Testing recap: Ranking the 2020 grid ahead of the season opener

Formula 1

It’s been 18 weeks since Formula One’s pre-season testing in Spain, but with factories in lockdown for nine of those weeks it’s still the best performance guide we have before track running gets underway in Austria ahead of the first race of 2020 this weekend.

Below is a look back at how the team’s stacked up after two weeks of testing at the Circuit de Catalunya earlier this year and a preview of what each team has planned in terms of upgrades for Austria.

1. Mercedes

Testing stats

Fastest lap: Valtteri Bottas – 1:15.732 (1st out of 10)
Laps: 903 (1st out of 10)

Even after six years dominating Formula One, it’s clear Mercedes is still hungry for success. It arrived in the preseason paddock looking like the best prepared team in week one and it soon became clear its new car was dripping with innovation. The innovative DAS (Dual-Axis Steering) system stole the headlines in the opening week, but the W11 is not a one-trick pony and it also features significant changes to its rear suspension and sidepod layout compared to last year’s car.

It was no surprise to see the world champions top both tests and, based on Valtteri Bottas’ 1:15.732 in the first week, it was holding a decent amount in reserve for test two. Long run pace appeared to give Mercedes a healthy margin over Ferrari, but difference in track conditions between week one when the world champions did their race simulations and week two when Ferrari did its means comparisons were fraught with inconsistencies.

The only concern for Mercedes was around reliability after it suffered power unit failures in both weeks.

Strengths: The Mercedes looks fast everywhere, but its biggest strength in testing appeared to be in low-speed corners at the end of the Circuit de Catalunya lap. That won’t be such a big factor in Austria, which is made up of high-speed corners, but in reality the W11 will be quick everywhere. Add to that the extra flexibility DAS offers with tyre management, and Mercedes appears to have the fastest car on the grid ahead of the first race.

Weaknesses: Reliability was a genuine concern for Mercedes as it prepared for the original season-opener in Australia, but the extra time at the factory should have allowed its engine department to address those issues. The team suffered three potential showstoppers over the two weeks of testing, while its main rivals had fewer major issues. It twice suffered a problem with the ERS and also stopped on track with a loss of oil pressure.

Updates for Austria: The team signed off its Australia-spec car around Christmas, but continued to develop it for three months before the factory shutdown came into play. That development has been turned into updates since the factory reopened and they are expected to provide a step of around 0.3 to 0.4s in performance in Austria. Combined with extra time to sort out the reliability gremlins from testing, and the delay to the start of the season could play into Mercedes’ hands.

2. Red Bull

Testing stats
Fastest lap: Max Verstappen – 1:16.269 (2nd)
Laps completed: 780 (5th)

Red Bull completed the two weeks of testing with an air of supreme confidence. It teased its pace throughout the two weeks, but saved its fastest runs for the final day when Max Verstappen’s 1:16.269 was the second fastest time and just 0.073s shy of Bottas’ lap the same day despite using a harder compound tyre. However, that lap featured a mistake in the final chicane, and arguably his 1:16.384 on the even harder C3 compound was more impressive and the standout time of the final day of testing.

Combined with the confidence-inspiring long-run pace shown in the first week, Red Bull appeared to be in a much stronger preseason position than it has been for several years.

Strengths: The Red Bull looks fast in high-speed corners and was on a par with Mercedes in sectors one and two at the Circuit de Catalunya despite using a slower tyre. That strength should help the team make a strong start in Austria, but over the course of the season the RB16 promises to be a very competitive car regardless of track layout.

Weaknesses: Verstappen and teammate Alex Albon had a number of spins over the two weeks of testing, mostly in low-speed corners. That could be a sign that the car is tricky on the limit and perhaps an indication that it will struggle when F1 arrives at the tight Hungaroring for round three. However, Red Bull would rather have a car that is fast and difficult to drive than one that is just plain slow.

Updates for Austria: Team boss Christian Horner has promised “subtle revisions all over the car” for Austria that are likely to combine to bring a helpful step in performance. Honda has also pushed through the next spec of its engine, meaning there should be a decent power boost compared to testing too.

3. Ferrari

Testing stats
Fastest lap: Charles Leclerc – 1:16.360 (4th)
Laps completed: 844 (2nd)

There were suggestions Ferrari was hiding its pace in preseason testing, but there is very little evidence to suggest Maranello has a car to rival Mercedes this year. Team principal Mattia Binotto has since admitted the car failed to meet expectations and, whichever way you cut it, the data from testing suggested Ferrari was lacking on both performance runs and race simulations.

