There have been a number of commentators stating that since the change in engine regulations at the start of 2014 to the complex hybrid turbo charged 1.6 litre V6 power units, that the contribution from the chassis has been marginalised. These comments have come from those within the sport (Christian Horner and Adrian Newey amongst others) and fans equally. The recent eight days of testing gives an opportunity to examine if this is truly the case. Three teams have swapped the power unit that they are using, Toro Rosso has gone from Renault to the 2015 Ferrari unit, Renault have dropped the Mercedes unit that the Enstone team used last year in favour of their own motor, and Manor have taken the championship winning Mercedes in place of the year old Ferrari power unit they used previously.
Toro Rosso reckoned that upgrading from Renault to Ferrari power should find them 0.6 seconds a lap. In pre-season testing last season the best lap they managed was a 1:24.191 on super soft tyres, while this time out they managed a 1:23.134 on the new ultra soft tyres. Pirelli reckon the step from super soft to ultra soft should be worth between 0.5 and 0.6 seconds a lap, so initially the 1.057 second improvement would seem to equate to the half second from the tyres and nearly six tenths from the power unit upgrade. This however ignores any improvement in the chassis made over the last twelve months. Yet the ultra soft isn’t designed to be use at a circuit like Barcelona, or in the cool temperatures experienced in the test, so maybe the change of power unit really has contributed half of that lap time improvement.
Turning to the comparison between Lotus in 2015 with the Mercedes power unit (1:24.067 on the super soft tyre), and Renault in 2016 with their own power unit (1:23.933 also on the super soft), the team have actually improved by 0.134 seconds. As the Renault was considered (certainly by Red Bull) the worst of the power units with the exception of Honda, and Mercedes the best, this must indicate that the chassis has improved by more than the 0.6 second difference between Renault and Ferrari and whatever difference is perceived between Mercedes and Ferrari, and still added a further tenth of a second. All this from a team struggling for cash through most of last year to the extent that they could not pay the catering bills to feed the team in the last half of the season. Either that, or Kevin Magnussen is a substantially better driver than Romain Grosjean, but that would mean that the driver becomes the significant differentiator in lap times, which is not the message most are stating.
The final team of the three swapping power units, Manor, weren’t at the pre-season tests in 2016, so there is no direct comparison of the lap times between the two tests. However, as they use the leading Mercedes power unit, it is noticeable that they are between 1.9 and 2.9 seconds slower than the leading Mercedes depending on the driver. So there is potentially a one second pace difference between Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto, and a 1.9 second difference between the Manor and Mercedes chassis. However the best Manor times were set on the ultra soft tyres while Mercedes set their best times on the soft compound. There is supposed to be over a second difference between those two compounds, so the difference in the chassis is even greater. The other two Mercedes customers though do have comparable times to the works team. Williams best was only 0.171 seconds slower than Mercedes on the same soft compound, while Force India was even closer (0.088 seconds) but using the super soft (perhaps 0.5 seconds faster).
The other power unit manufacturers have a greater spread between the different chassis. Ferrari customers Sauber and Haas were significantly slower than the works team. Sauber used the soft tyre compared to the works team’s ultra soft, and that could explain a second of the 1.995 second difference. Haas though were at best 2.490 seconds slower on the same tyre as the works team. The other Ferrari user (Toro Rosso) is using last years (supposedly slower) power unit, yet they are the closest to the works team only 0.369 seconds adrift on the same tyres.
Finally, comparing the Renault power unit users, Red Bull were at best 0.408 seconds faster than the works team, although that may be down to the tyre compounds used (Red Bull on the super soft, and Renault on the ultra soft).
In conclusion I think that both the driver and the chassis still plays a significant role in the speed of the car, it is not all down to the power unit. Mercedes are dominant not only because they have the best power unit, but because they have class leading chassis and drivers. The complete package is necessary to win. That has always been the case, and continues to be the case. What do you think? If it is all about the power unit, then how do you explain the variation in the Ferrari powered teams pace, or the improvement shown by Renault when moving from Mercedes to Renault power?