F1 pre-season: testing times for Mercedes while F1 remembered Murray Walker, the unforgettable voice of the sport

Pre-season testing took place over the last few days in Bahrain, where the first race of the 2021 F1 season will take place in two weeks’ time. The sport paused on Saturday evening to pay tribute to Murray Walker, one of sport’s most legendary commentators. Mercedes seemed on the back foot for the first time in years, while Red Bull looked like genuine title contenders. Testing offered hints as to the shape of the season ahead, while still leaving many questions as yet unanswered.

On Saturday evening, midway through pre-season testing in Bahrain, we learnt of the passing of Murray Walker at the age of 97. He was a legend of F1, loved throughout the paddock, and was likely the most recognisable and distinctive voice of any sport. That what followed was more of a celebration of his life and his contribution to the sport that he so loved than a mourning of his death speaks volumes about the positive impact he had on those around him and the generations of fans for whom he brought the sport to life. Countless figures from the sport took the time on Saturday evening and Sunday morning to reminisce about the infectious enthusiasm of Murray Walker which drew so many into the sport, as we relived some of his famous quotes and “Murrayisms” which only served to further endear him to the world. Murray will never be forgotten, and his contribution to his sport will outlive all of us.

Following the many touching tributes to Murray Walker, the sport turned its focus once more to the on-track action that Murray had so brilliantly brought to life during his career.

Mercedes made the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2021’s pre-season test in Bahrain. On the very first morning of testing, Mercedes suffered a transmission problem which necessitated a lengthy gearbox change, meaning that Bottas completed just six laps in the first four-hour morning session. With only three days of testing in total before the season gets underway in a fortnight, this represented a huge loss of time which was needed to gather data and fine-tune the car.

Although this was less than ideal, it should have only been a minor setback to the dominant force of the V6 hybrid era.

Bahrain hosted the 2021 test ahead of the first race there later in March.

What was much more concerning was the behaviour of the Mercedes W12, which seemed to lack balance throughout the three days of testing. Hamilton could be seen spinning up the rear tyres on the exit of the first corner, laying down long tyre marks on the track as he continued to bury the throttle, a potential sign of frustration with a car that was not working as the seven-time world champion would have wished.

The Mercedes continued to look unstable throughout testing, in comparison to the Red Bull which looked much more planted through the corners. Hamilton spun into the gravel at turn thirteen, a turn where many of the drivers struggled due to tailwinds upsetting the balance of the car, which brought out the red flags as his car was recovered.

Although both Bottas and Hamilton put in some better lap times on the final day of testing, neither seemed comfortable, and neither seemed able to match the pace of the Red Bull.

Testing lap times have to be taken with a pinch of salt, as we cannot know the fuel loads or engine modes the teams are using, both of which could have a large bearing on lap times. However, the behaviour of the Mercedes car suggests that they no longer possess the absolute dominance of previous years, meaning that we can expect a much tighter battle for the world championship this year. Mercedes have been dominant for a reason, so it would be unwise to write them off. They are more than capable of resolving some of the issues they have had so far, and may well still be the quickest car in two weeks’ time. What we are set to have this year is what so many have been desperate for in recent years: a proper battle at the front of the grid.

In the absence of such a battle in recent years, the F1 midfield has often been the highlight. The midfield battle could further intensify this year, with McLaren, Alpine, Alpha Tauri, Aston Martin and Ferrari all looking relatively close together in performance. Ferrari seem to have made up a large part of the power deficit they suffered from in 2020, McLaren had a textbook test and looked strong throughout, Alpine also looked promising, and the Alpha Tauri looked like a car ready to move up to the upper echelons of the midfield.

Aston Martin’s test was less than ideal, with gearbox issues costing them time on Saturday and a power unit issue putting the AMR-21 out of action again on Sunday evening. Although they failed to light up the timing screens, the car looked solid out on track, and the team may yet recover to be challenging for third place in the constructors’ standings as they were last year.

Alfa Romeo, Williams and Haas all had a good test, with strong reliability and no major signs of issues. Question marks remain about the strength of the Haas car, although their rookie drivers both seemed to have settled in well. Whether Williams or Alfa Romeo can bridge the gap to the midfield group remains to be seen due to the unknown factor that is fuel loads.

What was striking was the overall performance of the 2021 F1 cars. Reliability problems were few and far between compared to previous years, even with the teams continually pushing the limits in car design, with power units in particular being ever-tightly packaged while also producing more horsepower.

Despite changes to the aerodynamic regulations aimed at reducing downforce levels and ultimately slowing the cars down, lap times from testing suggest that the 2021 cars should be achieving similar lap times to the ones set in 2020. This illustrates the relentless nature of F1 teams, who have already managed to gain back the performance that was lost to the new regulations and may well go on to set record lap times as the cars develop through the year.

The exact 2021 F1 running order is still largely unknown, and will remain as such until qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix in two weeks’ time. However, testing has revealed a grid which looks incredibly tight and unpredictable in the midfield, and crucially, a genuine title fight between Red Bull and Mercedes looks on the cards for the first time in a long time.

2 thoughts on “F1 pre-season: testing times for Mercedes while F1 remembered Murray Walker, the unforgettable voice of the sport

    1. Mercedes certainly have had a habit of sandbagging in recent seasons in terms of overall lap time, so it’s no surprise that people are expecting the same this year! The crucial difference this time round was how uncomfortable the drivers looked in the Mercedes. They were visibly struggling with rear end instability, with the car repeatedly running off track, spinning twice, and generally looking a handful to drive, in contrast to how composed the Red Bull was. Mercedes’s exact pace is not yet known, but their handling issues show that they are not comfortable this time, and if they do not find the way to get a better balance from the car – which they might well do – then they will be very worried about the Red Bull.

      I think we might just be able to dream this time!

      Like

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