For day two of Formula 1 2023 winter testing, it was China’s Zhou Guanyu in his Alfa Romeo Sauber who set the fastest time in Bahrain on Friday, beating defending champion Max Verstappen to second place. Not that testing times should count for much with ‘glory runs’ often occurring on very low fuel & sticky tyres. One thing to always take note of is time not out on track, and for the former champions, Mercedes is indeed in crisis.
The Dutchman, who took to the track in the afternoon in the Red Bull RB19 car he shares with team-mate Sergio Perez in Bahrain, was the fastest driver on the first day of pre-season testing, who took the lead from Spain’s Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari at midday.
But the two-time world champion was surprised at the end of the day by Zhou Guanyu, who set the fastest time on soft tyres.
The Chinese driver confessed that “It’s only a test and we had the softest compounds unlike drivers like Max”, who was equipped with intermediate tyres, Zhou said on Friday evening. If these three days of testing are anecdotal in terms of lap times, they are above all intended to perfect the set-up for the new 2023 cars on the eve of the F1 season, on March 5 at the same track in Sakhir.
Ferrari versus Red Bull, Mercedes in crisis
In the heat of the desert island in the Gulf, which was windy in the morning, Verstappen once again showed that he had everything it takes to stay at the top of the hierarchy. He was more than half a second ahead of Spain’s Fernando Alonso, who was third and just as good as the day before in his Aston Martin.
The Mercedes team appear not to be in a good place, the driver pairing only managing limited running and the time sheets had them near the back of the grid.
🏁 DAY 2 CLASSIFICATION 🏁
Big lap numbers on the board for Logan Sargeant, Fernando Alonso and Zhou Guanyu! 💪#F1 #F1Testing pic.twitter.com/nYN7Y6NGmq
— Formula 1 (@F1) February 24, 2023
Ferrari, Red Bull’s announced rival for the season, is currently keeping a low profile on the Sakhir track and does not seem to have revealed much of its form yet. Sainz set the fastest time at midday, but on Friday evening he found himself relegated to sixth place on the timesheet, ahead of his Monegasque team-mate Charles Leclerc, who was eighth.
“I feel very good with the car so far (….), I want to arrive for the first race prepared and having explored all the set-ups that I couldn’t do last year at this stage,” explained Sainz
The Frenchmen, Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon of Alpine (Renault), set the 10th and 12th fastest times respectively on this new day dedicated to breaking in their Alpine.
“There’s no need to be alarmed,” Ocon reassured fans and press in the afternoon. “We’re still in the process of understanding, it’s not the time to focus on lap times, we’ve done a lot of aerodynamic testing.”
Mercedes in crisis
The day went smoothly for most teams, but Mercedes brought out the first red flag of the day with less than two hours to go. The reason: a hydraulic problem with the W14, driven by George Russell. Back in the garage, the car, which had been covered so as not to reveal its floor to the competition, did not emerge again, signalling a premature end to this second day of testing for the German manufacturer, with more than an hour of driving remaining.
It was a blow for Mercedes, who, like all the other teams, only have three short days of testing before the start of the season. Russell was 13th fastest on the day, with team-mate Lewis Hamilton 15th.
“We didn’t have a strong second day today,” says Andrew Shovlin, head of the engineering team at the circuit.
“Stopping on the track because of a reliability issue was not good and we struggled to find vehicle balance in the changeable conditions.”
Lap times must never be a measure of performance in testing, but certainly, lack of running and sitting in the garage is indicative of a crisis situation that says the car is currently not good. The Mercedes team has been gently admitting this fact since the shakedown at Silverstone last week when the unreported suspension failure struck the car, forcing the team to resort to a hasty rebuild of their suspension arms from metal and not carbon fibre, increasing the weight of the car.
Toto Wolff, the team boss of Mercedes, has so far admitted that the car won’t likely be winning races, and that Mercedes is not yet getting everything out of the car. Indeed the team are already working on replacement many parts of the W14.
“We definitely want to fight for the world championship. That is the goal. But you also have to stay humble.” says Wolff.
The data of the long runs seen so far allow the engineers of the competition to classify the pace of the cars much more precisely than the table with the absolute best times does, and there are some indications that Mercedes is at best third in the pecking order. Possibly with serious competition from Aston Martin.
Mercedes launch investigation
Friday night has been used as a crisis investigation by Mercedes to try and better understand what’s happened to the W14 car. In particular, why the car run OK on Thursday, but Friday was sitting in the garage hurriedly being fixed.
The team says that “this work will continue into the night and no doubt we will know more in the morning. Tomorrow will be interesting to see if we can understand the performance drop and make up the lost time on track.”
Up until Russell’s hydraulic failure, the team had completed nearly 100 laps. 72 of those were to Hamilton’s credit. When Russell rolled out, the cause quickly became clear. The W14’s display read “Hydraulic Failure” in bright red. At that point, the 25-year-old had just started a long run.
“We haven’t got everything out of the W14 yet,” Russell is convinced, “and everyone is working hard to do that and make the most of our last day of testing tomorrow.” Teammate Hamilton agrees:
“They have “a lot of work” planned for the end of testing on Saturday to perhaps turn the tide in time for the first race after all.”
Hamilton struggled with a slipping car on Friday. Diagnosis: too little grip on the rear axle. At best, this can be cured with a few changes to the set-up. In the worst case, Mercedes has a problem. But in addition to the new rear wing, a new side pod concept is already in the wind tunnel.
Saturday, last day of testing
For the final day of testing on Saturday, Verstappen, who was the only driver to complete laps throughout the day on Thursday, will be replaced by his team-mate Pérez, who was 14th on Friday evening.
Aston Martin will again field reserve driver Felipe Drugovich. The Brazilian has been called in to replace Lance Stroll at short notice with an arm injury. For the moment, the British team has not indicated whether the Canadian driver will be able to take part in the inaugural race… less than a week before the first GP tests.
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