Mercedes sharpens its silver arrows

If there was one phrase that was trotted out more than any other through pre-season testing, it had to be 'it's hard to say'. Whether the question was about a team's own progress or which team looked quickest around them, few were willing to put their money where their mouths are... unless they were talking about Mercedes.

The team's sheer advantage in 2014 means it was perhaps more hope than expectation that things would be closer come 2015, but by the end of the test you could pick up on the despondency in the voices of rivals as they conceded Mercedes is most certainly the team to beat.

From its superior mileage - despite viruses and trapped nerves attempting to hobble the drivers - to the fact it topped the timesheets comfortably without feeling the need to crack out the super-soft tyres, Mercedes look assured and comfortable heading to Albert Park.

The odd reliability issue has cropped up occasionally, but in the context of its mileage - which was 400km more than any other team -, this is the very definition of clutching at straws.

Not that Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are jumping for joy just yet. Both complained of being uncomfortable with the set-up, but it smacked of the F1 equivalent of 'first world problems'. It's far too early to say all bets are off, but given Mercedes is unlikely to let the embarrassments of 2014 repeat themselves, it would take a brave person to consider putting his money elsewhere.

The rest of the best

If the front row is a foregone conclusion - Sebastian Vettels' words, not mine -, the rows two, three, four and more are much more closely matched (fortunately).

Williams has kept its cards close to its chest, saying there will be modifications on the car for Melbourne, but it seems the FW37 is already very sorted, proving quick and - arguably more than any other car - reliable. The fact it finished the final two days at least an hour early is an outward sign of confidence.

Ferrari, meanwhile, is generally regarded as having made the most substantial step forward of all the top teams over the winter, though the headlines weren't quite so noticeable as the test went on. Either way, the new management, the arrival of Vettel and a 'smiling' Kimi Raikkonen seems to have given rivals pause for thought and its progress will be viewed most keenly in Melbourne.

Red Bull's form, meanwhile, remains rather more mysterious - and not just because it was hiding behind its camouflage livery. Niggling technical issues continued right up until the final day, but in the hands of Daniel Ricciardo at least, the RB11 seems to have a burst of pace in it. However, Red Bull followed an alternative programme to most, so it is perhaps the team where the term 'we will only know at Melbourne' rings most true.

Elsewhere, Lotus appears seems content with its more conventional-looking, Mercedes-powered entry and seems reasonable bet for points in Australia, which is more than can be said for its unloved predecessor. Force India might well be looking for top tens too after getting up to speed quickly with the persistently delayed VJM08, though its ultimate lack of running may count against it come race day initially.

Two teams looking to firmly settle in the top ten are Toro Rosso and Sauber, which both mated decent low fuel runs with lengthy stints. The latter seems to have made a particular step forward, but we have seen the Swiss team flatter to deceive during the 'winter championship' before, so the jury remains out for the time being.

As for McLaren... if it simply gets to the end of the Australian Grand Prix (or even a practice session) without a technical issue then it can probably deem the first round as a success. If this is really the target though, it's a sad state of affairs for team and manufacturer.

Questions, answers... and more questions

Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory and though the circumstances behind Fernando Alonso's crash in Spain is hardly up there with whether man actually landed on the moon, it was an engrossing talking point from the moment he struck that wall.

Maybe it was just something to focus on - 8 hours of testing over 8 days 'watching' 9 cars without a TV feed doesn't make for a terribly exhilarating experience -, perhaps it was because we didn't actually see the crash or perhaps it was because McLaren couldn't seem to get its story straight, but Alonso's crash kept chucking out questions quicker than the team could answer them.

First things first, it was windy that day. Hardly a hurricane, but we were already talking about the gusts before the accident, so McLaren's claim that Mother Nature had a hand in the actual crash is fairly plausible. The reasons and aftermath of the crash have been well documented, but the picture of what happened remains fairly murky.

Ron Dennis arrived in Spain to dispel rumours and speculation, but his face off with the media perplexed many. It started off well with a succinct clarification of events, but as questions fired from a packed hospitality suite - making the normally 'dominant' Dennis seem oddly small -, the story became steadily less assured and body language experts would have had a field day.

