The Mercedes team has cast doubt on whether title rivals Ferrari are really struggling as much as they appeared to be in the first week of pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
Ferrari’s new SF1000 seemed off the pace in the first three days of on-track testing, finishing well behind the Silver Arrows both in terms of raw pace and distance completed.
It resulted in a downbeat assessment from Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto on Friday in which he declared: “I am not as optimistic as last year.”
“Some of the others are faster than us at the moment,” he added. “Looking at the picture at the front comparing it to ourselves, I think we are not as fast.”
But a feature in Mercedes’s end-of-week press notes suggested that this statement should be taken with a large pinch of salt.
It explained that Ferrari are probably holding back and not showing their true potential, unlike last year, where they were the stars of the show and it was Mercedes looked to be in trouble.
“You can say with some confidence that your competitors are ‘at least as fast as X’, but you do not know for sure how much faster they could have gone,” the team pointed out.
“No-one wants the egg on their face of claiming that they are faster than another team, because they can never know for certain what was hidden or what is coming next.
“For example, will Red Bull bring a significant upgrade package to the second test? Why have Ferrari spent this test running their power unit consistently at much lower levels than their partner teams?”
Sebastian Vettel had already addressed the Scuderia’s engine strategy in comments made to the media in Spain this week.
“I think right now the target is not to prove the maximum power of the engine, the target is to do as many laps as possible,” he explained. “Ramping up the engine and so on, it’s probably not something you want to do in testing and certainly not to show everyone.”
Binotto acknowledged that Ferrari had “changed the approach to the testing and the programme” compared to last year, when it hit the road with all guns blazing only to fall flat on its face in the first races of the season.
With so much ‘sandbagging’ going on, it would be easy to entirely dismiss the relevance of how well or not teams do in testing sessions such as this. But Mercedes said it would be a mistake to take that view.
“Testing times are not meaningless, they are a goldmine,” the team stated. “If you look at them long enough, they gradually give up their secrets.
“Far from discounting testing time analysis as meaningless, every team in the pitlane pores over the data as it emerges in order to build up a picture of the competitive pecking order
“If you’re prepared to sift through them with care and caution, a clear picture begins to emerge.
“Using techniques that have been built up over a number of seasons it is possible to figure out, with surprising accuracy, what lies beneath the headline laptimes that we see during winter testing.
“If we see a car jump up or down in pace by meaningful amount, then we will tentatively conclude that this was a jump to one of the other fuel loads,” the analysis continued.
“For example, if it gets a chunk faster, we can assume that this was an adjustment to the “performance” level for a run that will be nearer to a qualifying effort.
“What we can say is that we predict the battle in Melbourne at the front is going to be tight.
“We can also see that the midfield have closed on the front and that there is some considerable midfield swing compared to last year’s competitive order.”