When the 10 Formula One cars roared back into life after 92 days of off-season silence, they looked little like the machines of yesteryear.
Wider cars, fatter tyres, and lower and swept-back wings have given F1 2017 a new air of aggression — and a boost in speed to boot.
After eight days of testing at the Spanish Grand Prix’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya every car had set a lap faster than last year’s race pole time. Kimi Räikkönen, the fastest of all in his Ferrari, was almost four seconds under the bar.
And it was thanks in part to Räikkönen’s lap — more than half a second quicker than Mercedes’s best — that testing became an intriguing affair. Rather than presenting shambolically, as many had expected after its disastrous 2016 campaign, the famous Italian team has built a car that looks devastatingly quick.
Indeed Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel appeared to be deliberately slowing his car on his quickest laps, leaving Mercedes to ponder how much faster the Prancing Horse could bolt.
“I think Ferrari are bluffing and that they are a lot quicker than they are showing,” Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton said. “It’s difficult right now to say … but they are very close, if not faster [than Mercedes].”
Mercedes, however, has never been one to showboat, preferring instead to focus on reliability — and in testing its endurance was undisputed, lapping 650 kilometres more than anyone else.
Testing is notoriously difficult to read, with variables like the fuel load and engine mode impossible to know. Few doubt Mercedes has more performance up its sleeve, but trackside observers couldn’t help but note that the Silver Arrow looked marginally less comfortable around the circuit than its red Italian counterpart did.
And what of Red Bull Racing, the team tipped to take it to Mercedes after two wins last season? Adrian Newey, perhaps the sport’s foremost design expert, is expected to deliver the goods, but car sent out to test looked basic compared to expectations.
RBR is renowned for its development prowess and should therefore not be discounted come round one, but concerning still is that Renault’s engine is suffering from a variety of glitches.
Red Bull’s junior team, Toro Rosso, bore the brunt of Renault’s problems, completing the second-fewest number of laps, but both Red Bull teams and the Renault works team agree the motor is a significant step forward in performance terms.
But Renault’s problems are small fry compared to those of McLaren-Honda. Despite the car’s new historic orange colour scheme, the team’s optimism quickly turned to despair and then horror when it became obvious Honda’s power unit was woefully flawed.
Terminal problems in the first week’s engine and a second-week engine that literally shook parts of the car into failure meant McLaren completed the fewest laps of all, the mileage shortfall to Mercedes more than 3100 kilometres.
Though the chassis also appeared deficient around the technical Barcelona circuit, team talisman Fernando Alonso left no-one in doubt as to what he saw as the problem.
“We have only one problem, and that is the power unit”, he fumed. “There is no reliability and there is no power. We are 30 kilometres per hour down on the straight, every straight.”
Though testing is far from a definitive guide to the season, it has done much to whet the appetites of F1 fans starved of the sport for more than 90 days, with hints of big battles at the front and acrimony at the rear.
And all will come to a head at round one, Melbourne’s Australian Grand Prix, on 26 March.