Testing, testing, one-two-three. We are now in the midst of the fourth and final pre-season Formula 1 test at the Catalunya circuit in southern Spain, where it has been unusually grey and chilly. This is the test that should have been in hot and dusty Bahrain…
Pre-season testing can, as we have so often seen over the years, be not only inconclusive but also misleading. This is because there is always a certain amount of smoke and mirrors, some deliberate sandbagging and insufficient accurate information forthcoming on fuel loads and set-ups.
And this year, we should remember, we are dealing with totally new tyre compounds from Pirelli, which has not yet got a race under its belt in any kind of climate. Rubber is likely to be a major factor in early 2011.
Popular opinion – and many engineers agree – is that we are going to see a lot more tyre degradation in the early races than we have previously been used to. Three pitstops are predicted, some saying more, especially if the weather is hot, the surface abrasive. Added to this unknown we have KERS, moveable rear wings and new cars to consider.
Logic says that Red Bull will the early pacesetters, and so it proved on Tuesday in Spain, with Mark Webber (above) top of the timesheets from Jenson Button – by some margin. This does not mean Red Bull is going to disappear into the distance at Melbourne on March 27, but simply that on March 8 the new Red Bull was more sorted than the new McLaren. And that’s no surprise at this stage. In an era when aerodynamics is key, you can expect an Adrian Newey-designed car to be at or near the top of the times.
What will be in many ways more interesting to see is how the two most radical cars shape up against the rest. These are the Williams (below), with its radical rear end and new transmission, and the Lotus-Renault, with its forward-facing exhaust system. If either of these two risky design ideas prove to be the way to go, then the others will have to follow suit, just as we saw two years ago with the Brawn’s double diffuser, when Button’s pre-season testing pace had alarm bells ringing right down the pitlane.
This year we have seen no such clear advantage, although Red Bull is predictably fast. Not far behind is Ferrari, smarting from its title defeat in Abu Dhabi. All Grand Prix teams of any stature play their cards close to their chests, saving their best until the first afternoon of qualifying. And, just to complicate matters, testing is not what it used to be.
In days gone by there was virtually unlimited mileage, the teams under no pressure to get it all sorted in just four short sessions in February and March. And there’s another difference. Test drivers, or reserve drivers as they are now known, have to get some mileage now or never, whereas before they could do their testing while the teams were away racing. And this means – as we have seen in Spain – lots of new, young drivers being given time in the cars when, in a perfect world, they’d be waiting until the race drivers went away to race.
So, we should not be surprised if Red Bull, Ferrari – and possibly McLaren – are at the front of the grid in Melbourne. Button (above) says we should not expect too much, that the car is not the equal of Red Bull or Ferrari, and they don’t have time to catch up before the end of the month. Bad news for McLaren fans.
Oh yes, and we also know that Mercedes-Benz has a great deal of work to do if Schumacher and Rosberg are to be anywhere near the podium. Unless, of course, Mr Brawn has been keeping something up his sleeve…
So end the ifs, buts and maybes. Soon it will be time to race…