Winter testing has now concluded, with only two weeks to go till the first race of the 2016 Formula One season. The weekend of the 20th of March will see the year-opening Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park, Melbourne.
Here’s what happened, live from the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
Compared to twelve months ago this year most of the teams have racked up some pretty impressive mileage this year. Mercedes AMG Petronas are deliberately not running the quicker tyres and setting quick times, choosing instead to focus on long runs, and test mileage.
Mercedes' best time on soft tyres was a lap of 1:23.022 by Nico Rosberg. Reigning double world champion Lewis Hamilton, however, failed to get within half a second of his team-mate's effort on the same rubber - although he was just as quick on the medium tyre.
Mercedes were also quicker on the mediums than the other teams. Rosberg and Hamilton's laps of 1:24.126 and 1:24.133 were half a second up on Ferrari's best, with Sebastian Vettel registering a personal best of 1:24.611 and Kimi Raikkonen managing 1:24.770.
Williams had a slow start to winter testing, but on day 7 Felipe Massa set a lap of 1:23.193 on the softs tyre just a tenth or so down on the best of the top teams.
The Grove-based outfit only managed a best of 1:24.989 on the mediums. Felipe Massa's lap on the soft tyre was faster than what teammate Valtteri Bottas managed on the supersofts.
Out on the track in the final sector, the Williams FW38 looked like it lacked a little mechanical grip compared to the frontrunners, although the Mercedes power unit will surely make up for that on the straights with its immense power.
Sahara Force India looked good, with less than a tenth of a second separating the team from Williams on supersofts and ultrasofts. "We are as prepared as we could be,” concluded an optimistic Nico Hulkenberg after only finishing behind Raikkonen, Vettel and Rosberg in the timesheets.
This year’s car, the VJM09, seemed pretty nervous through some of the high speed corners, with Hulkenburg running wide through turn 3 and the final right hander several times out on long runs.
Red Bull should be running well up in the upper midfield also. They looked great through the fast corners, but the real question will be whether Toro Rosso will eclipse them at the start of the year.
"Definitely our advantage should be in the beginning," conceded Toro Rosso star and 2015 standout Max Verstappen. I expect them to start strongly. The STR11 looks great - and quick: the 1:23.134 lap Carlos Sainz threw in on the final day was only four tenths slower than the Ferrari fastest time.
Toro Rosso should also benefit by being on Ferrari engines, with their senior team on Renault for the year.
McLaren have found some reliability. The MP4-31 ran reliably in Barcelona, which is encouraging for Alonso, Button and fans of one of Formula One’s most historically successful teams.
I spent a lot of time watching the Mclaren through the final sector, and it was every bit as good as the Mercedes and Ferrari through there, Alonso really pushing on with the McLaren offering up some good mechanical grip.
Jenson Button's ultrasofts lap of 1:24.714 put McLaren eighth in the team-by-team charts, while Fernando Alonso's softs tyre run lap of 1:24.735 was, tyre corrected, faster than anything the Renault team overall.
McLaren still seem around 1.5 to 2 seconds shy of Mercedes and Ferrari. "The step forward in reliability at least is huge," concluded Alonso. On the straights, however, the new Honda engine appears conspicuously short of power. Alonso was nearly 20kmh down on the fastest Mercedes-powered car through the speed traps, it also still has that distinctive ‘raspy’ sound especially on lift off of the throttle.
"At least this year we are with a better base but performance-wise there is still a lot to unlock," Alonso concluded. Haas, Sauber and Manor could well be bringing up the rear.
After an early impressive few days for newcomers Haas they suffered a Difficult Second Test on week two. After a turbo failure resulted in the team losing alot of running. A brake-by-wire malfunction saw Romain Grosjean beach the VF-16 twice on Thursday. Even with the hands-on support of Ferrari (they even have a Ferrari motor home in the paddock) they will arrive in Melbourne desperately short of running and set up time.
Out on track straight line speeds were good as you would expect with the full spec Ferrari power unit, the car seemed to have a general lack of grip both aerodynamically and mechanically, and without the track time they haven’t been able to do too much set up work.
If the winter timesheets are any guide, it will be mighty close. Tyre corrected, Grosjean's test best lap of 1:25.255 would put them a tenth or two ahead of Manor with the Mercedes power unit , the 1:24.913 was recorded on ultrasofts by Pascal Wehrlein.
Sauber managed a far bit of running through the test however the car is slow though and looked very unbalanced. Felipe Nasr managed a 1:24.760 on Thursday during a qualifying simulation. The C35 will have to evolve and fast if they do not want to become ‘outdeveloped’ by Haas.
With the new qualifying format being given the green light for Melbourne this week, we could well see some mixed grids. As it stands right now, I still see Mercedes with an advantage with Ferrari very close behind.
Different track conditions can have a huge bearing on this, however. It will be interesting to see if anyone can catch the top two through the season and how the fight towards the back of the grid develops.
Here’s to an exciting 2016 season – and hopefully a much more open one than last!