Whilst certain elements were believable in their effusive delivery - the wind, the 'perfect' condition of Alonso and 'no electrical discharge' claim -, you could practically hear the eyebrows raise when Dennis declared his driver had suffered no concussion and seemed perturbed that it was even suggested, even though this is what we had been told by the team. When he then declared that the team hadn't spoken to Alonso about the crash - four days after it had happened -, the fact there was a brief but noticeable pause in a press conference of thick and fast questions, said a lot.

As it became clear that the only person who could possibly give a clear reasoning of the crash and their condition was Alonso himself - who has time now to get his story in line with McLaren's -, we came away arguably more confused than when we went in, but conceding that if we weren't going to know more now, we probably won't at all.

Us? Cynical? Always...

Carmen Jorda: A questionable 'development'

Full disclosure, I am yet to meet Carmen Jorda and I have absolutely no doubt that she is a tremendously nice person with many redeeming qualities... but previous form makes me question whether racing cars at a competitive level is one of them, let alone an F1 car.

Jorda's announcement as a Lotus F1 development driver drew a fairly dumbfounded reaction in the paddock, and it wasn't just from us hacks. GP2 driver Mitch Evans asked whether it was April 1st, while her former team-mate Rob Cregan's quip on Twitter that Jorda 'couldn't develop a roll of film' prompted a few schoolyard giggles.

Indeed, the press release accompanying the announcement makes for a fine example of positive spin because - on a serious note - it strikes another blow to the reputation that F1 is more concerned banking the cheque than developing the talent. It's far from a new discussion, but arguably few - if any - other F1 deals have brought this so sharply into focus.

No matter how you spin it, cold, hard statistics do not work in Jorda's favour. In 3 years of GP3 racing, Jorda failed to make it into the points once.

Granted, GP3 is a competitive series, but Jorda cracked the top 15 just once in 46 races. To put into perspective, Jorda qualified the car last in Monza, almost two seconds off the next slowest driver. When her Koiranen GP car was handed over to Dean Stoneman in Sochi for the following race, he dominated from pole position.

The negative reaction should have precisely nothing to do with gender - I would be writing exactly the same words about a male driver - but that doesn't mean there are no ramifications for the debate. Jorda's signing looks positive for equality on the surface, but her suspect set of career results - when you have the likes of Simona de Silvestro, Beitske Visser and even Susie Wolff doing more of a service to gender equality in motorsport -, is arguably counter-productive towards this quest.

Lotus could use a 'win' in a few senses of the word and the money that is no doubt associated with this deal is certainly one of them, but I personally hope Jorda's role is twinned with someone like Esteban Ocon, who - despite beating a certain Max Verstappen in Lotus colours to the European F3 title - hasn't got his 2015 plans arranged yet...

Pack the ear plugs... just in case

It was a question that didn't have a clear answer (perhaps we should have asked Ron Dennis...), but from where I was sat, F1 is definitely packing a louder punch in 2015.

Intentional or not, the volume levels seemed higher as the cars blasted down the home straight, particularly those with the Mercedes power unit. Now, I am no acoustics expert - an empty stand probably creates an amphitheatre effect -, but the Ferrari was also making a din, while the Renault retains more of the 'aviation-like' whine that distinguished the cars in 2014. The Honda (when it was on track) seemed lower pitch, albeit possibly as a result of it not running at full pelt yet.

Teams and drivers have been divided on the whether the cars are louder in fact, though Felipe Massa made the good point that you only had to listen to the 2014 Force India when it turned up to test alongside the 2015 cars as a measure of the different in decibels.

In short, though it's not nearly as piercing as engines of yester-year, it appears a happier medium between comfort and atmosphere has been established.

So if you are heading to a race this year, pack the ear plugs just in case, but know that a day at the races won't necessarily mean you can give up attempting to have a conversation during the race. Though it's up to you if you think that's a good thing or not...
.by Ollie Barstow



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