F1 pre-season poker: Who has the winning hand amidst the sandbags?

The Formula One circus rolls into town in Melbourne in under two weeks and it looks as if Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull lead the pack at the dawn of a new era. McLaren Honda look set for another painful year with a woefully underpowered and unreliable PU but can they turn it round prior to Albert Park?

The Unknowns

Pre-season testing in Formula One is notable for its distinct lack of clarity and similarity in nature to a game of poker. Teams find themselves between a rock and a hard place as they seek to gain an understanding of their latest challenger’s true performance without showing their hand before the teams head out to Oz.

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Fastest laps from pre-season testing. Source: F1.com

When the sport attempts to rejuvinate itself with an overhaul of technical regulations, this is exacerbated and the teams descend further into secrecy which inevitably results in an air of paranoia in the paddock. As team and driving staff go about dissecting the times set by their rivals, they do so with an air of caution and they start uttering the word of the moment: “sandbagging”. One can gleam some points from testing but at the end of the day we don’t know the true order until the season opener.

As ever, the sport seems to raise more questions than it answers and in addition to performance queries, many are also debating the aesthetics of the cars as they are clad with shark fins and aerodynamic appendages.

Who are the front-runners?

Although we have to take the headline times from Barcelona with a pinch of salt, we can half-predict which teams will be fighting it out for wins once the teams take to the track in anger.

In recent years, Scuderia Ferrari have taken it upon themselves to post pre-season times that give the Tifosi hope only to then have it torn away come season proper. This year, however, there is an air of cautious optimism in the paddock and those in the know seem to think they have come up with a package capable of race wins. They grabbed the headlines by posting the quickest times and Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton thinks they have even more in hand, going as far as to say they are “bluffing”.

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Scuderia Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen posted the fastest time of winter testing on the final day. Source: F1 Fanatic/XPB Images.

 

The Silver Arrow yet again appears to at the very least be in with a big chance of crossing the line first in Melbourne with Mercedes having thrown enormous resources at not being caught out with the regulation shake-up. Their efforts have manifested in a strong package as the teams packed up in Barcelona.

Prior to testing, many predicted that Red Bull would make use of their world-renowned aerodynamic expertise to produce a car capable of ripping the championship trophies from Mercedes’ grasp. Their latest effort appears to be quick and from what we can see is in close proximity to those from Brackley and Maranello. Don’t rule either Mx Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo taking home a good haul of points from round one.

Honda running scared

425. That number will haunt McLaren fans and team members alike as it is the grand total of laps completed by the Woking-based squad following eight days of toil in the Catalonian sunshine. The drivers and senior members of the team maintain that the chassis itself is fine, however when the Honda Power Unit is bolted on to the back the team is cast adrift from the others and the problems start to mount up.

On countless occasions we were greeted with the sight of the Orange car stranded out on track unable to make its way round under its own steam as the PU shook itself into oblivion. The vibrations caused by the engine result in electrical malfunctions and the car having to be towed back to the pits. A spoof website was even set up in honour of McLaren’s stoppages, tallying the breakdowns of the car. McLaren are in a dark place and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

F1 Testing Day Two
McLaren Honda driver Fernando Alonso has put the blame of the team’s struggles firmly at the feet of the engine supplier. Source: Sky Sports

The Honda is both down on power and woefully unreliable. Sadly for fans it looks as if their Tangerine dreams will not be realised for another year at least and the podium is as far off as it ever was. Both Eric Bouiller and Fernando have been less than warm towards Honda and the relationship has become somewhat strained between team and manufacturer as the latter have admitted that they are “scared” of their current plight. The noises being made by the Japanese engine manufacturer do little to install confidence in either Fernando Alonso or Stoffel Vandoorne.

Hats off to Liberty

We may have been met with a shroud of mystery on-track in Barcelona, however there are encouraging signs that the sport’s new owners are intent on bringing the fans closer to the action than ever. Restrictions preventing teams from giving supporters behind-the-scenes insights were lifted and the teams duly took to social media to give those yearning for a sneak peak exactly that.

Under the direction of Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One Management ran a tight operation in regards to team accessibility as they feared active social media accounts undermined the exclusivity of tv-rights details. Thankfully Liberty Media seem to have restored something resembling sense and fans are marvelling at this new-found interaction with the teams. Bravo Liberty, bravo.

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Due to relaxed social media rules, teams such as Red Bull Racing are able to engage much more with fans as shown by team boss Christian Horner via the team’s Twitter feed. Source: Red Bull Racing.

They are making some very positive moves and if they continue on this trajectory under the stewardship of technical and marketing gurus Ross Brawn and Sean Bratches, we could be met with a Formula One that serves the fans as well as multinational corporations.

Melbourne-bound

So as we head to Melbourne, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull appear to be locked in a three-way tussle for the top honours. One can only live in hope that the chasm to Mercedes has been bridged and that a multi-team title tilt will ensue.

The relationship between McLaren and Honda is at an all-time low and the blame of amateurish mistakes has been placed at Honda’s door. Team and engine manufacturer have their work cut out as we head to Australia but it at the time of writing it certainly looks like they will endure another season struggling in the midfield or even worse playing the role of F1 whipping boys.

Liberty Media need to keep making the right choices if they are to win over the sport’s die-hard fans as well as the millions who have turned their backs on the sport depicted by dwindling tv viewership in its traditional heartland.

Who will win in Melbourne?

 

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