The cars have been launched, the teams are all set and the drivers are raring to go. Formula 1 returns with eight days of pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya between February 18 – March 1. From new driver line-ups to new engine partnerships and new regulations, here’s what to look out for over the next two weeks!
Are Mercedes still the team to beat?
New cars, new liveries and new driver line-ups – but will it be the same old order? While Mercedes and Ferrari are expected to lead the way once again in 2019, who will end the test looking like the strongest threat heading to the Australian Grand Prix is an unknown.
Ferrari have made strides with their engine performance over recent winters, putting them near enough on par with Mercedes last season. Maybe they’ll make a similar step this year and become the team to beat. Meanwhile, Mercedes have an all-new engine with increased fuel efficiency for 2019, which they hope will help retain their advantage in their quest for a record-equalling sixth consecutive Constructors’ Championship.
Of course, there will be no definitive answer on who has the real upper hand until the first race weekend of the season, but the next two weeks could offer some insight. On the other hand, could there be a complete surprise which leaves F1’s leading duo looking over their shoulders?
How will the Red Bull Honda partnership begin?
The team with arguably the greatest potential to surprise – for good or bad – is Red Bull, as they enter their first test with Honda power. The team have switched to the Japanese manufacturer for 2019 after an increasingly fractious twelve-year partnership with Renault.
It’s a risky move, with Honda having failed to finish in the top five with either of the teams they’ve powered since their F1 return in 2015. Nevertheless, the general consensus is that if anyone can make it work, Red Bull can, with their sister team Toro Rosso already having partnered with the manufacturer for the 2018 season – doubtlessly providing useful insights.
It will be fascinating to see how Red Bull get on in their first weeks with a new power unit.
Will all the teams be ready in time?
Mercedes, Red Bull, Toro Rosso. Alfa Romeo and Haas have already run their 2019 cars on track in private shakedown events, but not all the teams are quite as prepared as this quintet.
Renault and Williams had to cancel plans for pre-test shakedowns of their new machinery. Claire Williams cited the team’s ‘aggressive development programme’ as the reason for skipping their shakedown, while Renault Team Principal Cyril Abiteboul blames the delay on the new 2019 aerodynamic rules. Car delays are quite common when a major regulation change is introduced, so is unlikely to be too much of a problem – though it may cost the teams time on Monday morning if there are any unexpected teething issues.
Abiteboul seemed to hint that Renault may not be out on track on the first morning at Barcelona however, while Racing Point’s participation in the opening day of testing is also in doubt. Technical director Andy Green tells Planet F1 that while the team will be in attendance, there is no guarantee the car will be out on track.
Who'll settle in well at their new team?
There’s going to be lots of drivers in new environments over the next two weeks, with only Mercedes and Haas continuing with their 2018 driver line-ups. Among the headline movers are Charles Leclerc to Ferrari, Pierre Gasly to Red Bull, Kimi Raikkonen to Alfa Romeo and Daniel Ricciardo to Renault. The latter, in his usual jovial fashion, says he plans to “annoy the engineers” with his feedback on Renault’s new R.S.19 car in order to help them move ahead of his former Red Bull team in the competitive order.
While for most it’s a case of settling in to their new environments and establishing strong working relationships with their team members, others will experience a much steeper learning curve. Most notable is Toro Rosso’s new recruit Alexander Albon, who drove an F1 car for the first time at the team’s shakedown in Misano just days ago.
Will Alonso make an appearance?
And finally, despite his ‘retirement’ at the end of the 2018 season, could we see Fernando Alonso in attendance at the test? The Spaniard was recently spotted at McLaren’s Woking factory, leading to heightened speculation about his participation over the next two weeks. With two new drivers in Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, McLaren won’t have a benchmark for their relative performance compared to last year, so giving Alonso a run in the test may make some sense.