In the past with unlimited testing it was relatively easy for everyone to understand the pecking order ahead of a new season. Now however, there are so many factors to take into account that we only get flashes of the order but nothing definite ahead of the season opening Australian Grand Prix.
Varying fuel loads, different tyre compounds, track temperature changes, aero configuration and numerous other factors cloud the waters in pre-season and the only thing that we know for certain is that it will only be during qualifying in Melbourne that the true state of play of revealed.
Testing is the ultimate game of poker for Formula 1 teams. You need to understanding how good your hand is but you also have to bluff your opponents by not showing your true potential. As a result the leading players will place a moderate bet even though you are holding a strong hand by lapping in testing with a relatively high fuel load, of lets say 60 or 70kg.
Lower ranked teams on the other hand will look to set a fast time to try and woo new sponsors. Prost famously used this tactic by running their car underweight in 2001 and dominating testing before ultimately having a car that was three seconds off the pace…
Teams cannot be quite so blasé with their testing mileage any longer but low fuel qualifying runs to vault up the order are still a regular occurrence.
All three winter tests have indicated that the 2013 season will be incredibly close with the battle for wins likely to feature five teams and the midfield set to be even more closely fought that in recent years.
Red Bull seems to have the fastest car so far but the team also ran with a lot of fuel for most of their running so their true pace is not entirely clear. At Barcelona every 10kg of fuel is worth around 0.35s and when you examine the times from testing this would indicate that Red Bull were very much in the ballpark with the fastest times.
The team did their best to keep their cards close to their chest with numerous runs being noticeable for Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel electing not use DRS on the home straight at the Circuit de Catalunya. While Red Bull was outpaced by McLaren over the course of 2012 once they brought their Singapore upgrade on-stream Vettel was as dominant as ever. With the new showing flashes of its potential it seems that Red Bull is once again the car to beat.
Tight battle at the front
Regulation stability generally means that the grid gets more and more compact. The differences between cars are smaller and the battle between teams gets very close. The last year of the current regulations should see a very close battle between Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus.
The leading quartet of teams has all shown varying degrees of promise in testing but there are question marks over McLaren. The team has changed to use pull-rod suspension on the MP4-28 and if testing is any indication they are still some way from maximising the system.
Even so it is hard to imagine McLaren not having the kinks worked after the first two races. Jenson Button will move into the team leader role this year after being able to quietly work behind the shadow of Lewis Hamilton for the last three years. Button’s approach was always to allow Hamilton to take the limelight but now the full focus will be on Button.
Alongside Hamilton it was accepted that he would be regularly out-qualified but with Sergio Perez as his teammate he will now be expected to be the team leader on and off the track.
There is little to suggest that Button won’t be up to the task and the McLaren’s pace in testing has shown that they should once again be capable of producing a regular race winner but until they fully iron out the issues with their suspension a question mark will hang over their heads with regards to consistency.
Ferrari have looked very promising throughout the winter and with Felipe Massa having finished 2012 strongly there is a terrific sense of expectation that Fernando Alonso will be able to go one better than last season and win his first title in seven years. Last year the Spaniard had to have an almost perfect season to be a championship contender but now it appears that the Ferrari is close enough to the ultimate pace that consistent race performances should allow Alonso to thrive.
The focus is usually on who has the fastest car, and rightly so, but the last two years have consistently shown that out and out speed is not the be all and end all of previous years. Being able to use the Pirelli tyres correctly and efficiently is now of far more value. Teams need to be kind on their rubber but also able to get it into the correct operating temperature window quickly. Ferrari seemed very good at this in testing, even at a series of cold tests.
Lotus was the other team to noticeably impress with their tyre performance. Last year the team made tremendous strides with one of their key characteristics being their ability on longer runs. In testing Romain Grosjean had a superb 20 lap stint on the medium compound at the second Barcelona test that showed that the new Lotus will be a force in 2013.
Last year it took Kimi Raikkonen half a season to really get back on terms with Formula 1 and find his single lap pace to partner with his consistency in races. This year Raikkonen will expect to be immediately on the pace of the leading contenders and in testing it was clear that “the Iceman” was ready for another strong season with a very fast car.
Lots of questions at Mercedes
Mercedes set the fastest times in the last two days of the Barcelona test but it was also their long run pace that draw praise. The team showed consistency in their 15-20 lap stints that was lacking in 2012 due to excessive tyre wear. By the close of winter testing Lewis Hamilton had upgraded his prospects and openly talked about winning races later in the campaign. The 2008 world champion was however still keen to downplay his prospects as a title contender.
For Mercedes the winter testing pace may actually have provided more questions than answers. Last year the Brackley based squad shone in the final test before flattering to deceive in Melbourne. That being said their fortunes did improve quickly and Nico Rosberg won the Chinese Grand Prix but given their loss of pace for most of the season it was clear that developing the car was still a major issue.
This was true of Mercedes in all their guises. Whether it was as title winning Brawn, mediocre Honda or inconsistent BAR the team has never been able to sustain a development push through a season. They have, in each season, been unable to keep up to pace with the leading teams.
Even in 2009 the team lost out badly to Red Bull as the year progressed and Jenson Button went from dominant early season form, winning six of the first seven races, to only standing on the rostrum on two more occasions in the final ten races. Their recent signing of Hamilton showed their ambition but there are serious question marks over the leadership of the team.
Is Ross Brawn in charge? Is Niki Lauda the top dog…or Toto Wollf? What structures are the team putting in place so that their design office works smoothly with numerous leading designers working for the team?
Unfortunately for Mercedes the promise of testing will count for nothing until they show that they have a legitimate and functional structure in place for both their management hierarchy and the development of the W04.
With the opening free practice sessions of the season now less then ten days away the questions will be answered soon…