F1 testing: McLaren troubles continue into second week

McLaren suffered another day of limited mileage on Tuesday as F1 testing resumed in Barcelona, finishing the day bottom of the lap charts and with the second-slowest time.

After minor mechanical faults cost the team valuable track time last week, McLaren was left again on the back foot when Stoffel Vandoorne’s MCL33 broke down twice in the morning with a pair of battery failures shutting down his Renault engine.

And although McLaren seemed to resolve those issues in time for the afternoon, Vandoorne was not out for long before this session was also cut short—this time, owing to a hydraulics problem.

In total, Vandoorne completed just 38 laps across the whole of Tuesday, and finished last-but-one on the timesheets with a best of 1:21.946s.

Ferrari Media

While McLaren struggled, their rivals took advantage of the prime conditions in Barcelona to embark on the long run programmes traditionally seen in the second week.

Sebastian Vettel recorded the most individual mileage of the day with 171 laps, as well as ending the day fastest by two tenths from Valtteri Bottas.

However, Mercedes ran the furthest of any team on Tuesday, surpassing Ferrari by six laps by combining Bottas’s 86 laps in the morning with Lewis Hamilton’s afternoon total of 91.

Max Verstappen—who split Bottas and Hamilton to be third fastest—lost running in the final hour of the afternoon when his Red Bull stopped on track, but nevertheless logged 130 laps to be Vettel’s closest challenger.

Sauber, Renault and Williams also broached the 100-lap mark (the latter two teams splitting running between both of their drivers), while Haas and Force India came close with 96 and 93 laps respectively.

Sahara Force India F1 Team

In an unexpected turn, Toro Rosso and Honda endured the first difficult day of their new partnership on Tuesday. After accomplishing a respectable 53 laps in the morning session with Pierre Gasly at the wheel, an unknown issue kept the STR13 confined to the garage for most of the afternoon, with Gasly adding only a single lap to his total after lunch.

But despite those troubles, Gasly still managed to end the day fifth fastest and best of the rest with a 1:20.973s, putting the Frenchman less than six tenths off Vettel’s benchmark.

Kevin Magnussen was sixth and the last of Tuesday’s drivers to be within a second of the pace. He finished ahead of Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz, who were separated by just 0.023s despite setting their laps on different tyre compounds.

Sergey Sirotkin enjoyed more profitable running than his first week of F1 testing, and was the highest-placed Williams in ninth. Two tenths separated the Russian from Sergio Pérez in tenth and Marcus Ericsson—who notched up 120 laps for Sauber—in eleventh.

Lance Stroll was Tuesday’s slowest runner behind McLaren’s Vandoorne, even though his 1:22.937s was set on the hypersoft tyre. However, with the Canadian making it to 86 laps despite sharing his day with Sirotkin, it’s likely Stroll’s programme was focused more on distance than outright pace.

Andy Hone/Williams F1

Hamilton fastest on busy end to first F1 test

Lewis Hamilton set 2018’s fastest testing time yet on Thursday, as the first week in Barcelona ended with its busiest day so far.

In total, 15 of this year’s 20 race drivers enjoyed track time at the Circuit de Catalunya on Thursday, with most teams opting to run both their drivers to make up for time lost during the week’s weather disruptions.

Only Ferrari, Haas, Force India, Red Bull and Toro Rosso chose not to split their day’s running.

Renault Sport F1 Team

The final day of testing began with yet another damp track, but higher temperatures compared with previous days meant meaningful running was not an impossibility.

When the track dried enough for slicks around midday, Valtteri Bottas and Nico Hülkenberg took the opportunity to trade times at the top of the leaderboard, until McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne beat them both with a 1:19.854s on the pink hypersoft tyre.

Vandoorne’s time—one of only four to dip below 1:20s this week—was good enough to hold onto the top spot for most of the afternoon, until Hamilton went half a second quicker on mediums with an hour to go.

