Mercedes’ Barcelona test schedule has been modified ahead of the second day’s running, as reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein has replaced Esteban Ocon, who was billed to get his first outing for the Silver Arrows on Wednesday. Mercedes have cited the fact that they wanted a “driver with race experience” to complete a programme which involves testing of development parts.
The late change is a rather telling move by the reigning champions.
Of course, it makes sense from a data validation perspective to have a 2016 race driver in the car. Wehrlein’s experience in his opening five Grand Prix with Manor – adding to his wealth of testing expertise – means that Mercedes can expect his feedback to be acute.
Running Ocon would mean having to allow the Frenchman time to adjust to the W07, and given his relative lack of F1 track time versus Wehrlein, the day would become more of an exercise in testing Ocon rather than testing parts.
However, it is the timing of this decision which is fascinating.
On Tuesday, Ocon spent the day driving the Renault RS16. He was equipped with the B-Spec Renault powertrain, set to debut at next month’s Canadian Grand Prix. Renault had previously forcasted as much as a 40bhp gain from the update, which would put them on a par with Mercedes and Ferrari, courtesy of the adoption of cutting-edge HCCI technology.
Following Tuesday’s session, Ocon stated that the new Renault engine, “is really good. Really good. I can tell it will be quicker for sure.”
Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo experimented with the same update at Red Bull. He was similarly impressed by the improvement; “I think so far we are pretty happy with how it is all looking. We will see what they find tonight, but it was all pretty reliable and everything ran as smooth as it could I think.
“The progress is definitely there. Now to make that next step, that is the last little step we are after to try to really get on Mercedes. But we are getting closer. That is exciting.”
Ricciardo’s statement of intent and Wehrlein’s call-up are likely to be indirectly related. Mercedes will have determined their run plan for Wednesday well in advance of the test itself, knowing that Ocon would be the driver to complete it.
However, given the comments made by those who experienced the brand new iteration of Renault powertrain, Mercedes have realised the heightened importance of the test as they look to repel the advances of a more threatening Red Bull. As such, feedback from Wednesday’s running has become critical and in turn, Mercedes have opted for the safer pair of hands in Wehrlein.
When Renault last delivered an in-season powertrain update, the results were bitterly disappointing for Red Bull. Now it seems that they are anticipating a big step in performance and so too, it seems, are Mercedes.