Scuderia Ferrari, embarrassingly bested in 2018 after a series of spectacular driver errors and a failure to develop the car late in the season, performed so convincingly during preseason testing that the sport is daring to whisper about a changing of the guard.
The Italian team wheeled out the quickest car across the eight days of testing, and at Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, a stern all-around test of F1 machinery, the SF90 looked the goods on the road as much as it did on the timesheet.
Mercedes, meanwhile, uncharacteristically struggled. Its form across the first four days was lukewarm at best as Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas complained of balance issues afflicting the car both over a single lap and during long-run simulations.
A major upgrade package arrived for the final four days, ameliorating the worst of the problems, but though Hamilton came close to matching Ferrari’s best lap, the W10 haemorrhaged time to its red rival during its race simulation, supporting the theory it’s due to start 2019 on the back foot.
The first culprit likely to be fingered is the late decision to amend the 2019 technical rules last season. Affecting principally the complex front wing, the modified rules robbed cars of downforce, forcing teams to find new ways to generate aerodynamic performance.
Mercedes appears to have been caught out relative to Ferrari, with the two teams opting for divergent models in addressing the changes.
But it would be unfair to say that Mercedes has ceded the lead to the Scuderia, because there’s much to like about Ferrari in 2019.
Apart from the competitive car, new team principal Mattia Binotto – formerly the team’s technical director and responsible for its upswing in form over the past two seasons – is ushering in a new culture of openness to counteract the years of siege mentality instilled by former boss Maurizio Arrivabene.
“The philosophy for next season certainly is try to enjoy [it],” he said at Ferrari’s season launch. “That’s something that we were maybe missing in the past.”
Add to the mix highly rated Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc joining Sebastian Vettel at the senior team in just his sophomore F1 season and there’s no doubting Maranello’s 2019 intent.
But Mercedes hasn’t sat atop Formula One for half a decade by chance. As much as a change to Ferrari’s philosophical approach and driver roster is expected to pay dividends, it would be foolish in the extreme to write off the reigning titleholder’s ability to bounce back strongly from a difficult preseason.
And while a two-way title fight is a safe bet, Red Bull Racing is refusing to be discounted from the equation, with its lacklustre preseason testing results down more to a series of crashes robbing it of track time than to any car problem.
Equipped with new Honda engines in a deal that will see a close collaboration between the team and its Japanese supplier, and with rising superstar Max Verstappen and new teammate Pierre Gasly in the cockpit, the 2010–14 championship-winning team hopes it’s finally on the road to recovering its fast-fading glories from the turn of the decade.
Whatever the case, when the flag drops, the talk stops, and we have mere days until the competitive order is finally revealed at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on March 17.