Steven Tee/LAT Images/McLaren Media

As well as finishing second-fastest on the strength of his hypersoft time, Vandoorne was also among Thursday’s busiest drivers, with 110 laps to his name.

Only two drivers recorded more mileage than the Belgian. Sebastian Vettel, who was third-fastest behind Vandoorne, made it to 120 laps, while Pierre Gasly signed off a solid week for Toro Rosso and Honda with 147 laps.

Kevin Magnussen also had a profitable day, despite not joining Gasly, Vettel and Vandoorne in triple figures. After finishing bottom of both the time and lap charts with his first taste of the Haas VF-18 on Tuesday, the Dane bounced back on Thursday by logging 96 laps and the fourth-fastest time.

Glenn Dunbar/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Fernando Alonso, taking over from Vandoorne for the final few hours of Thursday, added another 51 laps to his week’s total and snatched fifth by just 0.010s from compatriot Carlos Sainz. Lance Stroll was a few tenths slower in seventh.

Sergio Pérez, driving Force India’s VJM11 for the first time, had a slow start to the session but eventually logged 65 laps and was classified eighth.

He was ahead of Max Verstappen, who by contrast had another trying day behind the wheel of the RB14. Having chosen to sit out the wet morning running, the Dutchman lost further track time with a fuel leak and a spin into the gravel later on—as a result, Verstappen recorded the lowest number of laps of the day (35) and ended the day nearly three seconds off Hamilton’s pace.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Thursday’s longest runner Gasly was tenth-fastest ahead of early pacesetters Hülkenberg and Bottas. The two Saubers were the last of the representative runners, with Charles Leclerc heading Marcus Ericsson by a second thanks to the afternoon’s faster track, although with 59 laps to Ericsson’s 79.

Lastly, Williams’ rookie Sergey Sirotkin spent another day at the bottom of the timesheets. The Russian handed over his FW41 to teammate Stroll in the afternoon and as such didn’t set a time on slicks, explaining his 12.646s gap to Hamilton at the front.

F1 testing resumes at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya next week, running from Tuesday 6th until Friday 9th.

Glenn Dunbar/LAT Images/Pirelli Media

Who is Brendon Hartley?

Here is the lowdown on the newest motorsport driver to attempt the thrills and spills of Formula 1.

Dean Tremi/Red Bull Content Pool

Brendon Hartley

Age: 27
Nationality: New Zealand
Current Drive: Porsche WEC Driver

Notable Achievements:

2007: EuroCup Formula Renault 2.0 Champion
2015: FIA World Endurance Champion
2017: Le Mans 24 Hours Winner

History:

Brendon Hartley is an out-and-out racer, whether we say open wheeled racers or prototypes. Hartley’s F1 debut by all means has come to a shock to the New Zealander, after he was dropped by the Red Bull Junior driver program in 2010. The reason he was dropped was after poor results compared to his team mate in Formula Renault 3.5. His team mate at the time was Daniel Ricciardo.

Andrew Ferraro/GP2 Media Service

Hartley fluttered in and out with GP2 between 2010 and ’12, but without anything set in stone it was difficult for him to gain a rhythm in the series. Without a full-time drive in 2012 he moved towards LMP2 in his Le Mans 24 Hours debut. In 2012 and ’13 he continued to have his foot still in the door at Formula 1, performing some shakedown tests for the pre-dominant Mercedes team.

From 2014 onwards, he then dedicated his full time to the World Endurance Champion when he signed with the up-and-coming Porsche LMP1 team. He won the 2015 Drivers’ Championship, coming on leaps and bounds in that category of motorsport.

The Kiwi is in good form: he won the 2017 Le Mans 24 Hours and, including that event, has won the last four races, ironically his most recent win being at the Circuit of the Americas. In endurance racing he hasn’t finished off the podium since Le Mans last year.

Dutch Photo Agency/Red Bull Content Pool

Chance at 2018?

Daniil Kvyat has now been demoted twice but has been given a reprieve with Carlos Sainz moving to Renault in-season and Pierre Gasly attempting to win the Super Formula Championship in Japan.