Since then, Ferrari has targeted a major change in direction in its development programme, underlining how much it was struggling in Spain. As a result, there’s a genuine danger it will be closer to the midfield than the front runners in Austria and any hopes of a championship challenge are pinned on a major upgrade for Hungary.

Strengths: Ferrari’s main aim with its 2020 car was to increase downforce, and in that regard it seemed to make some progress in testing. Its performance in corners compared to last year was a step forward and the extra downforce should help the team with its tyre management and race pace, which was a major weakness last year. But Ferrari only seems to have levelled up in fast and medium-speed corners while still lagging behind Mercedes in the slower corners.

Weaknesses: Following an FIA investigation over the winter, Ferrari has lost the straight-line speed advantage it held last year, and, if anything, fell behind Mercedes and Red Bull on top speed. There were suspicions Ferrari was keeping its powder dry on the engine side by running lower power modes on its quick laps, but it now seems as though it has made mistakes on the aero side by creating a car with excessive drag.

Updates for Austria: To underline Ferrari’s struggles, the car that will race in Austria will be the same specification as the car that finished testing with no major updates. The team decided that continuing to develop the same concept would have made no sense and has instead completely revised its development direction with the first major upgrade now due at round three in Hungary.

4. Racing Point

Testing stats
Fastest lap: Sergio Perez – 1:16.634 (5th)
Laps completed: 782 (4th)

Analysing the midfield was even more difficult than ranking the top three after testing, but Racing Point appeared to be the best of the rest back in February. It hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that the new RP20 is based heavily on the design concepts of last year’s Mercedes and the team has done nothing to hide that fact. In pursuing the Mercedes route, Racing Point has taken a sizable risk as last year’s Mercedes W10 was a very different concept to Racing Point’s RP19.

However, the risk seemed to pay off, and on the final day of testing Sergio Perez set some very promising times across a range of tyre compounds. Of particular note was Perez’s 1:16.658 on the C3 compound, which was faster than Lewis Hamilton’s best attempt on that compound at the same time of day. However, speed trap data told us Racing Point likely had the engine turned up, as Perez registered a 14km/h advantage over the Mercedes.

Further proof that Racing Point has not miraculously joined the front of the grid came on the race simulations, with Perez averaging times a second off Leclerc’s over 66 laps. But when it comes to midfield teams, the Racing Point looks genuinely quick.

Strengths: The RP20 looked fast in the first sector of the lap, although that may well be down to the straight-line speed advantage of the higher engine mode it was likely running. Nevertheless, this car looks quick in high-speed corners and by all accounts reacted well to the setup changes the team toyed with.

Weaknesses: The Racing Point was losing time in the low-speed corners of the final sector compared to its rivals. That is not in line with the strengths and weaknesses of last year’s Mercedes, but it may be the case that Racing Point had not yet optimised its setup for those types of corners. Onboard footage also appeared to show understeer in the car that the team will hope to dial out.

Updates for Austria: Part of the reason for pursuing a Mercedes-inspired design was that the team could hit the ground running with a fast car and then switch its focus to the following year. It only had one major upgrade planned around the original Spanish Grand Prix, so that has now been moved to come in midway through the revised 2020 season. Nevertheless, the underlying pace of the RP20 should mean Racing Point remains at the front of the midfield in Austria.

5. McLaren

Testing stats
Fastest lap: Carlos Sainz – 1:16.820 (6th)
Laps completed: 802 (3rd)

If Racing Point set the most impressive lap times of the midfield teams in testing, McLaren was not far behind. On like-for-like performance runs on the C3 compound tyre, Carlos Sainz was just 0.164s off Perez and that’s the kind of margin that could easily be flipped at the first qualifying session if it turns out McLaren was running a few more kilos of fuel in testing.

During race simulations, McLaren appeared to have an advantage of 0.1s over Racing Point — again a margin that could easily be flipped in a real-life situation and one that was muddied by the fact McLaren used a harder compound than Racing Point for the final stint.

In terms of messaging, McLaren seemed to be happy with its two weeks in Barcelona but a lot has changed since then, with the wider McLaren Group running into financial issues as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Strength: The McLaren appears to be a very solid car in all types of corners and one that responds well to set-up changes. We didn’t see the team attempt a performance run on the softest compound on the final day of testing, but given the expected gain that comes with it, Sainz would have expected to be in the same ballpark as Perez in the Force India.

