So we’re at the half way stage in the pre-season test. With just six more days of testing before the first race, there’s every reason to believe we are in for a very different season of F1 motor racing than the last four.
Sebastian Vettel did more laps in Bahrain today than the team had managed over the previous six days of testing in both Bahrain and Jerez. So at least the RB10 is running now, and not disappearing back into the garage in clouds of smoke on a regular basis.
It’s still not quick, though: Vettel’s best time of 1:40.34 was half-a-second slower than Kamui Kobayashi managed in the Caterham. At least both Renault-powered cars got some half-respectable mileage in today, so there’s a chance this season won’t be entirely dominated by the Mercedes-engined outfits.
A chance, but not a big one. The Mercedes teams — McLaren, Williams, Force India and the Silver Arrows themselves — again dominated proceedings today.
Kevin Magnussen – who, if he isn’t already, will soon become your favourite racing driver – had a slow ‘technical’ morning, but given the chance to really drive the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-29 on super softs didn’t waste a moment, getting in the groove the moment he was let loose, beating Nico Hulkenberg’s fastest time from yesterday, then becoming the first driver to lap under 1:36, and then the first under 1:35. He finished the day on 1:34.910, a second and a half ahead of Hulkenberg in the Force India.
The new V6 hybrids — choked aero or not — are already comfortably faster than last year’s V8 cars in race trim. Two seconds so. They have another six days in Bahrain to lop off the other 2.6s required to get to Nico Rosberg’s 2013 pole time of 1:32.33. No team has yet had a crack at a qualifying simulation, but it’s hard to imagine they won’t before the test is through. That will be fascinating.
Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari was again the only car to break Merc’s hold on the top of the time sheets. ALO was just a smidge slower than the Hulk, but comfortably ahead of Rosberg in the Merc and Bottas in the Williams.
Kobayashi was up next, ahead of the Vettel who was barely two-tenths quicker than B-teammate Jean Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso, with Gutierrez in the Sauber-Ferrari behind.
Predictably Lotus’s E22 ‘southpaw’ had another difficult day. Romain Grosjean managed only 18 laps, just one more than Max Chilton in the Marussia-Ferrari. Lotus, of course, missed all four days of the Jerez test, and it seems to have taken all of the Renault teams (Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Caterham and Lotus) all that time to even begin to get their cars running properly.
‘Properly’ here is relative: Renault’s longest runner today, Kobayashi, managed 66 laps, 50 fewer than Bottas managed in the Williams.
We’re getting used to the way most of the cars look now — Kamui’s Caterham remains the only one that seems plain odd. The buzz from the circuit seems to be that the cars sound good, especially under braking when all that re-gen turns things a bit Tron. And we know they’re fast. Some of them, anyhow.
We’ve already said we won’t underestimate Nico Rosberg this year, and Kevin Magnussen has already done more than enough to warn Jenson Button not do the same. With a good chassis under Hulkenberg and Bottas too, a re-motivated Massa, and Perez with everything to prove, the Mercedes battle at the front of this year’s early grids might just be monumental. And that’s before you throw in two Ferraris with no regard for each other at all.
Red Bull might not be there for the first race, but would you bet on them not being there at the end of the season? It would be ironic if Bernie’s double-points served to helped Vettel, when they were designed to do quite the reverse…