If Brendon Hartley impresses could he replace Kvyat when Gasly returns? The World Endurance Championship and Formula 1 do not clash for the remainder of the year. Brendon Hartley on the 2018 Formula 1 grid—something I wouldn’t have thought would even be in discussion few months ago.

Renault split could be beginning of the end for Red Bull

Red Bull Racing could be looking at the final years of its Formula One tenure, following reports that Renault has signalled its intent to cease its supply of engines to the Austrian team after the 2018 season.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Renault’s relationship with the Red Bull company has been fraught for some time now. The two parties came close to ending their association in 2015, before an absence of alternative suppliers forced Red Bull to recommit to its Renault contract for the time being.

And although an engine rebadging by TAG-Heuer seemed to improve relations last year, this season has seen a return of Red Bull’s public criticism of Renault, as a combined lack of horsepower and reliability has seen the former champions slump to a distant third-fastest team.

Now, if the current reports are true, it appears that the Red Bull-Renault alliance has at last reached its conclusive breaking point.

That the news comes at the same time as Renault has finally confirmed its new supply agreement with McLaren is no surprise—with Red Bull believed to be using Toro Rosso’s Honda deal to evaluate a future switch to Japanese power, it seems Renault is electing to jump before it is pushed. Having both a factory team on the rise and a grateful customer in McLaren, there is no longer any incentive for Renault to extend its fractious Red Bull relationship beyond its final term next year.

Such a break-up would leave Red Bull with little choice but to become Honda’s de facto works team in 2019. And with the way the next few seasons of F1 are already shaping up, that deal could well prove the first step in Red Bull Racing’s exit from the sport.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

For starters, a premature Honda alliance would go down like a lead balloon in Red Bull’s driver stable.

Daniel Ricciardo has already stated that Red Bull will need to be capable of a genuine title challenge within the next few years if they are to convince him into extending his stay at the team beyond 2018. But unless Honda can make a phenomenal leap forward over the next twelve months, it’s almost certain that Ricciardo will take his hunt for a maiden title to either Mercedes or Ferrari.

Nor can Max Verstappen be expected to hold faith in the Japanese marque, even if he has to wait a year longer than Ricciardo before leaving. And then there’s Carlos Sainz—set to be loaned out to the factory Renault team next year, he will surely do all he can to avoid being called back to Red Bull-Honda for 2019.

It’s entirely possible, then, that by 2020, Red Bull’s senior lineup could comprise Pierre Gasly and the returning Daniil Kvyat, whilst Toro Rosso’s seats are filled by Honda juniors like Nobuharu Matsushita and Nirei Fukuzumi—a far cry from the current pedigree enjoyed by the Red Bull fold.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

The other danger, of course, is that it’s not just Red Bull’s drivers who choose to jump ship. Adrian Newey is perhaps the team’s biggest asset outside of the cockpit, but for a man used to designing race- and championship-winning cars, there will be little for him to relish in overcompensating Honda’s horsepower deficit, especially as he has already expressed a desire to step back from leading Red Bull’s technical team in the near future.

It’s also well worth questioning just how willing Christian Horner will be to guide Red Bull through yet another uncompetitive era, or how enthusiastic Helmut Marko would be about managing a driver lineup that lacks the kind of flair and potential seen in recent years.

But as painful as any of those losses would be, the most damning exit would easily come from the man at the very head of Red Bull’s operations—Dietrich Mateschitz.

Although Mateschitz’ many quit threats have been decidedly impotent in the past, it will be much harder to dismiss them should he make similar statements in the next three years. Red Bull’s commitment to F1 is up for renegotiation in 2020—coinciding with both the reported duration of Toro Rosso’s new Honda deal, and the end of F1’s current engine formula—which will give Mateschitz plenty of time to fully evaluate Red Bull’s prospects from 2021 onwards, and whether they merit the sums required to run two F1 teams.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Quite what would happen to the spoils of Mateschitz’ racing empire is hard to predict this far ahead of time. If Honda remains committed to F1 into the proposed new twin-turbo era, it may assume the Milton Keynes outfit into a full factory team, as it did with BAR in 2006. There have also been numerous suggestions that Porsche is in the frame for a 2021 buyout, or that Red Bull might remain as a title sponsor for a works Aston Martin-Cosworth alliance.

