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Testing Analysis: Who is at the front and Who is Suffering?

This week, all the F1 teams have been in Barcelona for the last major F1 test of the year. For many, it was their final chance to put miles on the car and learn about their 2009 package.

 

The Difficulty of Analysing Testing

When studying testing times, you have to take them with a pinch of salt; we won’t  know until Melbourne what the real pecking order is. There are many different variables in testing, which can give a misleading picture of who is where.

For example, we don’t know what programmes the teams are working on. They might be working on a particular area of setup. They could just be testing the reliability of the car. They could be getting used to the tyres’ behaviour over a single lap or a race distance. They are learning as much as they can about their cars, as opposed to chasing that outright quick lap.

Importantly, we don’t know how much fuel the teams are carrying. This alone can make a huge difference to the lap times. Some teams opt to run light, whereas others always tend to run heavy in testing.

Track conditions also contribute to lap times. The track conditions change throughout the day. The race track is a living creature; it will normally get more rubber on it as the test day goes on. However, any precipitation will wash all that rubber away. The track will become “green,” and therefore much slower than it was previously.

Despite all of these variables, it’s still possible to see patterns that are forming. You can spot which teams look like they are in good shape and who may indeed struggle.

By the end of testing, you can get a rough idea of how the pecking order is looking. In the last test session, in particular, a clearer picture begins to emerge. At this point teams need to assess how fast their cars really are.

Also in this final week many teams will do simulations of the race weekend. This offers the best chance of comparing their performances.

Each season, though, there is always at least one team that doesn’t end up where testing suggests they should have.

Teams may run ultra light to attract sponsors or may run extremely heavy to hide their true speed. This is a term often referred to as “sandbagging.”

In 2001, Prost were setting very fast lap times, and even broke a lap record! Once the season started, they were nowhere near the front of the grid. At the time, Alain Prost’s team were struggling for funds, so they ran their car under the minimum required weight to set fast times and attract sponsors.

Quite a devious little plan!

Last season, BMW Sauber didn’t look too good for much of preseason testing. However, they caused a big shock when Robert Kubica came from nowhere to almost snatch pole position from Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne.

So the big question on every F1 fan’s lips is how is the current order looking as things currently stand?

 

The Grid Is Surprisingly Close!!

This has been one of the main stories of testing this season. All the rule changes have effectively meant that each team has started from a new sheet of paper. Many figures expected this would spread the grid out. Last season, the field spread came down to about two seconds. This is the closest it had been for many season, attributed to the fact that the rules had been stable for a few seasons up to that point.

Amazingly, despite the changes, the grid looks set to close up even more. During the tests, the field has been separated on average by 2.0 to 2.5 seconds. When you take into account that some teams would have been running high fuel programmes, and others low fuel programmes, then the field is likely to be even closer than that.

We won’t see how much time covers the entire field until we start qualifying in Melbourne. I would guess the field spread could well be as low as 1.5 seconds. This would be pretty astonishing.

So why is it so close?

Simply put, many teams have adapted to the rules well and created great cars. We also have to remember that there are a huge number of large manufacturer teams compared to years’ past. These teams are extremely well-funded, and have top-range facilities in place. There are more teams with the power and capabilities to build a great F1 car.

Out of the current teams, Toro Rosso and Force India are the ones most likely to be classed as minnows. Toro Rosso is, technically speaking, a customer team of Red Bull, (who look as if they have a great car), and Force India has formed a technical collaboration with Mclaren. Thanks to this, both these teams are going to improve significantly as well, despite not being as well off as the teams above them.

Compare this to the last set of major rule changes in 1998. The field spread out then—which perhaps is why many expected the same to happen this time around—but the difference was there were far more lower funded teams with nowhere near the level of facilities that many teams have now. These teams included the likes of Minardi, Arrows, Stewart Ford, Tyrell, Prost, and Sauber.

