Monday, March 4, 2013

F1 Preseason Test comes to an end - Analysis of the pecking order

Image courtesy Pirelli
The third and final preseason test has come to an end and surprisingly Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes AMG Petronas has set the fastest time of all. The first two days of testing saw a wet track which got drier as the day progressed which helped teams to work on setups for changeable weather conditions and to find crossover points between full wets and the intermediate tyres. The colder weather has left the teams hoping for some more testing, but the next time their cars turn a wheel will be at in FP1 at Melbourne.

Mercedes AMG Petronas
Not many thought that the W04 would be as competitive as it has actually turned out to be, leading the pack at the end of the final test. With a race winning car in 2012 that turned out to be a "one hit wonder" the team again focused on their new car much before the end of the last season. This time too the car seems to have a good starting point, just as it did in the 2012 testing but without the now outlawed trick double DRS. Rosberg finished day four of testing with a time of 1.20.130 which is more than one and a half seconds faster than the fastest time from the first four days at Barcelona last week. At one point on day one, Hamilton was two seconds faster than the next car out on track at the same time in the wet. Hamilton and Mercedes have played down the advantage they currently have, and even accounting for different fuel loads in practice, we are quite certain the Mercedes will be fighting at the sharper end of the grid. With Paddy Lowe confirmed to be at Mercedes in 2014, the W04 might just be Ross Brawn's parting gift to the team.

Scuderia Ferrari
Image courtesy Scuderia Ferrari
The underdogs in 2012, Ferrari started last year with an abysmal car that behaved very differently from their expectations based on numbers from their outdated wind tunnel in Maranello. This year around, using Toyota's wind tunnel in Cologne, Alonso and Massa seem to have a good starting point to mount a challenge and reign in the Bulls. Both drivers have been very happy with the way their car behaves and have taken turns setting quick lap times. Their best time, set on the final day of testing, was the second best of the lot at 1.20.494 and just under a second and a half faster than their time last week. With Ferrari's rock solid reliability and new found pace, Alonso's ability to make the most of the car on any given day, and Massa's resurgent form, the scarlet team are looking strong and they will always be in the reckoning.

Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
Image courtesy McLaren
McLaren ended 2012 with a win and finished the first test at Barcelona this year with the fastest time. But they have only shown an improvement of about 4/10th's of a second from last week to this week, while the other top teams seem to have found more pace. McLaren very often have a quick car, and even when they seem to be very slow in testing, they know how to turn things around very quickly. Their Achilles heel last year was their reliability, and some mistakes in the pit lane without which they could have very easily have had a good shot at both titles. They have a strong driver pairing in Button and Perez, but the exuberance of the young and very fast Mexican could easily come in the way of what Button thinks is a team built around him. The lessons of 2007 would not have been forgotten by Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh where a young rookie came in the way of a double world champion only for both of them to lose the drivers world championship by a solitary point.

Red Bull Racing 
Image courtesy Pirelli
Triple world champions Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel have not really shown outright pace on a single lap during this entire testing season. Webber did post the quickest time on a wet track with a dry line on day one of the final test but apart from that the Bulls have been racking up the laps and have shown pretty good race pace. But in typical preseason fashion this is what both drivers had to say about the RB9, Vettel  thought that, "It has been extremely difficult to assess some changes and find the right direction with the car, simply because the tyres have not been good enough. The new parts have not been working exactly how we had hoped." Webber's thoughts, "We need another couple of weeks of testing, but we don't have it." Experts and teams up and down the paddock are certain that the Red Bull will be the car to beat. With Mr. Newey at the helm of design for the team, it would be foolish to bet against them especially with the rules remaining as they were in 2012. We will have to wait and see if the engine mapping clarification from the FIA will have an effect on the teams performance in Melbourne.

Lotus F1 Team
Image courtesy Lotus F1
Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus excelled in 2012, and they are showing very good pace this year well. Accident prone Grosjean has been given another chance to show that he has learnt and can move ahead from his disappointments of last year. But there are many in the paddock who still believe he doesn't have what it takes. Nevertheless, team boss Boullier has put his faith and the teams best car on preseason form yet in Romain's hands. The team have been riddled with reliability issues which have plagued the Finn more than the Frenchman, and they will be hoping these issues are ironed out before the Saturday at Melbourne. Lotus are the other Renault powered team who had opted to use the special engine maps which have been ruled as illegal after the first test at Barcelona. It is not clear if they have lost too much pace due to this decision, but it wont be too long before we find out.