As for Toro Rosso, the Italian-based team and its chief designer James Key would surely make an alluring target for Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne, assuming he can’t convince Sauber to become an Alfa Romeo-badged junior team.

But even if none of these exit strategies come to fruition by 2020, there is still nothing stopping Mateschitz—valued to be worth an estimated $15.4 billion—from simply closing the doors on Red Bull’s two teams and selling off the assets elsewhere.

And whilst before that may have sounded like an insincere threat from the Austrian, a painful enforced alliance with Honda and the end of the current Concorde Agreement will be more than enough to turn Red Bull’s exit into a serious consideration.

Palmer or the Pole? Analysing Renault’s 2018 driver dilemma

At last count, the Renault Formula One team had more drivers on its 2018 shopping list than it knew what to do with. Nico Hülkenberg is contracted to stay and was initially set to partner Fernando Alonso, if the team didn’t promote Sergey Sirotkin or Oliver Rowland instead; then there was talk of poaching Esteban Ocon or Carlos Sainz from their respective junior programmes, though that chatter has cooled now that Robert Kubica is firmly back in the frame. And just where does that leave Sergio Pérez?

Renault Sport F1 Team

Of course, that number has thinned considerably since the rumours started flying at the beginning of the season. Alonso at the very least has seemingly dropped off the shortlist, and whilst Sainz may be available for the right price, the likelihood of Mercedes setting free their prized Ocon is far, far lower.

As for Sirotkin, Rowland and Nicholas Latifi, Renault’s test and development trio would have been hoping for much better results in GP2 and Formula Two in recent years to prove themselves an improvement on Jolyon Palmer.

As of now, Renault’s options seem much less cluttered than they were a few months ago. Kubica’s Hungaroring running in the RS17 suggests quite clearly that Renault is pitting his capacity to drive next year up against Palmer’s ability to deliver now. But as simple as a straight Palmer vs. Kubica shootout would appear from the surface, the decision becomes much more complicated when considering the prospect of Kubica not being capable of driving next year’s Renault.

Renault Sport F1 Team

This is, of course, no criticism of Kubica’s abilities as a driver—only a very real possibility, given the extent of his injuries and the physical demands of F1’s new generation of cars.

The blotted debuts of Lance Stroll, Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne this season have been proof enough of the great leap a move to F1 now represents; and although many will argue that Kubica is no rookie, that doesn’t change the fact that the Pole has now been out of F1 for more years than he has competed in it. With his most recent Grand Prix experience coming from the days of low-downforce cars, Bridgestone tyres and straightforward V8 engines, Kubica’s five years and 76 starts in F1 will be as alien to what he is about to face as was Stroll’s time in Formula 3 or Giovinazzi’s in GP2.

Whether or not Kubica is ready for a full F1 season next year, it will be impossible to make a conclusive call based on just the one Hungary test—that kind of proof will only come after Kubica’s actually had a chance to race again. But if for some reason he or the team feel more time to prepare is needed, that will leave Renault looking for a tricky stopgap solution until Kubica is fit for a full-time drive.

Renault Sport F1 Team

The easiest solution would be to simply renew Jolyon Palmer’s contract for another year. The Briton might find such a brazen offer hard to accept, but unless the driver market undergoes any seismic changes over the summer it may well be his only option to stay in F1 for a third season: better a stay of execution and a last chance to impress next year, than rejecting an extension now with nowhere else to go.

However, that scenario hinges very much on whether or not Renault want to keep Palmer on for yet another season. As much as the focus would be on Kubica’s eventual return, the team will still have one eye on the present and must have a second driver capable of scoring points next year, which at present is simply not something Palmer has to offer. With just the one point to his name after thirty Grand Prix starts, it’s hard to see Renault wanting the Briton back even as a short-term option.

