Testing form guide: experts' opinions

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    Testing form guide: experts' opinions

    Post by Ross on 9th March 2009, 14:32

    Formula 1 has reached that crucial stage in winter testing where no one can fully understand where each team sits in the pecking order. All anyone knows is that the only way to come out top in Melbourne on March 29th is to push like crazy and get every thousandth of a second out of the car as possible. Here, Turn Two compares the opinions of two of the sport's most knowledgeable analysists from ITV and BBC, to try to get a better understanding as to where each team stands...

    Winter testing form guide: the experts' opinions

    Much speculation is filling the air in the Formula One paddock as to who will and will not be competitive in the days running up to the Australian Grand Prix at the end of March. No one can have a full understanding of the goings-on in the garages and behind the scenes of the teams, as everyone is running different setups, parts, tyres, fuel loads and strategies throughout the final pre-season tests.

    It really is a guessing game, and there are few people who can guess as accurately as expert analysists from British broadcasters ITV and BBC. Here we look at the opinions of Mark Hughes and Sarah Holt, reporting for their respective company's website.

    "After one of the most radical shake-ups of the technical regulations in the sport’s history and a much broader design diversity than recent years, remarkably the signs from testing so far are that the performance of the cars is closer than ever." wrote ITV's Hughes.

    "A note of caution is in order: It is impossible to be definitive when analysing test times, given the huge number of variables.

    "First we must generally ignore the ‘headline’ lists, where the quickest time recorded by each driver during the day is simply listed in descending order; these can be widely distorted by one driver doing a qualifying-spec run as the others are concentrating on something else.

    "This happened last Sunday at Jerez where Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull went 1.3s quicker than anyone else in what remained by far the fastest time of the week."

    BBC's Holt shared the same opinion: "While Toro Rosso tested privately in Italy, the remaining eight teams kept their cards close to their chests during this week's multi-team test in Jerez.

    "BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica seemed to speak for everyone when he put on his best poker-face and said: 'Where we are compared to our opponents, I don't know. As usual in winter testing, you are not showing 100% of what you have.'"

    Hughes went on: "Most teams spend most of their time running with a fuel load that would be representative for a race stint, at around 40kg. This will cost over 1s in lap time.

    "But the pattern is further complicated by different teams choosing different fuel levels as their baseline for comparison.

    "For some it may be 40kg, for others 25kg, someone else may even go for 50kg.

    "So even the teams never quite know what they are comparing when looking at themselves in relation to their rivals."

    Rain was also generally considered a misleading factor during winter testing, as many teams opted to keep track-time at a minimum during the poor weather conditions.

    "The waters are muddied yet further by varying track conditions." continues the ITV man.

    "Cool morning air lets the engines work better, but is not so good for generating a grippy track surface.

    "A bit of sun and a good layer of rubber from earlier running can make the track much faster after a couple of hours.

    "A shower of rain that wipes the rubber away can mean that even though the track dries again it’s never as fast as in that earlier ideal window – and these differences tend to be way bigger than those in performance between the cars."

    While both journalists said that it has been tough to compare teams, they did however agree on who they thought has held an advantage until now.

    "Despite the testing game of bluff and double bluff, there were some clues as to which teams are likely to be battling for the podium in Melbourne." reckons Holt.

    "Jerez provided Ferrari and McLaren with their first opportunity to go head-to-head since November's season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix.

    "Their relative performances drew murmurs in the paddock that the Italian marque, who are defending the constructors' title in 2009, are some way ahead of their oldest rivals."

    Holt also thought that while Ferrari had a right to feel relatively confident at this stage, McLaren should be feeling nervous due to their own issues.

    "In drying conditions on Tuesday, Felipe Massa ploughed through a race distance at high speed for Ferrari, consistently running around one minute, 21 seconds per lap - a pace Renault's Fernando Alonso matched the following day.

    "But at the same time as Massa was out, world champion Lewis Hamilton's team-mate Heikki Kovalainen ran short stints (around six laps) in his McLaren and was regularly clocking 1:22 and 1:23.

