F1 Testing: Two down, one to go

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I am referring to F1’s three pre-season testing sessions in which all eleven teams use the strictly allotted time and track to sort out any issues their new challengers might have, collect valuable data in understanding their cars’ true potential and finally, start to put together the road map that they will use to arrive next month in Melbourne ready to race when the red lights go dark.

Due to the massive regulation changes this year including completely new engines, the first test in Jerez was just about getting the car up and running. Well, that was not exactly what every team was able to do. I am referring to the Renault powered teams Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Caterham, and poor Lotus who did not even show up.

The second test has just concluded and here are the only stats you need to be concerned with: Mercedes 315 laps, Red Bull, a paltry 116. Less than half. The disparity in laps between Mercedes AMG F1 and Infinity Red Bull is quite telling.

In a post I wrote a few weeks back I mentioned that I did not feel there would be any real reliability issues this year, that we are not about to experience the engine failures of bygone eras when F1 cars did not make it to the finish line on a regular basis. It looks like I was both right and wrong. I am still of the opinion that when the season gets underway and a few races are run the engine suppliers and partner teams will have effectively put this issue to rest. But as far as testing is concerned, for at least one of the three engine manufacturers I stand corrected.

Despite the obvious results, it is hard to believe the troubles that continue to plague Red Bull Racing. Each time I checked the daily testing results, I thought it would finally be the day that Red Bull racked up the miles and ended the day with their car on top. How many of you thought the same thing? It never happened.

I would venture to say it is time for some serious high level meetings back at Milton Keynes. Despite Renault stating that they still have issues to iron out, my feeling is that Red Bull’s issues lay with the general design of the RB10 and specifically the rear end.

Ironically for Red Bull, the area of the car that Adrian Newey was so successful in developing these last four years might just end up being their and his downfall. To state the obvious, time is running out and without any substantial laps so far, Sebastian and company will be at a great disadvantage come the start of the season. Who ever said building a race car was easy?

I have been saying since the start of the first test back in Jerez that I expect Red Bull to fully recover and be right up at the sharp part of the grid at the season opener. Part of me still feels that way, however part of me is reading the writing on the wall, and now I am not so sure. The next test will surely confirm if they can recover enough to achieve this, but as of right now it is not clear.

One thing was abundantly clear over the four-day test; the guys in Stuttgart and Barkley have done their homework. Lewis Hamilton mentioned that Mercedes has not been without their share of problems, but I did not see any. Whatever form these issues took, from the indication of their lap count and the resulting times at the end of the day it would seem these troubles were more or less what a team would be encountering with any pre-season test irrespective of a change in engine formula.

Nico Rosberg put up a time on Saturday that was the fastest of the week all the while completing 89 laps and what was described as “low-fuel stuff” and “finding the balance.” That sounds to me like qualifying work and this early in testing that is impressive. With still another test to go it would appear that Ross Brawn has set the foundation for the heirs apparent to succeed where he did not.

McLaren, and by that I mean Ron Dennis, must also be extremely pleased or at least relieved with the progress and pace the MP4-29 exhibited. They completed plenty of laps, and took fastest lap on day two in the hands of Kevin Magnussen. After last year’s drought in terms of results and a personnel change at the top of the race division, Woking needed to come out of the corner swinging and that is exactly what they have done.

I would like everyone’s opinion on something. Are we seeing the beginnings of a great battle between McLaren powered by a Mercedes engine and Mercedes powered by a Mercedes engine? I personally would love to see this drama added to the F1 stage this year.

Nothing gets under the skin of a manufacturer more than when a customer team with presumably less resources and not holding all the cards outperforms their vendor/partner. With that said, there would be no shame in McLaren out-racing Mercedes, they are a world class organization not to mention they know how to win, a lot. But McLaren becoming a car manufacturer did not sit well with the guys in Stuttgart and then the announcement of Honda power next year presented complications to Mercedes and McLaren while still partnering for this year so I doubt very much that Niki, Toto or Paddy want to see the other silver/gray cars running the same Mercedes engine in front of them on the race track.