But if not Palmer, then who? Renault has long been keen on signing Sergio Pérez up for their second seat, but with the Mexican on the cusp of breaking into the top ranks of F1 he is unlikely to be tempted by a risky one-year deal at Enstone. Sirotkin or Rowland might prove more persuadable, but down that road lies the risk that Renault will simply be replacing Palmer with a rookie no more likely to score than he was.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Alternatively, Renault might just find the best of both worlds by looking across the grid to Toro Rosso—and specifically, to Carlos Sainz.

With three years of midfield F1 experience and almost a hundred career championship points under his belt, Sainz would represent a much safer bet for Renault than their academy drivers, and alongside Hülkenberg would form a lineup more than capable of challenging the likes of Williams and Force India in the top half of the championship.

But more importantly, Sainz would also be much less wary of a one-year deal than Pérez: provided he moves on a loaned basis from Red Bull (which would be cheaper for Renault than hiring him outright), Sainz would still have the security at the end of 2018 of a return to Toro Rosso at least, or at most a shot at replacing Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull when the Australian’s contract conveniently expires.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

What’s more, Red Bull will likely find the idea of loaning out Sainz quite appealing, given events this year. The striking of cheaper engine deals aside, allowing Sainz to spend a term at Renault would go a long way to bringing back on side a driver who’s been highly critical of the Red Bull brand this season, as well as alleviating the tension that has built up at Toro Rosso between Sainz and Daniil Kvyat.

Furthermore, it would give Red Bull the opportunity to evaluate Sainz’ composure in a full factory outfit to ensure he is ready for a senior Red Bull drive in the future, and by extension would allow Toro Rosso to give Pierre Gasly his long-awaited F1 debut in Sainz’ place.

And even if Renault cannot convince Red Bull to part with Sainz even for a single season, they might still benefit from taking on Gasly himself in the same capacity.

The Frenchman has had a long connection with Renault, with the French marque reportedly introducing him to the Red Bull fold during his Formula Renault days, and earlier this year Gasly helped Renault’s Formula E team to a third teams’ title by deputising for Sébastien Buemi at the New York ePrix. With Gasly alongside Hülkenberg, Renault would have not only a second driver it knows is capable of scoring points finishes, but also one it can keep for as long as Kubica needs to get up to full F1 fitness—whether that’s partway through next year or in 2019.

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

Gasly’s chance to send out Reminder

Formula E heads towards New York, for the inaugural event but it is missing something. Formula E is missing championship leader Swiss born Sebastian Buemi who drives for DAMS Renault. Buemi is also a vital part of the World Endurance team for Toyota, taking part in the 6 hours of Nurburgring. Step forward Frenchman Pierre Gasly.

Pierre Gasly is a logical choice, a heavily experienced Red Bull Junior and current GP2 Champion. He is following the path current of Mclaren Honda driver Stoffel Vandoorne who entered into Formula 1 by driving in the Japenese based Super Formula Series. The situation being that in the rules of GP2/F2 the champion cannot race in the series the following year. This opportunity is one not to be missed, he is already creating buzz in the paddock, it seems to be a certainty he will receive the all important fan boost in the races. This could be a great chance to lay down his credentials to Toro Rosso for the F1 2018 season.

There is a feeling of uncertainty at Toro Rosso currently with its drivers. Danil Kvyat looking once more under pressure and his recent collision at the Austrian GP has done him no favours, especially taking out Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Carlos Sainz is also rumoured to be unhappy in the current situation, feeling he is was held back as when Verstappen moved up to Red Bull switching with Kvyat, he was also doing a fantastic job. Sainz has a contract until 2018, whilst Kvyat has one until the end of this season. With his poor form, would they offer the Russian a new contract, and could the Spaniard decide to walk? This would open a space for a Red Bull Junior. Antonio Felix Da Costa of Formula E & Nico Kari of GP3 are some names to come to mind but Gasly is the one to come to mind first. A good performance would only remind Dietrich Mateschitz who is control of Red Bull F1 that he is more than ready to enter Formula 1 and might result him reconsidering any new deals with current contracted drivers.