    "The Finn's best time - 1:20.535 - came on his penultimate lap at the end of the day when the track was at its most giving."

    Mark Hughes's opinion on the Ferrari vs McLaren debate was on the same level: "Looking at the last few weeks of testing in Jerez and Bahrain, a few themes do seem to be developing.

    "At Bahrain there seemed to be only around 0.2s blanketing the Ferrari, Toyota and BMW, generally in that order.

    "As those three teams then joined the others in Jerez, it was clear that Ferrari was still in very good shape, that Red Bull and Williams were in the Toyota/BMW ballpark and that Renault seemed to slot somewhere in between, slightly slower than Ferrari, slightly faster than Toyota et al.

    "During the previous Jerez test – when Ferrari was still in Bahrain – McLaren looked the strongest of the Spanish runners.

    "But it was using its 2008 rear wing, which gives more downforce than the pukka ’09 component. Exactly why this was, no one was saying.

    "When the ’09 wing finally went on during the this week’s Tuesday test, the car’s times were somewhere in the region of the big cluster group – Toyota, BMW, Red Bull, Williams – but definitely a few tenths adrift of Ferrari and Renault."

    McLaren's apparent rear-wing issues have been perhaps the most interesting development throughout the recent test days.

    Hughes seemed to think this was due to a problem rather than experimentation: "The following day Lewis Hamilton was spending a lot of time back-to-backing the two rear wings. It looked less like a routine programme than a problem-nailing exercise."

    Holt, however, didn't dig too deeply into the situation, and says that where McLaren may be faltering in some areas, they do have some very strong points to the car.

    "The team say they want to gather good comparative data between the car's performance using the 2008 design and the taller, narrower model required by 2009's new regulations.

    "But in order to maximise the dwindling testing days, the majority of the other teams are already running under the basic constructs of the 2009 rules, which have reduced the cars' aerodynamics.

    "McLaren are, however, confident that they are well ahead of the game when it comes to another innovation of the new season, the optional Kers energy recovery system.

    "Kovalainen insisted he was "99% certain" McLaren would start the season with Kers, which gives drivers a burst of extra power for up to 6.7 seconds per lap."

    Ferrari and BMW are also expected to run KERS in Melbourne however, which, if successful, could be a worry for McLaren.

    Hughes has noticed some general patterns since new cars have hit the track: "Within the general competitive shape of the sessions, certain characteristics seemed to emerge.

    "In the cooler conditions of Jerez, the Ferrari seemed to take a while to get its tyres up to temperature – repeating a pattern that’s been seen for some years now.

    "The Renault seemed better able to instantly access its performance, but over a longer stint the Ferrari looked very strong.

    "The BMW was another with a slightly disparate performance pattern, many of its runs unremarkable before a sudden step change of pace, much as in last year’s pre-season tests."

    But despite some clear patterns emerging, both reporters remained cautious and made no conclusive remarks.

    "In the current climate of change, the learning curve is so steep that the cars on track in Jerez will develop and shift once more at next week's test in Barcelona and again in Australia." thinks Sarah Holt.

    "True form will probably not show itself until Saturday's qualifying session at Albert Park - when the F1 teams and drivers will be as interested as everyone else to find out where they stand."

    Not for the first time, Hughes is in agreement: "Every one of these teams has a further evolution of bodywork to go ready for Melbourne and it’s quite feasible that these will totally change the competitive order yet again.

    "With apparently so little between the cars, finding a tenth of a second more than your rival could vault you from sixth to first. Melbourne is going to be more fascinating than ever."

    Despite just four more test days remaining before teams make the long-haul flights to Australia for the season-opener, even the F1 experts can't make a final decision as to who well be ahead of the game and who will be suffering when the lights go out.

    Only one thing is for certain: we are in for one of the most exciting, unpredictable and competitive Formula 1 seasons for years.

    Director of Operations

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