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Monday, March 4, 2013

Testing is another Country

The problem with having testing on the weekend is that I can't get to blog about it and, what's worse, I can't even get to see it or keep up with it. I mean, a race, yeah I can justify a race no matter where or when: I can tell the kids that they can watch it or find something else to do with their time, I can ask my wife to look after them, but once the race is over that's it, no blogging until either very late at night or the next day.

Testing is another country. Everyone knows that testing means nothing at the end of the day (or 4 days) so I would be asked why I need to watch it, or follow it, when there are more important things to be done?

Its a good question which I cannot answer. Sure I could plead, cajole and beg but ultimately it's pointless - no-one pays me to watch it and there's no money in blogging - so I didn't bother watching or following the last three days of testing at all. Sad but not at all surprising; or unexpected.

I did see that Jules Bianchi got the second seat at Marussia thanks to Luiz Razia's backers failing to make a second payment to Marussia. I found that interesting but also not surprising or unexpected, Jules brings a little bit of cash and also the promise of good relations with Ferrari which might benefit a team, currently with Cosworth, who need an engine to go racing next year.

And I looked at the odd report which told me that Mercedes were ramping up their public profile in terms of, perhaps, showing their hand a little too early.

However none of this was particularly surprising. I was making the point in an earlier post after the first Barcelona test that Mercedes appeared to be very excited and were at pains to play down their chances - probably superstitious.  In any situation where Mercedes delivers with this year's car there will be a few shocked faces in the Mercedes boardroom, given that they've been encouraged to hire expertise at "telephone number" salaries in order to improve the performance of the team for 2014.

All smiles at Mercedes as they realise they have achieved an impressive gain over last year
© MercedesAMG
The speed shown by the Mercedes car was impressive but then, just as impressive was the pace of Mark Webber's Red Bull on Thursday when, on a drying track, he ended up over 1.5 seconds ahead of anyone else.

But the fact is that Mercedes, in the off-season, said that it needed to make up three seconds to catch up to their rivals. If you take their lap of 1m 20.130s versus their fastest qualifying lap at Barcelona last year of 1m 22.882s, it equates to an improvement of 2.75 seconds, which by their calculations should leave them two tenths per lap slower than the leaders last year.

Having said that you have to factor in that Pirelli launched their tyres saying that they were faster by about 0.5s per lap than last year's tyre compounds which brings that down to an improvement of 2.25s which is about where Ross Brawn thought they would be at the start of the season.

Mercedes position was, of course that they would expect the other teams to find two seconds over the off-season and they would then have to find another second on top of that time to come close. Given the evolutionary approach to the majority of the designs, is it likely that tweaking would give a 2 second per lap improvement?

Red Bull have yet to sparkle
© Getty Images
McLaren & Red Bull yet to reveal themselves
© Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 
Of the top five teams I expect that Red Bull and McLaren have still to reveal their true pace. Red Bull's fastest time was set during the second test, the first at Barcelona with a time of 1m 22.197s which is comparable with their particularly bad (for them) qualifying time of 1m 22.884s at this venue during qualifying last year. McLaren qualified last year with a time of 1m 21.707s last year (Hamilton Pole Disqualified) and Jenson Button put in an equivalent time of 1m 21.444s in testing yesterday.  I expect there's a fair bit more to come from both cars, particularly the Red Bulls.
Lotus may have revealed themselves too early
© LAT Photographic
I'm afraid that Lotus and Mercedes have revealed themselves; Lotus in order to try to find a primary sponsor, other than Genii Capital, and Mercedes in order to assuage HQ that the team is moving forward under the new management.  Lotus did a 1m 22.424s in qualifying for Spain last season and their fastest time of Barcelona testing has been 1m 21.658s.  I think there's not much more improvement left to them than the anticipated improved half-a-second pace from the tyres and any minor element resulting from their DRD use within the DRS zones at a track, which would put them behind Mercedes.

Ferrari may well have been managing expectations at the tests
© Scuderia Ferrari
Ferrari timed a 1m 22.302s in qualifying last year and have done just enough in testing with a time of 1m 20.494s to let everyone know that they are in the mix, without giving too much information away.  The last thing they wanted was to receive the level of pre-season criticism in the Italian press that happened last year.

Of the midfield teams I remain unsure. Certainly we would expect that they've closed the gap somewhat but to what extent I think we'll have to wait for Melbourne.

Williams seem to be hiding their true potential
© LAT Photographic

Williams, for instance, have not gone testing to provide impressive lap times. If that were to be the case then the team have gone backwards from last year when in qualifying for Spain Pastor Maldonado put in a laptime of 1m 22.105s. In testing his fastest time over the eight days at Barcelona was 1m 22.305s. The response to testing by Williams has been positive without being effusive. The team and the drivers talk in terms of benefits and improvements over last year's car so I think we can definitely say that the times we've seen from that team equates to "sandbagging" on their part; how much sandbagging remains to be seen.

Force India have shown their improvement
© Sahara Force India F1 Team
Force India's 1m 21.627s is 1.5s faster than last year's qualifying time in Spain, but their car was improving over the final part of the 2012 season so I don't know whether to read their time as improvement or just evolution. Sauber are in the same position in that their best time of 1m 21.541 is around a second better than their qualifying time of 1m 22.533 last year. 

Sauber showed improvement during their testing
© Sauber Motorsport AG
Toro Rosso qualified on a 1m 23.265s time last year and their best time of testing in Barcelona has been a 1m 23.265s so we can expect that they, like Williams have a bit more in reserve and are holding their cards closer to their respective engine covers than the others in the midfield.  They've been talking up their chances this year in a big way so we'll have to see whether Australia shows it up as a possibility or whether it was all hot air and their season deflates in a big way.  Their times in Jerez were favourable to an assumption that they may well be in and around the rest of the midfield. 

Another team that could be "sandbagging" Toro Rosso showed good comparitive speed in Jerez
© Getty Images, Courtesy Scuderia Toro Rosso
At the back, as per usual, we have the Caterham and Marussia teams.  Last year Caterham qualified with 1m 25.277s and Marussia with 1m 26.582s  This testing has seen Caterham come up with a fastest lap of 1m 23.115s and Marussia 1m 23.167s.  Caterham pipped Marussia on the final day of testing after lagging behind for the entirety of the pre-season, but for Caterham the worrying thing is that they literally only pipped them by 5 hundredths of a second.  Based on the foregoing times we can see that Caterham improved by 2.16 seconds, but Marussia has achieved a massive improvement of 3.41 seconds over last years qualifying pace in Barcelona.    The differential between them is very very slight if any and can be read as inconsequential.

It's going to be tight between Caterham and Marussia
© LAT Photographic
Even more interesting is that the Marussia time was posted by Jules Bianchi on only his second day in the car.  It must have sickened Max Chilton, nearly a full second behind, who has been testing this car almost without interruption for the entirety of the pre-season.