Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finished top of the timesheets on day two in Barcelona, setting the fastest lap of the test so far in a day of weather-limited running.
The German’s best effort, a 1:19.673s set on soft tyres, was half a second faster than Daniel Ricciardo’s Monday benchmark, and made Vettel one of only two drivers to lap within the 1:19s on day two.
The other was Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas. Having posted a best of 1:20.325s in the morning, the Finn was the early pacesetter until Vettel’s soft run knocked him from the top spot—but despite improving in the afternoon to join Vettel below the 1:20s barrier, Bottas remained 0.303s adrift by the close of day.
Outside of the top two, no other driver today posted lap times below Monday’s fastest, as near-freezing temperatures once again held back representative running.
Stoffel Vandoorne was the third-fastest runner of the day, 0.652s off Vettel’s pace with a best lap of 1:20.325s. The Belgian’s time was the first of the test logged on Pirelli’s new pink-walled hypersoft tyre.
Max Verstappen failed to post a time in the morning after being sidelined by a fuel leak, but improved in the afternoon to finish fourth, just 0.001s behind Vandoorne on the medium tyre.
Next up, Carlos Sainz, Pierre Gasly and Williams third driver Robert Kubica all lapped within a few tenths of each other in the 1:21s. Kubica’s teammate Sergey Sirotkin and Force India’s Esteban Ocon were a little behind again, closely matched in the 1:21.8s.
Monegasque rookie Charles Leclerc had a difficult first day driving the Sauber C37 with a spin in the afternoon and finishing more than three seconds off the pace, but was spared ending the day at the bottom of the timesheet at the expense of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.
The cold weather also meant that no driver managed to surpass Ricciardo’s first day total of 105 laps, although Vettel and Bottas came closest with 98 and 94 laps respectively.
Gasly held the next-highest total, putting in 82 laps in his STR13 to prove that Toro Rosso-Honda’s mileage yesterday was no fluke, while Leclerc made up for his early error with 81 laps to his name in the end.
At the other end of the lap charts, McLaren suffered another low-mileage day with an exhaust issue keeping Vandoorne in the garage from midday onwards, unable to add to his tally of 37 laps.
However, that was at least one more than Haas achieved across the day. With his programme interrupted by two off-track moments—one of which nearly ended in the barriers—Magnussen was prevented from making up for lost time when reports of snow at the end of the day brought running more or less to an end, and the Dane finished the day bottom of both the timesheet and the lap count.
Daniel Ricciardo set the pace and topped the lap charts on the opening day of Barcelona testing, while Honda showed a remarkable improvement in reliability to log 93 laps with Toro Rosso.
This time last year, Honda ended the first day of testing firmly at the bottom of the lap charts, with then-partners McLaren achieving only 29 amid a spate of engine-related issues.
But after a concentrated effort to improve reliability with its 2018-spec power unit, Honda more than tripled that amount on Monday, with Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley only missing out on a century of laps when rain interrupted running late in the afternoon.
Renault also look to have made strides with their reliability compared with last winter. The factory outfit achieved a total of 99 laps over the day, splitting running between Nico Hülkenberg (73 laps) in the morning and Carlos Sainz (26 laps) in the afternoon.
The French marque’s combined total stood for a while as the most of any team, until Ricciardo edged his Renault-powered RB14 into triple figures with a few late runs in the wet before the chequered flag.
McLaren ended the day some way off its fellow Renault customers with only 51 laps recorded, although this was due to a wheel tether issue which kept Fernando Alonso in the garage for much of the morning session.
As expected, the lap times from day one gave little away about the pecking order for 2018, as the general consensus among teams was for reliable rather than representative running.
In addition, dropping track temperatures and a rain shower late in the afternoon session meant there were few real improvements in pace after lunch.
Ricciardo’s benchmark 1:20.179s—over 1.5s slower than last year’s fastest overall testing time—established him as the quickest driver of the morning over Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas by just under two tenths.
The Australian’s lap came as part of a last-minute flurry before lunch, in which Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen went fastest from Hülkenberg, before Bottas and then Ricciardo jumped them both in turn.
Alonso finished the day fifth-fastest and was the only driver to improve their position in the afternoon, rising from ninth on the timesheets as he made up for his morning delay.
His compatriot Sainz ranked sixth ahead of defending champion Lewis Hamilton, who took over from Mercedes teammate Bottas after lunch. These two also ended Monday at the bottom of the lap count along with Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin—who was likewise sharing driver duties—as the worsening conditions prevented any of the afternoon drivers from completing more than 30 laps each.
Hartley and Toro Rosso finished eight-fastest in the end after running as high as fifth before lunch. Behind him came Lance Stroll, Romain Grosjean and Marcus Ericsson.
Force India development driver Nikita Mazepin sat out the whole of the afternoon session and remained twelfth, while Sirotkin’s weather-curtailed running meant the Russian rookie did not set a representative time.
Tis the season for Formula One car launches, and while Haas were first past the post, Williams are the second team to break cover with their 2018 challenger, the FW41. The Grove based outfit were beaten by the American team, who revealed their VF18 racer yesterday.
The 2018 car has a much more aggressive look, as per the new regulations for this season. The livery is virtually unchanged with some suave looking tweaks to the driver number display, but the iconic Martini stripes with a white chassis remain. The halo, which comes into force this season, has been integrated well into the design, with a solid white finish.
The dark setting in the images could be so that designers can’t steal any of Williams’ ideas while the black on the livery adds a nice switch up from iterations past.
