Now nothing remains to be done by F1 drivers before they gather at Melbourne’s Albert Park on March 18 for the season opener Australian Grand Prix. This year, the pre-season tests were reduced to just 2 sessions, the last of which ended on Friday March 4, 2016. While Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were supreme in topping the timesheets, they wouldn’t have missed the enterprising efforts from Force India’s Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg. If it was Hulkenberg in the first practice session, Sergio Perez made a signature statement in the second by finishing third on time-sheets behind Sebastian Vettel and Spain’s Carlos Sainz. Perez derived the satisfaction of finishing ahead of double F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton on last day and that should serve as a tremendous morale booster for Force India’s Mexican recruit. With under two weeks left for the first race of 2016 F1 season, constructors and drivers will get busy with the final preparations of their own before arriving in Melbourne.
After a nearly extinct status in first few years, Force India F1 team had something to cheer about for the past 2-3 seasons. The portents of their fine run in F1 were evident, when Perez finished fifth in last year’s season-ending race at Abu Dhabi, while his Force India teammate Nico Hulkenberg was seventh. 16 points collected by the duo at Abu Dhabi helped Force India to secure fifth place with 136 points in 2015 constructors’ championship. Sixth-placed Lotus were a lowly sixth with 78 points. The Force India drivers shrugged off the poor start in 2015 and remained quite consistent later in the season. In Sochi’s Russian Grand Prix in October 2015, Perez made Force India proud by finishing third and sharing the podium with Mercedes’ race winner Mercedes’ Hamilton and four-time world champion Ferrari’s Vettel. In the recently concluded pre-season tests, Perez and Hulkenberg both have had impressive outings and elicited raised eyebrows from other competitors.
The final day of second F1 pre-season test almost followed the pattern of the second day as Sebastian Vettel topped the time-charts once again. Using the newly prescribed Halo Cockpit Protector, Vettel began by hunting down Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s red-banded super-soft tyres gave him the speed to overtake the reigning champion. Not only that, Vettel also reached within 1/10th second of his teammate Kimi Raikkonen’s time of 22.765 in the first pre-season test 10 days ago. While pre-season test timings are no benchmarks for the real-action, Force India accredited themselves on both outings. While on the third day of the first pre-season test, Nico Hulkenberg topped the time sheets, his teammate Perez finished third on the last day of the second test.
The two pre-season tests were different in the approach of the drivers and the constructors. The first test during February 22-25 was more for testing the machines and the new features, whereas the second had more to do with drivers’ field performance. Ferrari may have claimed the speed advantage but they also saw Mercedes drivers’ focus on covering as many laps as they could in both sessions. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had logged nearly 5000 kilometers in the first test and they continued the same way in the second test. Hamilton and Rosberg did 673 and 656 laps respectively and no one could come anywhere near those numbers. The combined results of the two pre-season tests in terms of speed put Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel on the first two positions with Mercedes’s Nico Rosberg at third spot. Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg was fourth ahead of Carlo Sainz of Torro Rosso. Sixth to tenth spots were on time sheets went to Felipe Massa, Valtteri Bottas, Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton in that order with Force India’s Sergio Perez ending at 11th place behind Hamilton.
It must be borne in mind that pre-season test data and analysis can be highly misleading because constructors and drivers have their own preferences. It was obvious that Mercedes remained focused on stamina rather than the speed. As for Ferrari, they are the closest challengers to Mercedes, who have dominated the 2014 and 2015 seasons on machine superiority. Ferrari used the latest super-soft rubber compound for their tyres as many other constructors, Mercedes resisted such temptation and relied on medium and yellow soft tyres. Since Hamilton and Rosberg only focused on logging miles on the track, they didn’t figure high on timesheet performance.
What may happen when the F1 season gets underway at Melbourne is anybody’s guess but for the Indian F1 fans, performance of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez was heartwarming. Whether or not the two drivers could translate their pre-season excellence in the 21 races of 2016 season is a moot question and only time will reveal the extent of their true preparedness.