Weakness: Although McLaren has seen clear benefits from continuing with the same car concept as last year, there is a danger that it starts to run out of development options later in the year. That might not be a concern as the team’s attention will mainly be focused on a switch to Mercedes engines, but McLaren will have to hope Racing Point, and to some extent Renault, don’t find big chunks of lap time through the year.

Updates for Austria: The financial concerns that were eventually eased by a £150 million loan from the Bank of Bahrain this week have mainly impacted McLaren’s long-term infrastructure plans rather than the development of this year’s car. As a result, a small amount of updates are expected in Austria and the team remains confident it can hold its own at the sharp end of the midfield pack.

6. Renault

Testing stats
Fastest lap: Daniel Ricciardo – 1:16.276 (3rd)
Laps completed: 743 (7th)

It seemed as though Renault was in the mix with Racing Point and McLaren during testing, and its raw lap times were actually quicker. As a result, we are not ruling out a situation in which Renault leaps up the order in Austria, but based on what we saw in Barcelona the car just seems a little bit more ragged than its rivals.

Part of that may be down to Renault pursuing a new development direction at the front of the car this year, although under the skin the team claims there are far fewer changes than you might imagine. One of peculiarities of the Renault team this year is that it was in a state of flux ahead of testing, with new technical director Pat Fry replacing former technical director Nick Chester over the winter. Fry did not seem entirely convinced by some of the decisions the team had taken in the development of the RS20 before his arrival, but that’s not to say he won’t be able to make the most of them.

Strength: The car showed impressive pace on the final day of testing, with the third fastest time overall. The strength was clearly in the final sector of the lap where Ocon set the third fastest sector time behind the two Mercedes drivers. The car is also no slouch on the straights and the combination could put the team in good stead for the opening rounds in Austria.

Weakness: From the outside the car looked unpredictable at times, which may be a sign that the drivers were pushing harder than their rivals but could also be a sign of some underlying handling difficulties. Austria will likely offer an answer, but as things stand it seems Racing Point and McLaren have the edge.

Updates for Austria: Remarkably, Renault claims to have combined the performance gains it had planned for the original races in Vietnam, Netherlands and Barcelona and rolled them into one significant package to unleash in Austria. Team boss Cyril Abiteboul praised the production side at Enstone and if the effort in producing them pays off in lap time, Renault could vault to the front of the midfield.

7. Alpha Tauri

Testing stats
Fastest lap: Daniil Kvyat – 1:16.914 (8th)
Laps completed: 769

With Honda making good progress and Alpha Tauri using 2019-spec Red Bull gearboxes and suspension, the recipe for the AT01 is a promising one. Yet the team showed very few indications that it had made steps on the same level as McLaren and Racing Point in testing, meaning it could struggle to break into the top 10 when qualifying rolls round on Saturday.

Across the tyre range it appears to have a deficit to Racing Point and it also lost time to McLaren and Renault in the final sector of the Barcelona lap, which is often an indicator of low-speed cornering performance. The team’s race simulation on the final day of testing did not hint at any hidden pace as Kvyat’s lap times averaged out to give a deficit of roughly 0.5s per lap to Perez and Sainz, who were on race simulations at a similar time of day.

Strengths: The Alpha Tauri appears to be a car with very few vices, and that could be a useful strength if the aforementioned teams trip up. It appeared to run reliably and it wasn’t lagging too far behind the other upper midfield cars in the first and second sectors of the Barcelona lap, which bodes well for Austria.

Weaknesses: Like the Racing Point, the Alpha Tauri appeared to be losing most of its lap time in the final sector. But unlike the Racing Point, it didn’t show the pace on the harder tyre compounds to suggest it has latent performance in hand.

Updates for Austria: Alpha Tauri will benefit from the same engine upgrade Honda is delivering to Red Bull, which should provide a useful step in performance regardless of what’s new on the car. It was also one of just three teams that completed a 100km filming day with this year’s car ahead of the first race, opting to run at Imola and offering the team another glimpse at what it can expect from its car in Austria.

8. Haas

Testing stats
Fastest lap: Romain Grosjean – 1:17.037 (10th)
Laps completed: 649 (10th)

Haas approached testing in February with the clear aim of avoiding the mistakes of last year. In 2019 the American team lost its way with development midway through the year and was left with a Jekyll-and-Hyde car that fell down the grid as the season progressed. The aim this year was to gain a better understanding of the car in testing and learn from the mistakes of last year to pick a more fruitful development path.