Sauber F1 Team
Image courtesy Sauber
The Ferrari powered Sauber F1 team have always been in the middle of the pack and there are always those years where they come up with a car capable of competing at the front on weekends where everything falls into place. 2012 was one such year where we saw glimpses of genius in the hands of Perez and Kobayashi. A fresh driver line-up plus a revolutionary new car with tighter packaging provide the same promise for 2013. Hulkenberg showed good pace in the second half of 2012, and he will be looking to carry that form into his new office. Rookie Esteban Gutierrez is pushing to remove the pay driver tag which has stuck after he secured the second seat at Sauber courtesy billionaire Carlos Slim.  Consistent times by the German and very impressive times by the rookie suggest that the new Sauber could be the dark horse of 2013 and we will not be surprised if that elusive win is realised this year.

Williams F1 Team
Image courtesy Williams F1
Williams seem  a far cry from the championship challenging and winning team they are remembered to be from the 90's and early 2000's. 2011 was their worst attempt ever at the Formula One World Championship, with the team finishing ninth in the standing due to poor reliability and deplorable pace. 2012 saw their first victory since Spain in 2004 in the hands of Pastor Maldonado. Former disgraced McLaren man, Mike Coughlan along with new engine supplier Renault helped Williams change things around. They were the only team to start testing this year with their 2012 car, and they believe this has helped them understand the new tyres better. Maldonado and Finnish newbie Bottas have both rated the new car very highly and they seemed to show good pace with better rear end grip than last years car. But the teams interpretation of the rules for the design of the coanda exhaust on their new car was deemed illegal by the FIA. In two weeks time we will know if this has hurt the team or if they have managed a few steps forward from 2012.

Sahara Force India
Image courtesy Sahara Force India
There has been a lot of interest about Sahara Force India in the recent past, but not much about their car. With Sutil winning the shoot-out for the second seat over Jules Bianchi, the chatter has not yet died down. The science of money is reported to have swung the decision in Sutil's favour with him being supported by Mercedes and Ferrari backing Frenchman Bianchi. Sutil and Di Resta have been setting times in the middle of the pack all through the testing season and their best times of 1.21.627 and 1.21.658 respectively seem to suggest that that is the limit of the car. They look to be about a second off the pace of the front runners, but again testing times are just that, testing times. The real deal will only be obvious by Saturday evening in Australia.

Toro Rosso
Image courtesy Scuderia Toro Rosso
The arrival of James Key last year from Sauber, and the warnings from Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz that they have to move up the grid suggest that the team is serious about improving on their points haul and that they want to move forward. They have been languishing just ahead of the "not-so-new" teams for the last few years, and the echoes of their only win in the hands of a young Vettel in their home race at Monza have died. The team have stuck with their development drivers Ricciardo and Vergne who are this year fighting each other to graduate to the senior Red Bull team. Dr. Marko does not take kindly to drivers who stagnate and don't show growth. The sudden removal of Alguersuari from the Red Bull family and the face saving reserve driver seat for Buemi are still fresh in the minds of the two young drivers of this Italian team that was formerly known as Minardi. The car seems definitely faster than last year, and they will be hoping to move up atleast one place from last years finishing position. But that seems tough with the pace we have seen from the other teams.

Caterham F1 Team
Image courtesy Caterham F1 
Mike Gascoyne has been part of the Caterham F1 Team since its inception in 2010, when it was called Lotus. Gascoyne has worked for teams such as McLaren, Renault, Jordan, Sauber and Tyrell, but he has seen little success with Tony Fernandes's team. The have finished at the all important tenth spot and ahead of the new teams for the last three years they have been in the sport, and taken the last of the money pot that is shared between team based on their finishing position. Along with Williams their coanda exhaust solution was also ruled as illegal by the FIA last week. With their decision to replace two experienced drivers with rookie Van de Garde and Marussia exile Charles Pic, Caterham seem to have lost their way a little in the preseason tests. They have not shown promising pace, and seem to have slipped one place behind Marussia. But the reliability and power of the Renault engine might just give them the edge.
Marussia F1 Team
Image courtesy Marussia
Marussia have seen a lot of changes in their structure and ownership over the three years of their existence. The lack of stability has surely hurt them, but under the ownership of the Russian sports car manufacturer they have forged a partnership with McLaren Applied Technologies. Marussia also has access to McLaren's wind tunnel to test scale models of their car. A sudden issue with sponsors saw the team drop Brazilian Luiz Razia and replace him with Jules Bianchi who lost out on the Force India seat. Max Chilton has spent most of the testing days in the car with Jules getting the last two days of the Barcelona test to get accustomed to the car and the team. The car seems to be faster than the Caterham this year, with the team finishing ahead of the their rival team on all but one day. The only element that could come in the way of success over the Caterham team would be their Cosworth engine. With Bianchi driving for them this year, a deal for Ferrari engines in 2014 cannot be ruled out. But we have a whole year to think about that.

First on the agenda - FP1 Melbourne

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