After three days of on-track action, the first pre-season test of 2020 is complete. Lap times are mostly irrelevant at this point in the year as we’ll only find out who is slow, rather than who’s fast. Nonetheless, the pre-season test will gift us speculation, gamesmanship, and political manoeuvring.
This year, Circuit de Catalunya hosts just six days of new F1 car testing, down from eight days over the fortnight. However, the reduction of days certainly hasn’t reduced conversation and controversy. The Mercedes team is the talk of the Paddock after week one. They revealed their innovative “Dual Axis Steering” system, and their 2019 W10 model made a reappearance but coloured pink instead of silver.
After an uneventful Wednesday, much discussion focused on Racing Point’s 2020 challenger. Press, teams, and fans were quick to spot the similarities between their “RP20” and Mercedes’ 2019 “W10” car. Inspired-by or straight up stolen, it’s a potential hot potato for Racing Point, even if it’s legal. The circular layout of the nose, the front brake assembly, and the sidepods all look familiar.
Racing Point’s technical manager has stated that the front/rear suspension and transmission are also from the 2019 Mercedes. If the RP20 is vying to be the “best of the rest” car, then critics won’t hesitate to accuse them of riding the world champions’ success rather than delivering a challenger of their own. I’m sure the prize money for a fourth-place finish will help them buy earplugs to ignore the detractors they will inevitably attract.
Renault set tongues-wagging with painstakingly long car readjustments between drivers. Several of these lengthy switches occurred over the three days, and the team lost many hours of running. Suspicions that there was more to these extended stoppages than the French outfit was letting on may have proved correct by Friday. A power unit failure brought out one of the few red flags of this test with Ricciardo at the wheel. Thankfully, the problem wasn’t terminal, and he was back out in the same session. If the “driver swaps” were masking an underlying issue, it will be a cause for concern over the downtime before the second test begins.
The real buzz of the week, both at the circuit and across the web, came from a hugely inventive contraption by Mercedes. With testing having quality coverage for the first time via F1TV, teams were able to check their rivals onboard footage.
On Thursday, the reigning champion, Lewis Hamilton, triggered all the nine other teams to simultaneously scratch their heads when he appeared to pull and push his steering wheel when on the main and back straights. The front wheels reposition themselves in sync with the new steering wheel movement in what was later learnt to be the first use of “Dual Axis Steering”.
In short, the Mercedes cars are equipped with a steering wheel which turns tires left and right as you would expect (axis one), in addition to arranging the “toe” of the tires (axis two). The toe is measured in degrees of how much the front tires point away from each other. Different degrees alter the car’s responsiveness when entering a corner and can improve or decrease stability while braking. But an F1 car isn’t always cornering and running with toe-out on the straights as it increases tire wear through scrubbing and has a minor aerodynamic impact. Mercedes invented a system that allows the best of both with a simple pull (or push) of the wheel.
At the time of writing, it does look like the Mercedes cars will be running with this steering for the 2020 season, though we can expect some clarification challenges from their closest competitors. If the FIA dismisses these, I wouldn’t be surprised to see high-budget teams using the Chinese Grand Prix-sized gap in the calendar to pull a Racing Point and do some copying of their own.
This ingenuity is pure Formula One and something the current tight regulations stifle too much. If, as they claim, Mercedes have worked closely with the FIA and all is well, the season may be over before we start. But good on them if so. When they’ve won six consecutive double-championships from iterative self-improvement, what else can you expect?
Meanwhile, the pre-season test did actually have some testing going on. For the most part, reliability was high as these turbo-hybrid engines enter their seventh year of development. However, there were some exceptions as Thursday brought an ERS issue for Bottas, while Friday saw Vettel’s engine fail at the sharp end of the grid.
Red Bull looked in good form, and early indications suggest they might be Mercedes’ closest rivals. The rest of the teams seem to be quite evenly matched with practice and durability, and many drivers racked up over 100 laps each day. Even Williams didn’t look out at sea by themselves. It’s too early to say if they’ll be in the midfield, but things do look better for them compared to last season. Russell even claimed he wasn’t scared of driving the car this year. The wooden spoon is currently with Haas who completed the fewest laps and were plagued with tires not heating up, crashes, and a puncture.
The teams have a long four days to pore over the data and assess how their 2020 entries behave relative to the simulators. It looks as though almost everyone will be meeting or exceeding their internal expectations from the days preceding the test. But nine of the ten teams didn’t expect to be one DAS system behind the leaders back then.
Originally published at https://www.fortloc.com where you can find more motoring news and reviews.