With two of the three pre-season tests completed, how are the F1 teams shaping up?
The F1 teams have so far covered over 32,000km in official winter testing. Which sounds a lot until you think back to the days when testing was unlimited (in 2006, Heikki Kovalainen managed 26,000km on his own). Testing is now crammed into three four-day sessions and with the final session about to start, we're beginning to get an idea of what to expect from F1 this season…
Red Bull Racing
It’s difficult to know what to make of Red Bull’s first Barcelona test. Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets on the first day and the long-run pace looked good, but his vessel didn’t enjoy the dominance previous Red Bull cars have on the Barcelona track.
Minor gremlins curtailed much of the team’s running. In total, the RB8 managed 100 laps less than McLaren. That said, there’s an assumption that the RB8 isn’t yet running at full spec, with some parts unlikely to appear before the last day or two of testing.
Every column – this one included – repeats the mantra that good testing form doesn't always mean the best testing times. McLaren haven’t set a fastest lap in their eight days of testing but there is a lot of smart money being put on them for 2012.
In Barcelona last week, the MP4-27 looked consistent and quick and, along with Red Bull’s RB8, was the first to settle into race-distance simulations – usually a sign that the team are happy with the car. Given that McLaren had a miserable time last winter but still came out fighting for podiums once the season began, news of the team having a good winter will be unnerving for the competition.
The Scuderia seem to be struggling for grip more than the frontrunners and are still doing constant-speed runs in a car festooned with pitot tubes. This suggests they’re still searching for answers. They did, however, make a little progress towards the end of the week in Barcelona.
“We are continuing with development of the new car,” said Fernando Alonso. “Maybe we are only taking small steps forward, but they are coming constantly. There is still a lot of work to do, but, as of today, there is no reason why we should not be ready for the first race.” Ferrari might be spending much of this week looking over their shoulders at Mercedes rather than ahead to McLaren and Red Bull.
Having arrived at the Jerez test with an old car, Mercedes were still playing catch-up in Barcelona. They didn’t seem too troubled and slotted back in where they had been last year: better than most teams, but not quite contenders.
Ross Brawn said as much when he suggested the car wasn't ready to win just yet: “Both drivers are capable of winning. There's no doubt in my mind about that. We have got to produce the car. I don't think we have the car yet but it has been a good step from where we were 12 months ago."
Lotus have made all the headlines so far. With Kimi Räikkönen back in the saddle, they topped the timesheets on day one at Jerez and Romain Grosjean kept up the pace towards the end. But then it all went wrong in Barcelona.
Having tested with their first chassis in Jerez, they wanted to test the second in Barcelona. But Grosjean reported it didn’t feel right. Lotus then decided to swap back to chassis number one but had to cancel testing altogether after inspecting the original chassis back at the factory. That suggests a fundamental design flaw. At best, it won’t impact the design and they’ll have lost just a week of testing. At worst, the sky could be about to fall on them.
Force India seem to be doing very nicely. Nico Hulkenberg set the pace on day two in Barcelona and the VJM05 was up there for most of the week. The team's aim for 2012 is to drag themselves up into fifth position in the Constructors’ Championship. The shorthand for that is they want to displace Lotus. With the Lotus team pulling out last week, it’s a tough comparison to call.
Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi was the fastest man at the first Barcelona test of 2012. Kamui drove more laps (1131km) than any other driver – who says persistence doesn’t pay off? Sauber look like they have a car capable of doing interesting things in the hands of Kobayashi and Sergio Pérez . It hasn’t been immune to technical problems though, and Sauber will take a trouble-free second Barcelona test over a timesheet-topping one.
Toro Rosso seem to have taken a step forward over the winter and produced a car that’s capable of scoring more frequently – but so have their competitors in the middle of the field. A paucity of laps in Barcelona will worry Toro Rosso (only Caterham managed fewer), which isn’t ideal when your most experienced driver has only has 12 grands prix behind him.
Williams FW34 is something of an enigma. It skulked around the bottom of the times for the first six days of testing and then started to notch up quick times as the Barcelona test drew to a close.
Williams is the only team to switch engine manufacturers this year. Having lurched between engine makers they've finally settled on a long-term deal with Renault. The fact the car’s done more kilometres than any other team suggests a successful integration.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Caterham. The CT-01 has been at the bottom of the timesheets and has suffered more than its share of downtime. There's nothing serious in that, but the cumulative effect will become relevant the longer it continues. Caterham are expected to make the leap into the midfield this year but nothing from their week in Barcelona suggests they’re about to seriously challenge.
Marussia were expected to take their new car to Barcelona next week, but it failed one of 18 FIA homologation crash tests and so they won’t be running at all. They’ll therefore be restricted to running a shakedown and then cramming their pre-season programme into Friday in Albert Park, Melbourne. It’s surprising given that Marussia were on the up, having hired Pat Symonds and agreed a tie-in with McLaren.
They did at least get three days of testing in Barcelona with last year’s car. Charles Pic managed two respectable sessions, but was still more than a second adrift of Timo Glock, who is too good to be driving backmarkers.
Well, it wouldn’t be the off-season without calamity striking at HRT. In 2010, they turned up at the first race without an assembled car; in 2011 they arrived after very little testing and promptly failed to qualify. This year, HRT ran with an old car at the first test while their new car was completing its FIA crash tests. It failed those and missed the second test while modifications were made. It should appear at the final test and this, in HRT terms, is progress.