“There is not a clear picture at the moment of where we are in terms of performance.” Fernando Alonso.
With testing now complete Formula One’s next stop is Australia for the opening round of the 2011 season. So who’s where in the pecking order at this early stage? Join us for a lot of conjecture, guesswork and fuzzy logic as we try to make a little sense (and perhaps a few predictions) based on the always-deceptive winter tests.
Red Bull’s RB7 appears to be the pacesetter, hardly surprising from the car that developed from the brilliant RB6 – Adrian Newey’s legacy looks set to grow further in 2011. Both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have posted competitive times throughout the winter, enjoyed largely uninterrupted running and enter the new season full of positivity. At this stage the smart money is on them to take victory in Australia.
Ferrari meanwhile have been quiet in testing, preferring to make more noise about the name of their car than it’s capabilities. Thankfully that’s all been resolved, and we no longer run the risk of confusing the Scuderia’s new contender with a Ford pick-up truck. Phew!
On-track they’ve shown hugely impressive reliability, with their car appearing bulletproof. That’s allowed them to cover the greatest distance this winter, with Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa completing 6,985 kilometers between them. That’s over 800 more than second placed Red Bull and almost twice what McLaren have covered.
“We’ve not done as much running as we would have liked, which has hurt our set-up.” Jenson Button.
Ah yes, McLaren. They ended last season with the third quickest car but that’s not looking like being the case in early 2011. Only Hispania (who didn’t run their new car at all this winter) covered less distance than the Woking-based team, and there are serious concerns that their new car is an early 2009-style flop. Martin Brundle for one isn’t impressed.
“I watched the McLaren out on-track a week ago and it’s a mess,” Brundle said of the MP4-26. “It didn’t slow down; it didn’t turn in; it couldn’t get the power down. Lewis looked absolutely at sea in the thing. Clearly, they have a fundamental issue.” Ouch.
Winning in Australia seems like a dream for McLaren right now. The best they can hope is to pick up the pieces should others fall of the track and get their new machine sorted in time for the kick off of the European season in Turkey
That leaves the way clear for Renault to slot in to the position of third fastest team at the season-opener, though the loss of Robert Kubica has dealt them a huge blow. Whilst Nick Heidfeld is a fantastic development driver and perfectly capable of delivering strong results he lacks the sheer brilliance of the injured Pole, who can take the fight to likes of Vettel and Alonso without fear. Still the car is genuinely quick, no questions there, with many believing it could become a genuine threat for victories in 2011. It will be interesting to see where they stack up come Melbourne.
Mercedes meanwhile struggled for much of testing, with Ross Brawn admitting prior to last week’s final round of running that their latest upgrade needed to give them a second if they were to be anywhere near challenging for glory in Australia. Early signs are that the package has been successful, with both Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher sounding far more bullish following the final test. Forget Michael’s low-fuel fastest time on day four and Nico going to the top of the times on the final day, the proof that Merc have progressed is in the drivers’ body language. You feel they’d be happy with fifth and sixth on the grid in Melbourne, behind the Red Bulls and Ferraris, before building to better things as the season progresses.
Williams are hoping to recapure past glories with their ‘aggressive’ new car, the FW33. Testing has gone fairly well for them, with Rubens Barrichello setting some quick times and Pastor Maldonado getting up to speed with F1 machinery at a solid rate. However reliability hasn”t been their strong suit, with several hours spent in the garages fixing a slew of problems. At this stage it’s proving quite hard to judge where they’ll be in Australia, but the early signs are that they won’t have the pace of Renault. Mercedes and McLaren could be vulnerable though.
“I think we can achieve a top 10. This is our aim, to be in the points.” Sergio Perez.
Sauber and Toro Rosso have provided two of the more interesting stories of pre-season testing. Both have set impressive lap times, achieved good mileage and have hungry young driver pairings. But is their pace real?
Focussing first on the Italian squad, some of their quickest laps have unquestionably been done on low fuel loads, but there have been several comments from rival drivers – not least Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton – which suggest the STR6 is the real deal. Jaime Alguersuari believes they will be in contention for points from the opening race, leading us to suspect that this car may been pretty decent. It’ll certainly shift them from their default position last year, when they were generally scrapping to escape Q1, and with Alguersuari and team-mate Sebastien Buemi now fully up to speed in F1 some strong results could follow.
Sauber too have been accused of running light, but given the way their car improved thoughout 2010 – as did lead driver Kamui Kobayashi – you wouldn’t be shocked to see them take a step forward. With bright young designer James Key and the exciting talent that is Sergio Perez thrown in to the mix, plus sizeable financial investment from Mexico, things are looking up for the Hinwil-based squad.
A potentially interesting battle this season will be between Force India and Lotus. The former lost several design staff to the latter last year, with former Force India employee Mike Gascoyne bringing a number of his old colleagues to his new project. Neither have been stellar in testing, but how much of that is down to a less showy effort than Toro Rosso and Sauber is yet to be seen.
“If I have to compare [the new car] to last year’s, it’s day and night. It’s a huge step forward, and everybody has been working really hard.” Jarno Trulli.
Lotus appear to have taken a step forward over the winter, though whether it will put them in the midfield remains to be seen, particularly with their rivals appearing to have made such strides. There have also been reliability issues with their new car, keeping both Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen in the garages on a number of occasions during testing. Still Jarno believes that his car is a huge progression from the 2011 entry, whilst also admitting that ironing out the technical gremlins could mean it’s a few races before we see the fruits of their labour.
Force India meanwhile have been quiet, a bit of a change for the team who boast the most lurid paintjob on the grid and a boss as flamboyant as Vijay Mallya. They don’t look to have taken a noticeable step forward and seem unlikely to be worrying Williams as much as they did in 2010, and could be at risk of slipping towards the back of the field if Sauber and Toro Rosso have genuinely improved. Consolidation might be the best they can hope for this year, though even that may be a bit of a challenge.
Have Virgin taken the step forward they were looking for? The early signs are that they haven’t, with rookie Jerome d’Ambrosio looking some way off the pace this week. However judging the car’s pace by the Belgian’s times would be unfair – Timo Glock is the real barometer. He missed the final week after having his appendix removed and was sorely missed by his team, though not perhaps not as sorely as his side felt the next day. At this stage it’s hard to imagine Virgin being anywhere other than where they were in 2010 – quicker than Hispania but struggling to escape Q1 aside from the odd dash of magic from Timo.
“I’m not fazed at the moment by worries that we will be out of the 107%.” Tonio Liuzzi.
And finally Hispania. What’s their 2011 car like? No one knows, being as they haven’t driven it, but it doesn’t look too different to the 2010 machine. Tonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan will drive it for the first time in Australia and will, at first, be happy not to fall foul of the revived 107% qualifying rule. Of all the predictions made here this one is probablty the most likely to come true: the HRT will be the slowest car around Albert Park. If both cars make the race they’ll be happy; if both finish they’ll be ecstatic; if, thanks to unreliability throughout the rest of the field they score a point, it’ll be like winning the world title.
And that completes our attempts to draw some sense from this year’s pre-season testing. Ultimately we can’t really know anything until the new season gets underway two weeks from now, but we hope we’ve made at least a few worthwhile points and not interpreted things totally wrong. With Pirelli tyres, moveable rear-wings and KERS all added to this year’s cars it’s difficult to predict anything with confidence, but that only whets the appetite for the opening race more. Check out the galleries from the final test in Barcelona below, which we hope add to the excitement a little bit extra.