Formula-One Pre-SeasonWith the first F1 race of the 2015 season barely 10 days away, the experience of the drivers and constructors at three 4-day pre-season testing sessions were like the sandbagging festivals. The preparations for the Rolex Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne during March 13-15, 2015 are already in full swing and feedbacks from the Spain experience are being used to make necessary corrections before Melbourne comes calling. These practice sessions were held on racing tracks of Jerez and Barcelona over a 12-day period and there were clear indications of the shape of things to unfold in the 2015 F1 season. It all began at Jerez 0n February 01 and ended on February 04, 2015. Then after a fortnight’s gap, drivers arrived with their new machines at Barcelona first during February 19-22 and again between February 26 and March 01, 2015. Some immediate impressions after these grueling sessions have already become topics of furious discussions amongst analysts, constructors, drivers and die-hard F1 fans.

The practice session at Jerez clearly revealed that 2014 champions Mercedes are still in the class of their own. They had the most laps compared to others. Like the big four in men’s tennis, F1 has the big four of their own in Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams and Red Bull, though not necessarily in that order. After Mercedes’ 515 laps at Jerez, Ferrari was next with 349 with medium rubber. Not only the machines, but Mercedes drivers also inspired confidence. They maintained the tempo at Barcelona both in the fastest lap charts and total laps covered. Everyone thought that Mercedes will go even further, when the new season commences.

At Jerez, it looked Ferrari is close on Mercedes’ heels as both Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were happy with the new car as they zoomed around adding to their laps at Jerez. But the optimism at Jerez got a bit tempered at Barcelona as Ferrari couldn’t match Mercedes and even trailed Williams in speed. However, Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene felt that his team that now includes Sebastian Vettel would look beyond the results in testing sessions and Ferrari could still stage a comeback.

After a slow start at Jerez on account of power unit issues that restricted Red Bull just 735 km, they showed improved performance in Barcelona. In the first session, Red Bull totaled 1945 km with the Renault power unit and Daniel Ricciardo seemed pretty happy. In Barcelona, however, Ricciardo faced an unexpected ERS failure. It dented the confidence of the driver and the Red Bull managers.

Williams had a great 2014 season returning as the best team after Mercedes. In testing sessions, they couldn’t do much at Jerez but in the last two sessions at Barcelona, they came out with flying colors. Their new car drew accolades from drivers and tab-keepers. They may not match the superiority of the Mercedes but they certainly looked better than Red Bull and Ferrari in Barcelona. Valtteri Bottas finished on top of the timesheets with the fastest lap time of 1:23.063 and edged out Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by four-tenths of a second. Sauber’s Felipe Nasr was behind Vettel. Williams have not revealed the true speed of their new car but its FW37 engine made Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa quite positive for the upcoming season.

McLaren had problems since they could only reach 79 laps at Jerez though the machine looked great. But the drivers continued with engine troubles in their MP4-30 machine at Barcelona. On the penultimate day of running, Jenson Button put 100 laps but engine issues prevented McLaren from getting the full last day. In the end, Jenson Button completed only 30 with his super-soft. He had a timing 2.2 seconds adrift of Bottas. But Button and Alonso are confident that all problems will be sorted about before Melbourne and McLaren’s new partnership with Honda will prove fruitful in the 2015 season.

In a last-ditch attempt to ready their cars for Melbourne, most teams decided to focus on race simulations and long-run pace, with some also performing a qualifying practice to estimate their chances for the upcoming season. It was Williams’ Bottas who set the pace on super-soft tires with the best lap time in Barcelona. Williams enjoyed another trouble-free day and ended the session 90 minutes ahead of the scheduled finish.

Like Ferrari, Sauber rediscovered some of its early testing form as Felipe Nasr finished third on super-soft tires. The Brazilian completed more laps than any other driver as his final preparations ahead of his F1 debut went according to plan.

Sergio Perez had just one in the Force India VJM08 ahead of the new season and enjoyed a productive day. The Mexican was lapping consistently in the car and finished a solid sixth in spite of the numerous delays that Force India suffered over the winter. However, it is likely that the true cost of the time lost will become clear later this month in Australia.

After coming off marvelously at Jerez and topping the timesheets on two days at Barcelona, Mercedes didn’t have any mercurial run and Nico Rosberg could only finish seventh. Rosberg turned up his fastest lap time within an hour last Sunday on medium-compound tires and then decided to focus on his long runs rather than speed. He ended the day with 148 laps.

With pre-season testing now over, attention turns to the opening race of the year in Australia on March 15. Mercedes does appear to still enjoy a sizeable advantage over the rest of the field, but with Red Bull, Williams, Ferrari and Lotus closely knit behind, the stage is set for another thrilling season of racing.