.
It’s in this part of the order that the differences between teams is small enough to be meaningless without knowledge of the fuel loads – and given the quite different programmes of each team not too much should be inferred.