Just 48 hours after Lewis Hamilton sprayed champagne over the final Formula One podium of 2018, teams were back in action at the Yas Marina Circuit on Tuesday for the Pirelli pre-season tyre test.
The purpose of the test was to give the 10 F1 teams running experience with Pirelli’s intended 2019 tyre compounds, comparing them to the known characteristics of the current 2018 tyres. Each team had a choice of sampling the 2019 range of different tyres, each one offering a specific amount of grip versus longevity.
With testing of this sort, comparisons between a team’s two drivers need to be taken with a “touch of salt” since the drivers are usually testing different performance aspects. Each test demands specific driving profiles, such as qualifying speed opposed to long stint laps, or driving to a particular average speed to check for wear.
As such, comparing different teams is nearly impossible due to fuel loads, aero loads and camber settings. Nevertheless, a few observations are available following the last laps on the Yas Marina Circuit.
Charles Leclerc will immediately bolster Ferrari’s fortunes in 2019. The young recruit went faster than teammate Sebastian Vettel’s benchmark after just a few hours and quickly came to grips with Pirelli’s ‘Compound 5’ tyre – the 2019 Hypersoft – to end up on a 1m36.450s.
Vettel’s time from Tuesday was set on the 2018 Hypersoft. With new 2019 FIA-mandated front wings being developed for tighter closer racing and less buffeting for the following car, the new-spec of that compound will offer similar performance but has been improved to suffer less graining.
That time was 1.7s slower than Lewis Hamilton’s pole time for Sunday’s Abu Dhabi GP, at 1m34.794s, but that speed was gained through careful tuning, different track temperatures and a much lighter fuel load under competition settings (read – full PU power settings)
Another comparison could be made from Valtteri Bottas’ best testing time in the Mercedes entry, which was the fourth fastest after qualifying second just three days earlier. Rather than speed, Mercedes was looking at wear for the same new Compound 5 tyre as Leclerc over a long stint, and thus was driving to a particular speed profile recorded by sensors.
Over at Red Bull, 2019 title-hunter Max Verstappen was also driving to a set profile with the 2018-spec Ultrasoft (one grade harder than the Hypersoft) on Tuesday. Newly promoted from Toro Rosso, teammate Pierre Gasly was given the same task for the 2019 tyre and ended Wednesday testing as Leclerc’s closest challenger.
Since the 2019 Red Bull will sport an all-new Honda PU to replace the current Renault unit, the Dutchman was using his patented long-stint expertise to set a benchmark profile over 133 laps to compare to Pirelli’s 2019-spec rubber. That approach could also hint a Red Bull’s 2019 aero and suspension design direction with the new wings – giving 2018 downforce and grip on a bit harder tyre for longer stints and closer racing without graining.
You never know with designer-supreme Adrian Newey.
New faces were everywhere. Williams had both Robert Kubica and newly-crowned F2 champion George Russell sharing test duty on the new Compound 5 tyre. With Williams’ current 2018 car having known aero issues, it was just a familiarisation run for both drivers. Their 2019 car will need to be substantially improved to be competitive, so any running this week would be worthless data-wise.
Much the same at McLaren, where newly-signed Lando Norris teamed with Carlos Sainz to do long-stint work on the Compound 5/Hypersoft wear data. With their much-unloved chassis bound for the McLaren HQ museum, they will need to wait until simulation work on the clean-sheet 2019 car to feed their Abu Dhabi test data.
Still, with 286 laps between the two new teammates, they finished fifth fastest in the test. Count on both drivers being ready to make their mark with the “all-new” McLaren at Barcelona testing in February.
Lance Stroll tested both Tuesday and Wednesday with Racing Point Force India, as he awaits news of his contract. Teammate Sergio Perez joined him on Tuesday.
Renault’s newly-signed Daniel Ricciardo’s contract terms from his former Red Bull team prohibited any Renault testing until 2019, so Nico Hulkenberg, fresh from being upside-down on Sunday, carried the brunt of testing with Renault third-driver Artem Markelov.
Perhaps the most anticipated “debut” was that of Kimi Raikkonen, returning to Sauber just two days after his final race for Ferrari and 17 years on from his debut with the Swiss outfit in 2001.
The Finn was released from his Ferrari contract early ahead of his move to Sauber over this winter and completed 39 laps in the morning, and 102 laps overall on Compound 5 before his running was cut short on track at Turn 7 in the final hour, due to a technical (read – smoking halt) issue.
New team pilot Antonio Giovanazzi got a full taste of 2019 Pirelli rubber on Wednesday, putting in another 128 laps on the new Compound 5 for Sauber Alfa Romeo data mining.
Toro Rosso resigned Daniel Kvyat for 2019 after removing him from the Red Bull roster in 2018. He recorded 155 trouble-free laps on Wednesday, while Sean Galael stood in for newly-signed Alex Albon on Tuesday and contributed another 150 laps for study.
That left Haas with recruits Louis Delatraz and third-generation Pietro Fittipaldi to lay down test laps for data study.
The Pirelli tire tests coupled with F1’s 2019 rule changes give another hint that 2019 might offer better racing. With new quotes attributed to Liberty’s racing boss, Ross Brawn that the separation between the Big Three (Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull) and the midfield are not acceptable raises even more of a possibility that the days of wheel-to-wheel hammer and tongs racing remains a dream of the Liberty era.
Let’s see how much of that dream makes it through in 2019. We’ll find out in Barcelona testing starting Monday, February 18.