F1 pre-season testing provides poor guide to form
So, after four days of testing and nearly 3,500 laps of running at Jerez in sunny southern Spain, what has the first Formula 1 pre-season test revealed about the season to come?
The simplest answer – as ever – is “not much”. Testing – or the “winter world championship”, as McLaren chairman Ron Dennis famously described it – is a notoriously poor guide to form.
Or at least it is if you look only at the headline lap times. At the end of last year’s test in Jerez, the fastest man was Williams driver Rubens Barrichello – and his team were about to embark on the worst season in their once-illustrious history.
Likewise, if anyone thinks Lotus driver Romain Grosjean is going to win this year’s world championship after setting the pace in Jerez this week, they will be waiting a long time for those pigs to fly in front of that blue moon.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso set the fastest time on the final day of the first Formula 1 pre-season testing in Jerez, in Spain with a time of 1.18.877. Photo: Getty
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that Jerez has revealed nothing.
First of all, it has become clear the teams dislike the look of the new cars as much as anyone.
For them, the ugly step on top of the noses of all cars apart from the McLaren is an unfortunate necessity in the pursuit of the best possible aerodynamics, following a rule change requiring lower front noses.
“Performance comes before aesthetics,” as Red Bull design chief Adrian Newey put it.
The teams head back to their factories with a mountain of data, on which decisions will be based about the direction in which to take the development of their new cars.
These gleaming machines are prototypes for their entire lives, but in terms of maturity right now they are still in the post-natal stage.
Nowhere, it seems, is that more true than at Ferrari, whose decision to start with a clean sheet of paper after a chastening year in 2011 has left them with a lot of work to do.
Fernando Alonso may have left Jerez with the fastest time from the final day – and the second fastest overall – but no-one was fooled by that.
The car, they said, was behaving inconsistently in the corners, and so far fixing its behaviour at one stage – the entry, say – messes it up at either the mid-corner or exit, or both.
This is not an especially encouraging sign for a team whose 2011 season came off the rails at the final pre-season test, when new parts that they expected to bring a chunk of speed actually made the car worse.
It turned out this was a result of a lack of correlation between the results that were being created in the wind tunnel and the actual performance of the car out on the track – a major problem in a sport where aerodynamics are critical to performance.
Ferrari spent most of last season trying to get on top of this, and by late summer they insisted they had. Yet when they introduced an update to the car at the Belgian Grand Prix in August, that too did not work.
Were they not concerned about this, I asked an insider a little later in the season. No, he said, they knew why it had happened – the wind tunnel correlation was fine.
Yet on Thursday this week, there was technical director Pat Fry admitting that there was still a small problem in this area. “There’s reasonable correlation,” Fry said. “I certainly wouldn’t say it was perfect.”
Despite that eye-catching lap time from Alonso, then, Ferrari’s potential remains unclear.
“That time was on soft tyres,” a source close to the team said. “It was not so special. The feeling is they are waiting for a lot from this car – but they don’t know how to get it. It is impossible to say what will be the future.”
But it is not just Ferrari. Over at McLaren, Lewis Hamilton has said his first impressions of the car were “all positive”. But the more he talked, the more you wondered.
They had not found the best set-up yet, he said – unsurprising, perhaps, so early in testing.
“It feels like an evolution of last year’s car in many ways but also there are some things that are not so good,” he added. “The downforce on the rear for instance, is not as good through the high-speed corners as it was last year, but I’m sure we’ll get that back.”
Again, this was to be expected given the ban on exhaust-blown diffusers, from which all top teams gained huge amounts of rear downforce last year – and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel also noticed a similar experience in his car.
But perhaps Hamilton’s most revealing remark was this: “You never know what fuel loads people are on. I think we’ve been quite aggressive with our fuel loads.”
A translation of which seems to be that McLaren are running with less fuel on board than they might normally be expected to – which will make their lap times look more impressive.
Despite that, the car looked as if it was not quite as fast as the Red Bull, which Hamilton effectively admitted. “I think you can see the Red Bull looks quick,” he said.
The Red Bull indeed appeared to do its times with relative ease, both in the hands of Mark Webber and, later in the week, Vettel.
Just as much of a concern for their rivals will be that pictures suggest the car seems to have retained what most believe to be its crucial secret.
That is getting the front wing to run closer to the ground than any other car, a critical aerodynamic advantage.
This is despite design chief Adrian Newey saying they had had to reduce the rake on their car following the ban on exhaust-blown diffusers and despite the introduction of a tougher front-wing deflection test.
And yet even Red Bull clearly have work to do. After three pretty much trouble-free days, an electrical fault appeared on the final morning, and Vettel lost an entire morning’s running while the team fixed it.
In summary, then, Red Bull again look like the team to beat, and there is a mixed picture from McLaren and Ferrari.
Just as it did in 2011 when the team were Renault, the Lotus has left a good initial impression.
Toro Rosso and Williams also appear to have decent cars, while Force India fell back after a promising start, almost certainly because of losing a day to reserve driver Jules Bianchi’s crash on Thursday.
There follows a 10-day break before the teams reconvene at Barcelona on 21 February.
The Circuit de Catalunya’s mix of long corners of varying speeds have long been the ultimate test of an F1 car’s all-round capabilities, so more pieces of the jigsaw should fall into place there.