The field of Formula E consists of a mixture of veteran and youthful talent from the likes of Nick Heidfield to Felix Da Costa. Former F1 drivers take part in the series such as Heidfield and fellow county compatriot Jean-Eric Vergne. Laying down a marker and being competitive would only increase chances of a move.

Gasly is a smooth driver and did great keeping the life of the Pirelli tyres in the GP2 series. This would only benefit him with the scenario that the Formula E series have regarding energy. To keep and reserve energy the drivers have to avoid slides and wheel spins in corners so gives flexibility when it comes to strategy.

With Formula 1 returning to France in 2018 at Paul Ricard,  it would be great to see the French having an increased interest in the sport, with a third French driver joining the F1 contingent of  Romain Grosjean and Esteban Ocon. Gaslys name is one continuing to be rumoured to having a seat on the F1 grid in 2018. Performing well this weekend could seal his place.

Chris Lord
12/07/2017

Image courtesy of Renault Sport 

Preview: 2017 New York ePrix

July is now upon us, and with it the penultimate and most hotly-anticipated stop on the 2017–18 Formula E calendar—New York City.

It’s a shame, really, that given New York’s billing as this season’s headline event (sorry, Montréal), the championship leader Sébastien Buemi will not be present at either race this weekend. His Toyota WEC priorities have hardly come as a surprise, and in his place Formula E will get to welcome another exciting young talent in the form of Red Bull junior Pierre Gasly, but for one of the sport’s box office stars to miss an event like New York is still regrettable.

But on a more positive note, the impact of Formula E’s clash with the WEC’s 6 Hours of the Nürburgring has proven to be much less than first expected. Of the half-dozen drivers previously at risk of skipping the New York round, only Buemi and his Toyota LMP1 teammate José María López will in fact leave vacant seats—meaning Gasly and DS Virgin reserve Alex Lynn will be the only new faces on the grid this weekend. Sam Bird, Nelson Piquet, Nico Prost and Jean-Éric Vergne have all opted to forego the fourth round of the WEC and contest New York instead.

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E

The other upside to Buemi’s absence is that it naturally opens the way for a fresh change to the podium predictions. Lucas di Grassi will obviously be among the favourites to capitalise on his title rival’s double booking, and a pair of strong top three results would even see him assume the lead of the championship before the final round in Canada.

But if the previous round in Berlin is anything to go by, di Grassi will more than have his hands full keeping back the rapid Mahindra pair of Felix Rosenqvist and Nick Heidfeld, the former of whom scored his and the team’s first victory last time out and will surely be eager for more of the same. Vergne also ought to pose a major threat at the front in New York with his Renault-powered Techeetah, as will his former DS Virgin teammate Bird, and nor can Prost be discounted; although the Renault driver has yet to finish on the podium this season, Prost is the only man to have scored in every round so far and is a proven ePrix winner.

Zak Mauger/LAT/Formula E

The presence of two rookies at Renault and DS Virgin may also present an opportunity for some of the midfield teams to take a larger bite at the top ten than usual this weekend.

Such an opening will be especially attractive to Dragon Racing, currently languishing at the bottom of the standings and looking for a first points finish since Buenos Aires. But with only a handful of points splitting Dragon from Jaguar, Venturi and Andretti ahead of them, it will be a close fight between their respective drivers to see who comes out on top.

Jaguar and Venturi would seem to have the current edge in that regard, with Mitch Evans and Maro Engel contributing heavily to their teams’ rising points totals of late. But Andretti’s pairing of da Costa and Frijns is capable of brilliance on the right day, such as their fifth- and sixth-placed finishes in Hong Kong, and Dragon’s two-time ePrix winner Jérôme d’Ambrosio is no slouch either.

Alastair Staley/LAT/Formula E