With Paddy Lowe coming in from Mercedes last year, this is the first car he’s helped develop, so time will tell whether his tactical nous has transferred over.
After an average 2017, which saw Williams finish fifth in the constructor’s standings, losing out to Force India for that coveted fourth spot, the team will be keen to press on and reclaim that place in 2018.
There was a high point last season though, with Lance Stroll taking a superb third place in the madcap Baku GP. He could have finished second if it wasn’t for a resurgent Valtteri Bottas in the Mercedes pipping him to the line.
Stroll remains with the team, with Felipe Massa retiring for good this time. Russian Sergey Sirotkin comes in to partner the young Canadian. Sirotkin has impressed as a Renault test driver and throughout his time in GP2, and means Williams have one of the youngest and most exciting driver lineups on the grid.
There were talks of popular Pole Robert Kubica returning to the sport with Williams, but they have instead hired him as their reserve driver. This is still no mean feat considering the severity of his accident in 2011 which saw him effectively retire from Formula One.
When Formula One returned to action at the end of the summer break, it looked as though Ferrari’s decision to retain Kimi Räikkönen had brought silly season to an early close.
But during preparation for the Belgian Grand Prix, the driver market was given a second wind when rumours emerged that Williams had offered Fernando Alonso a seat for 2018.
At first glance, it seems like a sensational story—the final, erratic death throes of what’s been a rather damp silly season. The two parties just don’t seem in the slightest bit compatible. Alonso is hunting for his third world title; Williams is currently fighting to hold off Haas and Toro Rosso to fifth in the Constructors’.
Then there is the monetary aspect: while Williams is believed to have only the sixth largest budget of the ten teams, Alonso’s services come with a price tag in the tens of millions.
But on the other hand, there remain several details in the background of this story that suggest an Alonso-Williams tie-up would be a serious consideration for all involved.
For one thing, this is not your average silly season rumour, sparked out of nowhere and fanned into a frenzy overnight—it was first reported in the highly-respected German publication Auto Motor und Sport.
It also goes without saying that (financial questions notwithstanding) Williams would love to have Alonso driving next year’s FW41. In terms of base performance he would represent a marked upgrade on Felipe Massa, and as teammate to the maturing Lance Stroll, Alonso’s experience and ability would prove the ultimate benchmark—as Stoffel Vandoorne can no doubt attest.
Nor is that the only benefit to the team of signing a driver of Alonso’s calibre. When quizzed on the rumours by SkySports in Belgium, Williams’ technical director Paddy Lowe said: “You need great drivers and great cars to win races. With a greater driver in the team, everybody is motivated to work that bit harder for performance because they know it’s going to be exploited and deliver great results.”
Alonso is not a questionable rookie like Pastor Maldonado or Bruno Senna, nor is he a former winner seeing out his twilight years like Massa or Rubens Barrichello—he is a proven champion with both the ability and the drive to win again, whose presence at Williams would lend total credence to their ultimate goal of becoming title contenders once again.
But would Alonso even entertain an offer from Williams? If a credible shot at the 2018 title is not something Williams can provide him, what makes them any more attractive an option than joining Renault instead, or even remaining at McLaren?
At the very least, Alonso might be tempted into switching to Williams by nothing more than a desire to enjoy racing again. After three years of disappointment at McLaren-Honda, the prospect of driving a package with no horsepower deficit or reliability concerns to hold him back may prove all the enticement Alonso needs to make the move.
There’s also next year’s driver market to consider. With no championship seats available to him now, Alonso’s next best hope is that the final year on Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes contract results in a vacancy at the Silver Arrows for 2019.
And if Alonso is planning on just “seeing out” the 2018 season until a better drive becomes available, he will find more freedom to do so at Williams than with McLaren or Renault—either by insisting on certain performance clauses in case the need for an early exit arises, or by negotiating to take a fraction of his usual superstar salary in return for an open one-year deal.
There is also the chance, however slim it might seem at present, that Williams will in fact be the team to join in 2018.
As well as commenting coyly on the merits of signing a “great driver”, Paddy Lowe also told Motorsport following the Belgian Grand Prix weekend that he was overseeing “substantial changes” to Williams’ design philosophy in the process of constructing next year’s FW41.
His words came at the same time as Felipe Massa criticised the team for falling behind in the 2017 development race—the assumption is that Williams is already calling a halt on this year’s programme to allow Lowe a headstart on designing a much more competitive 2018 challenger.
If that is the case, it would mark the next major step in Williams’ painstaking long-term plan to return to its former status as one of F1’s top teams. The first phase came in 2014, with the acquisition of Felipe Massa and a Mercedes engine supply, and a substantial increase in budget supported by new title sponsors Martini.
The result was the rapid FW36, which between Massa and Valtteri Bottas took more than four times the podiums than its predecessor did points finishes (not to mention pole position at the Austrian Grand Prix) and lifted Williams up from ninth to third in the Constructors’ standings.
Since then, Williams has enjoyed consistent running within the championship top five—its best string of Constructors’ results since its partnership with BMW in the early 2000s—and has created the perfect foundation from which to take its next great leap forward.
In Paddy Lowe, Williams has the talent capable of designing a race-winning FW41; in Martini, Lawrence Stroll and their past seasons’ results, they now have the money needed to make that design a reality.
None of that will be lost on Alonso, who has been on the grid long enough to know the signs of a team making genuine progress.
All that remains in doubt is whether Williams’ promises can sway him more than McLaren-Honda’s.