Adapting to huge new rules stretched these small teams to the absolute limit. This is a big reason why the field of 1998 spread out. The situation in 2009 is very different with many more big teams on the grid, and the minnows well supported with partnerships with other teams. I bet Minardi and Arrows would have loved a technical collaboration with Mclaren or Ferrari back in their day.

This season, a bunch of very talented and well developed teams have had the chance to start fresh. Every team started the 2009 development at the same place: on the starting line.

In the last couple of seasons, most of the teams have matched each other in terms of development rate. The main problem for the likes of Red Bull and Toyota was that they started the season over a second behind Ferrari and Mclaren. With stable rule changes, it was always an impossible task to make big inroads into that lead. Starting from scratch, and at the same level as Ferrari and Mclaren, they have a chance to edge ahead if they adapt better to the 2009 rules.

 

Who Are Looking Like the Current Front Runners?

This is promising to be a fantastic season. Going to Melbourne, there are three or four teams who will be starting the weekend thinking they have a decent chance of winning the race.

Throughout testing, Ferrari, BMW, and Toyota have been extremely closely matched at the top of the timesheets. When they have been doing similar runs in testing this week, their times have evenly matched. They all look like fast, consistent cars.

In the Bahrain test, these three teams were always covered by just a couple of tenths. When they joined the other teams in Jerez and Barcelona, that theme continued. Except they have also been ahead of the other teams, too (with the possible exception of Brawn GP, which is explained in the next section).

Toyota has impressed me most in testing. They have clocked up a huge amount of mileage, and the car is extremely reliable. Jarno Trulli is very bullish about his chances in Melbourne. I think this could be Toyota’s big year…at long last. They look as if they are finally realising what it takes to be successful in Formula One.

Their team members have become more passionate about racing, rather than acting all corporate. I am sure this has made a substantial difference. If Toyota doesn’t win races this season, then they will be very disappointed. It could be a big year for Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock.

Ferrari, again, have built another fast car. However, their testing hasn’t been without reliability problems. They have had a couple of scares with their KERs (Kinetic Energy Recovery system) device. Ferrari has seemed pretty intent on using their device from the start, but they may have second thoughts about that before Melbourne. Leading 1-2 in Melbourne and then having a double car failure (like Mclaren suffered in the 1999 season opener) would be seriously gut wrenching.

Their other issue is that it still takes a long time to warm up the tyres. This is at its worst in cooler conditions. This means that like the last couple of seasons, they will be at a disadvantage to their main rivals in qualifying. As things stand, that could be very critical. With the front runners so closely packed, not having a great qualifying car could cost them far more than it did last season. They need to work on this. Historically, Ferrari’s race pace has always been their strong point compared with qualifying pace. This isn’t just a recent trend.

BMW also looked to have made the step forward to regular race win contenders. BMW gave up full development on their 2008 car pretty early on, and started to focus much more on the 2009 contender. They recognised that 2009 was a unique opportunity to gain on the front runners.

It looks like BMW Sauber may well have made the right decision here, despite Robert Kubica being unhappy that BMW didn’t focus more on his 2008 title challenge. Since BMW took over Sauber back in 2006, they have made a big step every year since then. They look set to take another big step forward for the fourth year running, which is deeply impressive. They are set to be championship contenders this season. The team have often sandbagged in the past in testing, so there is a chance they are even quicker than they’re letting on.

Overall, out of these three leading teams, I would estimate that Ferrari has a tiny edge in terms of race pace. When it comes to qualifying trim, BMW and Toyota are probably ahead. Toyota won’t be using the KERs system until later in the season. We will see whether this proves to be an advantage or a disadvantage to them. It could swing either way.

 

Have Brawn GP Staked a Claim to Be Part of this Leading Group?

Brawn GP have been one of the stories of testing this week. The car has been extremely fast straight out of the box. Even better, the car has proved to be very reliable. Ross Brawn and his two drivers, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, must be feeling pretty ecstatic right now.

