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F1 testing - bulletproof Mercedes still the car to beat

Two weeks before the new season, Formula 1 teams have completed their pre-season testing schedule. Mercedes still seemed imperious, with Ferrari and the Mercedes-powered Williams looking like the most serious rivals.

Formel Eins Mercedes Lewis Hamilton

Mercedes, pursued by Ferrari - you might want to acclimatize to this image ready for the new season

The next time Formula 1 cars leave the pits, it will be at the 2016 season-opener in Melbourne. The truest indication of the new field's relative strength will have to wait until qualifying that Saturday, March 19, but eight days of intensive pre-season testing have already provided key clues.

Even for keen F1 observers, testing lap times are a dangerous tool when trying to judge cars' relative performance. Important data remains a secret to all but the team's engineers: how much fuel (and therefore extra weight) is the car carrying, is the team experimenting with an unusual car set-up, or does it simply want to withhold its true potential from prying paddock eyes for as long as possible? Mercedes, for instance, have been conspicuously reluctant to don the softest, fastest compound of tires and blast round the track for one fast lap.

Formel Eins Mercedes Nico Rosberg

Rosberg and Hamilton's new chariot displayed almost flawless reliability, even 'out of the box'

Nevertheless, the signs of continued silver supremacy exist, says Christian Nimmervoll, chief editor for specialist website motorsport-total.com.

"When they are doing race simulations, towards the end of their stints - when they're doing 66 laps on three sets of tires without interruption - you can assume they're pretty light on fuel by the end of their stints," Nimmervoll explains. "And what we've seen from the Mercedes in these race simulation runs was pretty impressive. Still difficult to judge exact details, but I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that Mercedes will be the quickest again."

Another indication of the Silver Arrows' strength was the sheer mileage laid down over eight days on track, which comfortably exceeded that of any other team. This year's W07 chassis was so reliable "out of the box" in the first week of testing that the team was forced to change its driver schedule. Instead of fielding Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg on alternating days, as initially planned, Mercedes chose to use them both for two half-days - fearing that their drivers risked excessive fatigue. Only a transmission problem on Friday's final test day provided solace for competitors hoping Mercedes might fail to finish the occasional 2016 race.

Familiar chasing pack, headed by Ferrari

Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen's new Ferrari, the SF16-H, also lit up the lap charts on occasions, prompting some to suggest the Scuderia may have at least closed the gap to the 2014 and 2015 champions. In an interview with the formula1.com website, Vettel, whose positive mood was noted by several paddock journalists, said he thought Ferrari were "very close" to their rivals, "as we've made a significant step forward."

Asked whether this would suffice to meet Ferrari President Sergio Marchionne's stated goal - being on the front row of the grid straight away in Melbourne - Vettel played safe: "Of course we will push with everything we have."

Formel Eins Ferrari Sebastian Vettel

Ferrari briefly tried out this prototype 'halo,' designed to protect drivers' exposed heads, during testing; expect to see something similar on all F1 cars before too long

As you slide towards the midfield, ascertaining teams' strengths and weaknesses becomes even trickier, but Williams - the strongest customer team using Mercedes engines for the past two seasons - again seemed solid in Spain. Force India, another outfit powered by the three-pointed star, also set some quick laps with German Nico Hülkenberg at the controls.

New teams, new badges

Despite unchanged driver line-ups at a staggering eight teams, including all the heavy hitters, plenty of noteworthy alterations have taken place ahead of the 2016 campaign.

Formel Eins Barcelona F1 Test 01-04/03/16

All of the 'Renault' and 'Infiniti' logos are long gone, but RBR still has the same motor under the skin

Let's start with a purely cosmetic alteration, of crucial significance. Technically, Red Bull Racing's engines will now be badged "Tag Heuer." But in reality, and much to the chagrin of team owner Dietrich Mateschitz, the underpowered Renault power-train will remain under the cover - despite Red Bull's best efforts to court a different supplier.

"So, in the end Red Bull somehow had to find a solution with Renault with nobody losing face, and this is it," Nimmervoll explains. "Renault has become a taboo word with them, leading to some funny scenes and interviews in testing, as you could imagine." Team boss Christian Horner managed a wry smile when asked by UK broadcaster Sky F1 about the re-branded engines, saying "they tell the time brilliantly." He probably wishes they performed in that way, too, not least because indicators like cornering speeds suggest that the Milton Keynes crew is still designing one of the best chassis in the entire field.

As for Renault, they've jumped back into the series as a complete manufacturer, after years concentrating on engines alone. The Enstone-based team most recently known as Lotus (but called Renault when Fernando Alonso won the 2005 and 2006 world championships there) will once again fly the French flag this season. After years of funding difficulties, prompting key members of the development team to leave for rivals in the paddock, Renault's rebuilding process is likely to take time.

Formel 1 Saison 2016

In Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen, Renault have given a pair of talented youngsters a chance

Willkommen, Pascal Wehrlein!

F1 journalist Nimmervoll is wary about predicting major improvements for McLaren Honda, saying that the Japanese company is still struggling to make its slimline engine package perform on a par with its rivals. However, one backmarker caught his eye over the winter - the privateers Manor, who have left their 2015 Ferrari engines behind.

Formel Eins Pascal Wehrlein von Mercedes

One to watch: DTM champ and F1 rookie Pascal Wehrlein

"Manor, I think, are going to improve big time with the Mercedes engine," Nimmervoll says. "Also, with 21-year-old Pascal Wehrlein, they have bagged a really good driver: he won the DTM [German Touring Car] championship last year and is a Mercedes protégée. He's certainly, or most likely going to be in the works Mercedes team at some stage when Nico or Lewis leaves. So Manor now have a top driver, a top engine, and they've brought in a lot of fresh personnel, including former McLaren man Dave Ryan."

Before German fans jump out of their seats at the thought of a new starlet, though, Nimmervoll warns not to expect miracles: "The question is still whether they can improve from last position. Because they were so far off anyone else in 2015, that even if they find a full second or more, it's still going to be pretty difficult to mix it up in the midfield."

If nothing else, though, Manor might hope to avoid the back row of the grid from now on. Those spots might well be reserved for the newcomers in the field - motorsport mogul Gene Haas has signed up Romain Grosjean and brought a US team to the F1 grid at last.

The first priority for Ferrari-powered Haas F1 in 2016 will be to finish races, followed, perhaps, by catching the other backmarkers.

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