That partly gives an excuse for Haas’ lack of raw pace in testing, as it clearly didn’t chase lap times with the same vigour as its midfield rivals. But equally there was nothing to suggest the car has multiple tenths locked away, and race simulations suggest the Haas is 0.2s-0.3s off the McLaren and Racing Point.

Strengths: The car looks solid on race pace even though the picture from Kevin Magnussen’s race simulation on the penultimate day was skewed by conditions. Magnussen ran wide late in the day and struggled to get the temperature back into his tyres, but when that is accounted for the pace earlier in the run looked respectable.

Weaknesses: Haas’ single lap pace did not look great at any point in testing. That may well be down to fuel loads and engine settings, but Grosjean and Magnussen will likely struggle to break the top 12 on the grid if all of the aforementioned teams are on song. That said, Haas would rather have race pace over single lap pace based on the numerous disappointments it had on Sundays in 2019.

Updates for Austria: Haas has frozen all updates until it has more certainty on this year’s calendar. Unknowns over the amount of races and the revenue the team can expect at the end of the year means team boss Guenther Steiner is being especially prudent when signing off developments. “Until it’s very clear, I’m very cautious and just making sure we participate, that we do our job as best as we can, that we are making no mistakes in the races or the sessions and just focus on that,” he told media earlier this month.

9. Alfa Romeo

Testing stats
Fastest lap: 9. Robert Kubica – 1:16.942 (89h)
Laps completed: 735 (9th)

If one team disappointed during preseason it was Alfa Romeo. The car showed no signs of the pace it needs to be a regular top-10 contender, and while that may seem like an odd statement after the car topped the timesheets twice in the six days of testing, both were on occasions when the rest of the paddock was not pushing.

Reserve driver Robert Kubica’s fastest time on day four proved to be the team’s best of the two weeks, but that could also be telling if it came on the orders of title sponsor Orlen — which backs Kubica — to drain the tank and put their man at the top. And to underline how misleading such laps can be, that time was only good enough to be the ninth fastest time (by team) overall during testing.

Long runs didn’t look any better, with Antonio Giovinazzi’s race simulation lagging 0.4s per lap behind the Haas and 0.7s per lap behind the McLaren. The same was true of Kimi Raikkonen, who was 0.4s per lap off the Alpha Tauri before an issue cut his race simulation short.

Strengths: It’s hard to pick one from the running we saw in February, but first sector times looked competitive, suggesting straight-line speed and high-speed cornering performance are not major problems. That could help at the opening round in Austria.

Weaknesses: The car looked unpredictable on track and appeared to suffer from understeer and snap oversteer. Inconsistent race simulations suggest the new Alfa Romeo is not an easy car to drive.

Updates for Austria: There was no mention of upgrades in the team’s pre-race press release, but it is expecting a tight midfield battle with the other teams on this list. If the car proves quick in high-speed corners, it could be enough to move either Kimi Raikkonen or Antonio Giovinazzi higher up the order in Austria.

10. Williams

Testing stats
Fastest lap: .George Russell – 1:16.871 (7th)
Laps completed: 737 (8th)

One team has to come last in Formula One, and for the third year in a row it looks like it will be Williams. But there were signs of progress in testing and it looks as though the car should be tenths — not full seconds — off the midfield pace this year.

Arguably the biggest step forward on the previous year’s testing was having a car ready on time for the opening day, but it soon became clear that the FW43 also represented a useful step in performance over its predecessor too. The team didn’t have the budget to start from scratch this year, but by focusing on its weak points it may well have caught up with the back of the midfield pack.

Strengths: George Russell’s fastest time was quicker than anything set by Alpha Tauri, Alfa Romeo or Haas during testing. Unsurprisingly, his lap was set on the softest compound, but impressively it matched Sainz’s fastest lap in the first and second sector. While we are not saying the Williams is in the mix with McLaren (the Williams was on C5s and the McLaren on C4s), the fact the lap time was in the right ballpark is a massive step forward.

Weaknesses: The car still appears to be lacking overall performance compared to the rest of the grid and reliability is also a concern. Williams suffered three high-profile Mercedes engine issues and was becoming increasingly critical of its engine supplier by the end of the second week.

Updates for Austria: The most visible change to the Williams will be its new livery in Austria. The team split with title sponsor Rokit during the shutdown and is currently on the lookout for new investors or, at the right price, a new owner.

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