Eight days of running, spread out over two four-day sessions, were held at Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona the past fortnight.

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So, what did we learn as the 2016 FIA Formula 1 World Championship nears?

Following are some of what we believe are major talking points as the days count down to Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix from March 18 to 20.

Ferrari back in winning form?

Kimi Raikkonen
Kimi Raikkonen

After a few years of struggling to find consistency in challenging for a title, Ferrari appear to have finally shaped up and given their tandem of superstar drivers a car that can win races and, ultimately, silverware.

The Scuderia topped the timesheets on five of the eight pre-season test days and have shown reliability with their SF16-H, finishing third-best on total distance run by a team which was 891 laps or 4,148 kilometres.

Kimi Raikkonen registered the best overall time around Barcelona’s 4.655-kilometre track of 1 minute 22.765 seconds. Teammate Sebastian Vettel followed on the timesheet with a lap of 1:22.810.

It will be interesting to see how Ferrari fares in Bahrain especially against world champions Mercedes. Ferrari have the most victories in Sakhir with four, but Mercedes have triumphed each of the last two seasons.

Raikkonen expressed his satisfaction with Ferrari’s progress in the tests but remained guarded, saying:

“I think we have a very good package. Time will tell if it is good enough.”

Mercedes to begin from where they left off?

Nico Rosberg
Nico Rosberg

The two-time defending world champions have had a positive eight days of testing, showing off their supreme reliability rather than flexing their muscles and demonstrating their true speed.

Nico Rosberg topped the times on day one of the second week of action, clocking a lap of 1:23.022 which was third-best overall. Lewis Hamilton’s fastest time of 1:23.622 in their W07 Hybrid was 10th-best on the overall testing classification.

Despite this, the Silver Arrows were the busiest by far from all 11 teams out on track. They racked up the most distance of 6,024 kilometres from 1,294 laps – over 1,000 kilometres and over 200 laps more than their closest rivals.

Hamilton says that despite not setting a top lap time, Mercedes are right where they want to be:

“We have to describe it as we’re trying to build a pyramid - and you can’t start by building the top part. You have to build the base and the long runs are really building the base, the stability and the endurance of this car. Then we can start putting the pieces on to the top as the bigger the base the higher the top can be.”

Who can challenge Ferrari and Mercedes?

Valtteri Bottas
Valtteri Bottas

With Ferrari and Mercedes establishing themselves as early favourites to battle for the title, it will be interesting to see if any of the remaining teams can take a big step forward from pretender to contender.

Leading the trailing pack is Williams, with the ultra-talented duo of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas teaming up for a third straight season.

The pair were consistently among the top runners in pre-season testing, with Bottas topping the times during the second day of week two at Barcelona. To add to that, their strong showing all of last season should ideally only lead to a rise in the championship pecking order, and Massa believes it can be done.

Felipe Massa said after the tests;

“We have ambition, for sure. We want to fight with Mercedes and all the other teams on track.

“We don’t know if it will be possible, but we need to believe it and to try everything we can. Some teams are really strong – even Ferrari, a team that grew more last year. So we know it’s not easy, but we will try everything we can.”

Also hoping to break out from the middle of the pack are Force India and Toro Rosso.

Nico Hulkenberg had set the pace for Force India in testing for a day, and his fastest lap turned out to be the fourth-best of the entire eight days of running. Carlos Sainz, meanwhile, steered Toro Rosso to fifth on the overall times, while also helping Red Bull’s sister team finish second on total distance run at Circuit de Catalunya – bettered only by the world champions.

Hulkenberg commented:

“If you look at the car, it is fair to see that we didn’t reinvent the wheel; we had something that worked for us at the back-end of last year, so we are just trying to optimize it and to fine tune it.

Sainz said:

“We haven’t really seen what we are capable of doing. Achieve a podium this year after getting so close to it last year.”

Honourable mention: Red Bull Racing

Can McLaren get back to competitive form?

Fernando Alonso
Fernando Alonso

One of the most interesting sub-plots to the season is the form of McLaren, who boast one of the most celebrated partnerships in Formula 1, with Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button.

McLaren had a fair pre-season, managing to put together 780 laps of work – more than 400 more than their output from last season, which turned out to be a forgettable one. In 2015, the McLaren pair had 12 retirements between them, seven of which were by Alonso. The Spaniard was nine times out of the top 10, and his best finish in 19 races was fifth in Hungary. Button was no better, also being classified outside of the top 10 nine different times. His best classified was sixth in Austin.

For 2016, however, the team are determined to live up to the expectations of their fans and their world championship-winning drivers, and it appears they have so far taken the right steps towards achieving that goal.

Commenting on their car’s improved power unit supplied by engine makers Honda, Alonso said:

“It’s a step forward; it feels better than last year. There is still a lot of work to do. Hopefully we are much closer also on the performance side.”

Team Principal Eric Boullier added:

“Last year, we couldn’t do anything on the car. Checking nothing, actually. At least this year we went through a lot – job list, to-do lists, check lists.

“So we know where to go, and it’s going to be a big boost to us for development.”

Following Australia, the Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix takes place as the second round on the 2016 21-race calendar. Bahrain International Circuit hosts the desert spectacle April 1 to 3.

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