Six days of preseason testing revealed few concrete answers to consider in the weeks leading to the Australian Grand Prix this weekend (Mar 13-15).
Mercedes, the reigning six-time constructors champion, was quickest, but the German marque was uncharacteristically unreliable. Power unit problems plagued not only the works team across both three-day sessions but customer Williams too, which endured three frustrating stoppages.
If the Mercedes W11 were to prove too brittle to be pushed to the limit, Red Bull Racing would be quietly confident of picking up the baton.
The Honda-powered Austrian-owned team turned in an understated but confident testing campaign. The RB16 looked planted around the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s challenging bends, promising drivers Max Verstappen and Thai Alex Albon more than the three wins the team delivered in 2019.
Ferrari ought to come next as the final part of Formula One’s frontrunning tripartite, but the Italian team endured a torrid February on and off the track.
The SF1000 - so named to celebrate the team’s 1000th grand prix later this season - was so underwhelming during testing that team principal Mattia Binotto has reportedly written to his team to apologise that it won’t be in victory contention in Australia.
If the car can’t be sped up quickly, the team has foreshadowed an early change of focus to building the 2021 machine under overhauled technical regulations.
But worse is that Ferrari has become the focus of fury from seven of its rival teams after the sport’s governing body, the FIA, admitted to reaching an undisclosed “settlement” with the Italian team during the off-season over an unpublicised investigation into its 2019 engine.
Several teams suspected Ferrari’s engine, the most powerful in 2019, was operating illegally, though none was able to prove it. The FIA undertook several checks of the power unit last year without turning up any evidence of wrongdoing.
But the FIA has since admitted it suspected something was amiss, and unbeknownst to the other teams it conducted further investigations during the European winter.
Evidently these further checks resulted in something questionable though not sufficiently incriminating to be confident sanctions wouldn’t be overturned had Ferrari mounted a legal challenge, leading to the confidential accord.
But now the seven teams - all bar Ferrari and its two engine customers - are furious, not only for being blindsided by the announcement but also for being left in the dark about the findings considering it was them who raised suspicions in the first place.
In a rare united message the seven teams reserved their right to take legal action should the FIA not be forthcoming with further details.
But naturally the most significant cloud hanging over the start of the season is the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus sweeping the globe.
The pandemic has already triggered the postponement and near certain cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix, but the patchwork of travel restrictions around the world is wreaking havoc with the sport’s delicate logistics.
The second race, the Bahrain Grand Prix next weekend, will be closed to spectators, and F1 is working with organisers to ensure the teams and media are exempted from the island kingdom’s travel restrictions barring arrivals from key Asian travel hubs.
The following round in Vietnam is also under question now COVID-19 has arrived in host city Hanoi.
The European leg of the season follows, and with the number of cases growing rapidly on the sport’s home continent, the prospect of further closed-door races at a minimum can’t be discounted.
The 2020 season promises to be a trying campaign for Formula One both on and off the track, starting with this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix.