Predicting where the F1 teams will slot into the 2016 grid is a task eschewed by the testing time sheets... studying other areas provides a brighter picture.

There are now two groups in Formula 1, the leading bunch of four cars, two silver and green and two red and white. Almost all of the podiums in 2016 will be taken up entirely by the drivers in that bunch, but in the main field there is a huge battle to be best of the rest.

The vagaries of testing time and tyre data can lead you to draw flawed conclusions about the relative performances of various cars and drivers. In 2016 it is particularly difficult to work out what is really going on in the midfield, this is particularly notable looking at the fastest lap times of the Williams drivers during the second test.

Felipe Massa was the faster of the pair with a best lap of 1m 23.193s, while team-mate Valtteri Bottas's best was a 1m 23.229s. While the times were set on different days it is no great shock to see these two drivers so close in pace while at the wheel of the same car.

However, the best laps of each of them was set on different tyres, Massa's best lap was set on the Soft compound tyre while Bottas marginally slower best lap was set on the ultra-soft compound which should have been significantly faster.

Has Bottas suddenly become slower than his team mate? Unlikely but this small case highlights the trap of studying the time sheet and statistics alone during a test.

To get a clear understanding it is best to look at images, study the comments of engineers and also see and hear the cars on track. Generally, the feeling is that the midfield is tighter than ever, with the performance of most of the teams converging.

One car to watch is the Toro Rosso STR11. Although it is fitted with an outdated Ferrari V6 which is no longer being developed, it is a strong engine and very reliable. The chassis is quite advanced and has a number of features which other teams are copying.

At Barcelona the Toro Rosso was not only fast it was also largely reliable, something even the team did not expect after having to rapidly adapt the chassis to accommodate the Ferrari. At the start of the season its pace, reliability and drivers who now have a lot more experience than they did in 2015, could all combine to see this car as one of the best of the rest after Ferrari and Mercedes but as the season progresses and the power units develop the STR should fall back through the field.

Williams and Force India with the Mercedes engines should see a boost based on late 2015 results too, both cars are gentle iterations of the previous concepts something that should give them reliability. As the Mercedes power unit develops these cars could well be podium regulars.

Red Bull had a slightly strange pair of tests at Barcelona, its new car was not really designed for the Renault (ahem, TAG Heuer) power unit but the team made it fit.

From the outset it seemed fast, not super-fast, but its top times were set on the soft compound not the super-soft or ultra-soft. The RB12 is a mild upgrade on the RB11 concept, but one senior aerodynamic engineer says the RB11 was the best cars in terms of aero performance and that has carried over to the new car.

Indeed, the drivers seem to think that the RB12 is nicer to drive than the old car. At one point the car caught fire but this is normal for a Red Bull in winter testing.

The weak point in the Red Bull package in recent years has been its Renault power unit. In 2016 Renault has introduced a major update mostly focused on the combustion engine and while Red Bull seemed trouble free with a modest boost there would have been worried glances toward the works Renault garage.

The works team suffered quite a few problems with its car, and this is a bit unexpected, the Renault RS16 is really just a slightly reworked Lotus E23 adapted to accept the Renault power unit. So with that in mind it should be reliable but it seemingly is not.

Another team with troubles is McLaren. Without being able to gauge the exact pace of the car as the final version will not be seen until Melbourne Honda meanwhile is still unhappy with the performance of its RA616H power unit. Overall the car is an improvement but don't expect it to get out of Q2 very easily and Q1 may even be a struggle again.

Haas was also blighted by unreliability during the sessions at Barcelona, but despite what it says on the stopwatch the newcomers looked like they had a midfield fighter. The troubles the team suffered were down to issues with the Ferrari power unit or the team not being fully gelled yet. While the team is new the staff are all extremely experienced and with time the performance will improve.

Another single car which could disrupt the order in the pack is the Manor MRT05, especially with the DTM champion Pascal Wehrlein in the cockpit. He is clearly very talented indeed and his car seems very capable too.

The Manor team have come back from the brink, designed a very competent car and secured the best power unit. This single car is certainly one to watch. The sister car however is clearly going to struggle, Rio Haryanto needs more time behind the wheel and does not seem ready for Formula 1. He spent most of the tests outside of the 107% qualifying time and by the time qualifying in Melbourne comes reality will bite hard.

Finally, there is Sauber who will spend a lot of time propping up the field this year. Its new car which failed to appear at the first test is only vaguely different to the 2015 model, though it is fitted with the new Ferrari power unit and transmission which should give it some pace.

Its drivers are not exactly the class of the field and I suspect the cash strapped Swiss team is cruise and collect mode as it waits for 2017.

 

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