Depending on your level of cynicism - typically quite high in the media centre - then you may have been inclined to ponder which Formula 1 team would be the first to hit trouble across the opening day of pre-season testing in Barcelona.

There were two main theories: it would either be Toro Rosso-Honda, owing to the Japanese manufacturer’s torrid testing record, memories fresh given the recent release of Amazon’s ‘Grand Prix Driver’ series; or it would be McLaren, an ironic twist following its move away from Honda for 2018.

And on Monday, the two teams had very different mornings, enduring fortunes that only add to the ever-evolving story which started last autumn.

Toro Rosso made an early impression by being the first team to get out on-track in the morning. There may be no prizes for doing so, but it has been a point of pride for Mercedes over the years, who had been first out at 9 a.m. on the dot every year since 2014. But this time around, Honda and Toro Rosso had won the race.

McLaren ventured out with Fernando Alonso behind the wheel of the car not long after, completing a handful of installation laps before posting a timed lap. After the optimism that came out of the filming day, there were decent expectations for McLaren.

But less than one hour into official F1 2018 running, we had the first incident. And it was for Alonso in the McLaren.

Coming through the final corner, Alonso lost the rear end of his McLaren MCL33 as the right-rear tyre came loose, bouncing over the rear of the car before coming to rest in the gravel. Alonso stopped a long way short of the wall, but required recovery after a red flag stoppage.

It had taken 34 minutes for McLaren to bring out a red flag. A flurry of déjà vu from 2017.

The cause? A loose wheel nut on the right-rear tyre - so this wasn’t a power unit-related issue bearing any similarity to the problems of 2017. Instead, a little more bad luck, although the explanation given by the team wasn’t all that illuminating.

“The wheelnut issue was just a wheelnut issue, so I’m not going to comment. You know what it is,” racing director Eric Boullier said.

“You lose a wheelnut and you lose a wheel and that’s it. Obviously it cost us track time, which is the only downside today, but we are now back and running our programme.”

Alonso was able to get back out on-track just before lunch, taking his lap count up to 10 for the morning session before a chilly afternoon stunted any meaningful testing for the team.

Honda, meanwhile, had managed 72 laps before with Brendon Hartley behind the wheel of the Toro Rosso, capping off a thoroughly good morning of running.

Not long after the excitement over Alonso’s red flag, the F1 media corps had trundled down to Toro Rosso for a press briefing with team principal Franz Tost, technical chief James Key, Honda’s new F1 boss, Toyoharu Tanabe, and driver Pierre Gasly.

Far from the early awkward initial press conference we had in Singapore when the Toro Rosso-Honda deal was first announced, there was a real sense of hope and optimism about the season ahead. It’s unchartered territory for Toro Rosso, enjoying works status as the sole Honda customer team.

“It was a completely new start for Toro Rosso as you can imagine,” said Tost. “We’re kind of a works team, we are the only team that is working with Honda and this opened a lot of possibilities, especially on the technical side with the engine installation and so on.

“For Toro Rosso it’s a big advantage to work together with such a big company as Honda.”

“It’s quite refreshing actually being only a customer with the team,” Key added. “It’s great having that level of cooperation and collaboration.

“It means we can very much tune the whole package as one whereas when you’re a customer you can’t do that. We are very flexible towards Honda, they’ve been the same towards us.”

Whether Toro Rosso-Honda goes down as a success or not will largely depend on the on-track results. While Hartley could only add another 21 laps to his tally due to freezing conditions that made running of little worth, it was nevertheless a strong signal of intent to kick off with.

“It was a really positive day,” Hartley said. “We had no issues at all. We stopped early because of the weather, almost icy conditions out there. But everything felt pretty good straight out of the box.

“Obviously we had a lot of test items that we didn’t get to complete because of the weather but I think getting through 93 laps was a great start to the campaign with the new Honda Toro Rosso.”

Was the day a statement to answer Honda’s critics?

“I think it was,” agreed Hartley. “We were first out on-track and up until the rain hit and we boxed we’d done the most laps, we had no reliability issues and I think that’s the target for Honda, especially for this first part of the season.

“It was really positive today and drivability was great and there’s really no complaints. A perfect start from that point of view and hopefully we can build on that.”

Despite the cries of ‘oh no, not again!’ when Alonso had his off, the Spaniard was able to take plenty of positives out of the day, stressing that the incident looked worse than it actually was.

“The car felt very good here, good potential,” Alonso said. “I think the performance side it is very early to say but everything seems to be in line with our expectations and the wind tunnel and the data we had before coming to the team. I think everything is quite optimistic.”

Alas, as the media grabbed their goodie bags from Toro Rosso following the press conference with Honda, we couldn’t help but smile when we saw what was inside following such contrasting days for the two teams to watch on Monday…

Yes. It was a wheel nut.

 

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