On Wednesday, Button set a low 1:19 and Barrichello on Thursdays managed to sneak into the 1:18s. Even if these laps are glory/sponsor seeking laps, these times are fast by anyone’s standards. They are quicker than the time set in Q2 of the Spanish GP last season. It’s obvious that Brawn GP have a very quick car on their hands. Not only do they look good in low fuel trim, but their long runs have been mighty as well.

Remember that this is the car Honda started building all the way back in 2007. They gave up completely on 2008 before the season even started. Ross Brawn focused entirely—and put a lot of Honda’s cash—into building this car. They have still been developing the car during the winter, even with all the uncertainty of the team’s future. Therefore, there was always a good chance this was going to be a very fast car, and it most certainly is.

A question mark will hang over whether they can keep up the development pace over the whole season. I think they have a good chance. Honda has given Ross Brawn 100 million pounds to keep the team alive, as opposed to having to pay that amount to make all the staff redundant. The team has also been around 40 to 50 million pounds in commercial, and TV revenue money from Bernie Ecclestone.

So for this season at least, Brawn GP have a very healthy budget on which to operate. I am sure Ross Brawn will make use of every penny. He is very talented and will run a very efficient operation. It will be very much like the Renault operation, who, despite having less funds than Mclaren and Ferrari, beat them both to consecutive championships back in 2005 and 2006.

Paul Murtagh and I said in our preview of Brawn GP that podiums and points were possible. I think that will definitely happen now. Not only that, but they have now got a genuine chance of winning in Melbourne. Some experts believe the Brawn GP car is the class of the field; even Felipe Massa admitted his Ferrari couldn’t do lap times as fast as Brawn has been producing. For Felipe Massa to actually come out and say that is quite a statement. Fernando Alonso has also come out, and said that Brawn GP’s pace is for real.

Brawn GP has most certainly been the biggest story in Barcelona this week. Whether they perform in Melbourne is an entirely different matter, but the signs look as if they could be on for a great start to the season. And as already touched on, it’s not as if they don’t have the funds this season, with the team still getting Honda money.

Just think: Not so long ago Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello’s careers were in grave danger. Now they both have a car, which has the potential to be at the front of the grid. It’s strange how quickly things can change in the world of Formula One.

And What of the Others and Mclaren?

Behind the potential quadruple of Ferrari, BMW Sauber, Toyota, and Brawn GP lie another tightly packed group. Renault, Red Bull, Williams, Force India, and Toro Rosso are the next group. Red Bull and Renault are currently the teams that look to be leading this group. However, they are not too far away from the lead group. So it’s possible that they could catch up and have an impact on the season, albeit not at the start of the season.

I would certainly expect Renault and Alonso to improve by Melbourne and be in the mix. Red Bull is another who is capable of closing in on the front runners. They were low key in the Barcelona test, but in Jerez, Sebastien Vettel had a very fast qualifying simulation. That car clearly has pace. It’s possible that they have been running on heavy fuel in Barcelona, and therefore appear higher than expected in Melbourne. We will find out soon.

Force India looks much more competitive, thanks to the Mclaren Mercedes engine, gearbox, and hydraulics. Toro Rosso will also be competitive thanks to their partnership with Red Bull technologies. If Red Bull have a decent car, then it’s very likely Toro Rosso will too.

But the big question mark hangs over Mclaren. No doubt the biggest story is the performance of the Brawn GP car, but the next biggest story has to be the poor showing from Mclaren. For most of the week, Mclaren has been near the bottom of the timesheets. Mclaren is not a team that normally sandbags. The form that Mclaren have shown in preseason testing is the form that has been carried over into the season.

The main concern is with the rear of the car, which explains the regular use of the 2008 wing during testing. It seems that the figures from the wind tunnel don’t match with what the car is doing on the track. Basically, the car is not doing what Mclaren’s technology told them it should be doing. Fixing the problem is far from straightforward. Mclaren will have to use their team’s genius (and maybe more) if they are going to be a threat in Melbourne.

