Mercedes in box seat after preseason testing

With two weeks of preseason testing complete and with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix (25 March) little more than a week away, only one thing seems certain: Mercedes is still quick.

The field is expected to tighten at the front in the second year of stable aerodynamic regulations, but preseason testing form — admittedly a vague metric subject to the usual showboating and sandbagging — appears to have dampened hopes.

Ferrari, last year’s title challenger, and Red Bull Racing have reason for optimism, having set competitive times and having put in strong on-track showings across the eight days of testing, but these all come with important caveats.

In particular Ferrari, the fastest car by the end of testing, bettered the previous lap record of Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya by 1.2 seconds, but this was a mixture of circumstance and classic Scuderia showboating.

The Italian team used Pirelli’s new hypersoft tyres — the fastest compound the manufacturer has ever developed — to set its best time on the final day of testing, and the newly resurfaced circuit is estimated by some drivers to be worth as much as two seconds per lap.

Red Bull Racing set the third quickest time of the fortnight, almost 0.9 seconds off the pace, but what appears to be a potent aerodynamic concept is being hamstrung by the underpowered Renault engine bolted into the back.

Indeed GPS data reportedly suggests the RB14 was quicker than Ferrari’s SF71H in every corner of the circuit, losing time only on the straights.

But lap time certainly isn’t everything, and for proof look no further than Mercedes’s best effort, which was more than 1.2 seconds slower than Ferrari’s fastest lap.

Mercedes, however, set its best time on the ultrasoft tyres, which is one step harder and approximately 0.8 seconds slower than the hypersoft compound. Moreover, the Silver Arrows spent most of their time in race simulation, never attempting a low-fuel glory run.

What Mercedes did prove, however, is that its class-leading power unit is bulletproof, completing 1040 laps, over 100 more than any other constructor. With teams allowed just three engines for the entire season in 2018, Mercedes’s dedication to distance is sure to pay dividends.

The fight for supremacy is by no means over, but an early Mercedes head start could be enough to undo the title ambitions of its rivals.

But even if Mercedes hegemony seems likely, substantially less certain is the order of the rest of the field.

McLaren, which has spent the off-season backing itself as a dark horse after switching from the unreliable Honda engines to Renault power, completed the fewest laps of any team after a string of reliability problems.

Toro Rosso, however, which traded its Renault engines for a partnership with the maligned Honda, was the third most prolific team by laps in testing, marking a major improvement in the Japanese supplier’s fortunes. Regular points contention is the team’s new goal.

But perhaps the greatest intrigue is saved for Haas, the American-owned team in its third year of competition.

Haas’s aerodynamic concept looked restrained at launch, but its sure-footedness on track was paired with some impressive lap times, and indeed the VF-18’s fastest lap, corrected for using a harder-compound tyres, would put its performance in line with Ferrari.

With Renault growing stronger by the day and with Force India expected to bring a significant upgrade package to Melbourne, the fight for fourth place in the constructors standings, best of the rest behind the three frontrunning teams, is more uncertain than ever before.

It makes for a fascinating set-up to next weekend’s Australian Grand Prix and the 2018 Formula One season.