Now for the guys in red. Ferrari is a tough one to call. They have also put in a very respectable lap count as well, 287 if I added correctly. I cannot help but notice they have not put in any real competitive laps. However, competitive laps were not the focus of the test just concluded and Ferrari has gone out of their way to state that they were not going for any real timed laps. But still one has to wonder if Ferrari is truly concentrating on their program and holding their cards close to their chest or if the F-14T is lacking some pace. At any rate what we can cipher from these past four days is that the car is reliable and currently that is something worth a lot more than a fast lap. This being the particular team I am most concerned with, I am anxiously awaiting the first qualifying session and the subsequent race results on Sunday the weekend of March 16 before I either heap a ton of praise on Maranello for the job they have done or sock-it-to-them via my key board. We shall see. ;-)

On to Lotus. I’m sure Pastor Maldonado would have liked his first outing to have been a little more fruitful. Still, considering that his new teammate Roman Grosjean drove around the Bahrain circuit only 26 times in two days, Maldonado’s 74 tours must have felt like a blessing. Gerald Lopez’s comments to the press indicated that he thought missing the first test in Jerez looked like the right choice in hindsight considering all the troubles the Renault partner teams experienced, but no question that Lotus still has some things to work through.

Lotus did however use an official filming day to shake down the E-22 if only for a hundred kilometers, and I for one was expecting a little more from Lotus over these four days seeing as they went out of their way to let everyone know the shakedown was successful and went 100% according to plan. I wonder now if some of the headlines (not verifiable) had indeed some truth to them – not much running occurred and the running that did was not at speed. Whatever the case may be, Lotus need to make the most of the next test or those lovely liveried black cars will be stuck right behind a black ball. The one with an eight on it.

Sauber seems to me to always have the potential to do something more than just finish in the midfield or with the occasional podium now and then. All I can say about the Swiss team as of right now is that they had a fairly uneventful test session except for the last day in which Adrian Sutil was only able to drive a handful of laps. They appeared to log a good amount of mileage and aside from that nothing really caught my attention. Unlike the big four teams Sauber was happy to just play it low key and concentrate on their program.

Force India and Williams are teams to watch if testing is any indication. If for no other reason than that they both have a Mercedes V6 turbo at the back end that clearly is the power plant to have. I am excited at the prospect that either of these teams could prove to be a spoiler over the season and maybe even reach the podium. I could easily see either of these teams being the so called fifth best team behind Merc, McLaren, RB, and Ferrari.

Williams and Force India have both had mixed days of good and bad when talking about fast laps or time spent in the garage. A bit more time is needed to see the direction they are heading, but both have put in some respectable lap times alongside the top teams so this year could really mean something for each of these F1 teams. It’s odd to compare Williams, a former world champion many times over, to Force India, the new kid on the block but that’s how it is. It would be a great reversal of fortune to see Williams back at its true fighting weight and also some wins for Felipe Massa who many people feel got a bit of a raw deal in his last years at Ferrari alongside Fernando Alonso.

Just a few words about Caterham, Marussia and Toro Rosso. Aside from the connection Toro Rosso enjoys as Red Bull’s junior team, most of the time the smaller F1 teams such as these don’t receive a lot of copy. Such is the fate when you are a backmarker. With such a dramatic regulation change there are two sides to the coin. The opportunity for one of these backmarker teams to interpret the rules in an innovative way, get it right and gain an advantage is always a real possibility, although I can’t remember when this has happened quite frankly. With that said, Caterham was able to complete a solid amount of laps during this test and that may allow them to overhaul some of the midfielders in the first half of the season and collect a few constructor’s points.

On the other side of this coin is Marussia’s lap count for this test. An abysmal 29 so don’t look for this team to capitalize due to the change of regulations. However, we know the Ferrari engine and hybrid system is reliable, so if the team can get it to work with their chassis properly then similar to Caterham they could collect some welcome points when the opportunity presents itself.

Torro Rosso always seems as though they are on the verge of making their way further up the grid but somehow this never comes to pass. Red Bull’s joiner team qualified well last year and made it through to Q3 on more than one occasion. I was expecting to see a further improvement from them this year. But again the teething issues the Renault-powered teams are experiencing have quite comprehensively prevented any insight as to what these teams are capable of in regards to lap times.

In summation, Mercedes and Mercedes-powered teams are clearly holding an advantage, that much is quite obvious. What is not obvious is how much of an advantage and how long it will last. One more test remains, the final dress rehearsal for Melbourne which is the last winter test taking place next week also at Bahrain. During this test we will start to see the Melbourne configuration taking place: new body work, new front wings, new rear wings, maybe a new floor, revised engine mapping, software updates, etc. and some real qualifying work from the teams. F1 is changing all the time, but that being said nothing changes that fast or that quickly when it comes to the performance of a car, so my guess is the times from the next test will be a good indication of where all the teams stand at least in terms of outright pace.

Now that I have thought about it for a bit, maybe I should have titled this post eight down, four to go. That sounds better, that sounds not as final, that sounds as though there is still a relatively good chance (four of them) for the teams that have not quite had the start they want to catch up. We wait and see.

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