Mclaren have one more test in Jerez next week, along with Brawn GP and Williams. If they don’t get their problems sorted there, they will be in big trouble. With no more testing for the whole season, it will become harder to rectify the issues with the car. They will have to rely on wind tunnel data and simulations, which appear to be what has misled them in the first place.

The next two weeks could be critical to Mclaren’s season. Many drivers on the grid are very bullish about their chances this season. Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, on the other hand, have remained extremely quiet.

So why do Mclaren seem to be dropping the ball?

There could be a number of reasons. Mclaren were pushing very hard throughout the championship last season due to being in an intense battle with Ferrari. Other teams started focusing much earlier on the 2009 car, so therefore they may have spent more time on the 2009 car than Mclaren. Mclaren can’t really use this as an excuse, though. Ferrari has managed to produce a very good car, despite going down to the wire in the championship in 2008.

It could be that Mclaren has become a bit too overconfident. Have they pushed a bit too hard, and been too aggressive with the design of the car? It’s interesting that Mclaren’s main area of concern is with the rear of the car, as the rear of the car plays a key part in Lewis Hamilton’s driving style. He loves to hang the rear of the car out in corners. Mclaren has perhaps focused too much on giving Lewis a car that he can thrive in and are now falling flat on their faces because of it.

It should be remembered that in recent times, Mclaren hasn’t had a permanent place at the front of the grid. 2007 and 2008 was the first time Mclaren produced an excellent car for two seasons in a row (Mika Hakkinen’s had 1998 and 1999 successes). Between then and 2007-2008, there has been a pattern regarding Mclaren’s seasons. They had a good year, followed by an average year, then followed by a good year, and so on. These last two seasons gave some the impression that this pattern had been ironed out at Mclaren.

Maybe it hasn’t after all?

It’s certainly a bit too early to be conducting the post-mortem on Mclaren. The season hasn’t even started yet! But if Mclaren doesn’t find a sudden dramatic breakthrough in Jerez, then they will be stuck in the midfield with a mountain to climb.

 

Final Summary

All the evidence suggests that 2009 is going to be a very closely fought season.

The new 2009 rules l has shaken up the order, and breathed new life into Formula One. There has never so much excitement surrounding a F1 test as there has been in Barcelona this week.

The victory in Melbourne could go a number of ways. Here is a summary of where the teams look to be, having studied the testing times in great detail:

 

GROUP ONE

Ferrari, Brawn GP, BMW Sauber , Toyota (Covered by no more than 0.2-0.3 seconds. The order these 4 teams are in is very close to call)

(Gap of approximately 0.5-0.7 seconds here to the next group)

 

GROUP TWO

Renault

Red Bull

Williams

Toro Rosso

Force India

(This group of teams are covered by around 0.5-1.0 seconds. The order these teams are listed is potentially the order they are in at present. Mclaren fit in the middle of Group Two somewhere, but it’s hard to determine where. They could be at the front of the group, or at the back of it).

Who’s the fastest out of Group One is a hotly debated point. Everyone seems to have a different opinion in which of those four teams has the slight edge.

Before the race in Melbourne, many teams will bring more upgrades to their car. Some of these may be quite innovative upgrades, which the teams have left off the car purposely until the first race. With the ban on testing starting after Melbourne, it gives less chance for rival teams to successfully copy them.

With the field so tightly packed, if a team can find a few tenths before Melbourne, it could move them significantly further up the grid. On the other hand, there is a chance of three or four teams from behind overtaking you if you don’t add more to your car.

In both Groups One and Two, I am sure there will be a team who will have edged ahead by Melbourne. The picture could, in fact, look very different to what it is now.

Saturday in Melbourne is looking spectacular at the minute.

Not long to go now!

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March 24, 2009 - Posted by | Main Features | , , , , ,

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