Freitag, 13. April 2012

Reading between the lines in a phoney war

The annual Formula 1 phoney war was in full swing at the second pre-season test at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya this week.

Fernando Alonso was talking down Ferrari's form, Lewis Hamilton was talking up McLaren's - as, intriguingly, was Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel. And the unlikely combination of Kamui Kobayashi and Sauber set the fastest time of the week.

As ever, the headline lap times were a poor guide to the order of the grid that can be expected in Melbourne at the first race in just three weeks' time.

But look behind the fastest laps, and there is usually a way of gleaning at least some sense of form ahead of the season.

Fernando Alonso

Fernando Alonso's Ferrari could yet to turn out to be a dark horse. Photo: Getty

I'll preface what follows with a major caveat - this has been one of the most difficult tests to read for some time. But here goes.

Red Bull, as ever, looked especially strong. Vettel was fastest of all on the first day of the test, and throughout the four days he and team-mate Mark Webber set consistently formidable-looking times.

On Wednesday afternoon, Vettel and Hamilton set out to do race-distance runs at more or less the same time. Both did 66 laps - the length of the Spanish Grand Prix, which will be held at the track in May.

Vettel did five pit stops; Hamilton four. Discount laps on which they went in and out of the pits and they both managed 55 flying laps. Vettel completed his more than two minutes faster than Hamilton.

If that was repeated in a race, Hamilton would be lapped by the end.

And the pattern was repeated on Thursday with Mark Webber and Jenson Button, although the margin was reduced to about half a minute.

Of course, this is very far from an exact scientific comparison.

They didn't use the same tyres as each other - although they don't necessarily have to in the race either.

We don't know what they were doing with fuel loads - although it would be counter-intuitive to start putting fuel in at pit stops because it would provide the team with data that was never going to be relevant to competition.

And it's an especially confusing situation because only the day before Vettel was saying how impressed he had been with the McLaren's pace on the longer runs.

But there was more - none of it especially happy ready for those hoping for a close season.
On the Wednesday, Vettel's fastest time of all was nearly a second faster than Hamilton's on the same type of tyres. Although both were set on very short runs - suggesting a qualifying-type simulation - that's still potentially meaningless as there is no way of knowing the level of fuel on board at the time.

Nevertheless, if you then look at the lap times both were doing at the start of their race-distance runs, they were about the same margin slower than each driver's fastest laps as you would expect given a full race fuel load.

That suggests that the headline lap times of those two drivers could be a reasonably accurate indicator of form - again worrying for McLaren.

Of course, this is only testing, and teams have updates to put on their cars before the first race - as Button pointed out. And everyone expects McLaren to be a close to challenger at the front come Melbourne. Nevertheless, few are under any illusions about Red Bull's strength.

"You're old enough, Andrew," one senior insider said to me during the test, "to know that Red Bull look very strong. McLaren and Ferrari are a bit behind. Force India look like they have a quick car, too."

He might have added that the new Mercedes looks quite decent as well.

But few teams are as difficult to understand right now as Ferrari - who have not done any race simulations to compare with their main rivals.

The messages coming out of the team have all seemed pretty negative.

There has been a lot of attention put on technical director Pat Fry's remark at the first test in Jerez that Ferrari were "not happy" with their understanding of the car.

Start raking through the time sheets, though, and you begin wonder what's behind all the negativity.

On headline lap times, Alonso was less than 0.3secs behind Vettel. And on both his days he started 10-lap runs with a lap in the region of one minute 24.1 seconds.

If you take 10 laps' worth of fuel off that time, you are left with a lap in the low 1:23sec bracket - again, not far off what Vettel managed. And you can bet the Ferrari was running with more than just 10 laps of fuel anyway; most top teams routinely test with 60-80kg of fuel on board.

In other words, the Ferrari actually looks reasonably fast, and an insider did admit: "The car is not as bad as a lot of people think."

If - and it's a big if - Ferrari can start to extract that potential before the first race of the season, Red Bull might just have a serious fight on their hands. And that's without even considering what McLaren might be able to achieve.


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