The official pre -season testing ended with a frantic day at Barcelona as the 11 F1 teams who have a working car got their final runs in before the freight gets sent of to Bahrain and a new season of F1 begins. Whether they will be joined there by Campos, USF1 and/or Stefan GP we will probably learn in the next week.
As expected it looks like the closest season for many years with four teams fighting for the overall victory and several others only a few tenths of a second behind. The rule changes outlawing refuelling seem to have brought the field closer together, if anything, and McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes can all expect to fight for victory in the early part of the season. With those four teams stuffed with superstar drivers with a point to prove, including four world champions it should be a vintage season of F1.
Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time of the test today, with a 1m 20.472 in the McLaren, which seems to be very strong on the single qualifying lap. Hamilton set the time on new soft tyres in a qualifying simulation. He was just 2/100ths faster than the Red Bull of Mark Webber and 6/100ths faster than the Ferrari of Felipe Massa. Adrian Sutil showed that Force India have good pace with a time just 13/100ths off Hamilton and Michael Schumacher was 3/10ths off the McLaren time. The track conditions were different from yesterday with a gusty wind troubling the teams in the morning.
Barrichello was only a tenth behind Schumacher with Kobahashi hard on his heels for Sauber, which makes it seven teams within four tenths of each other. The Toro Rosso was just behind, but you have to bear in mind that this is the first car the team has designed and built itself, having been a customer of Red Bull Technologies these past few years, so to be doing this well this soon is very impressive. The Renault confirmed predictions from last week that it is around 7/10ths off the pace, despite running a new front wing today.
The Lotus, with Hamilton’s former McLaren team mate Heikki Kovalainen at the wheel, ended up 4.8 secs off the pace after it’s second test session, almost a second clear of the Virgin, which was again hampered by hydraulic problems.
There was some theatre during the day, with Hamilton and Schumacher running close to each other during their race simulations, taking a good look at each other ahead of their first encounter in Grand Prix racing.
It’s a very different feeling for McLaren from 12 months ago when they left Barcelona test with long faces and a 2.5 second deficit to the Brawn car, despite using the same engine. McLaren had a significant update this week with new floor, engine cover, top body and after Jenson Button found a direction with it yesterday, Hamilton and his engineers dialled the car in today. There have been some mixed messages around about McLaren in recent weeks, but they are clearly as fast as anything else out there and this will mean that qualifying, tyre choice and race strategy will be crucial deciders in the early races.
After a strange 2009 season when neither of the traditional front runners was able to fight for the title, both McLaren and Ferrari are clearly back in business. Ferrari have been strong and reliable all through these tests and were the pace setters going into this final week. Things can still change, Mercedes are a tenth or two behind but have a significant upgrade coming for Bahrain and it will change from circuit to circuit depending on handling characteristics and upgrades. It looks like teams will bring upgrades in large steps, rather than chip away at it with something at every race.
Felipe Massa, who is also fully back in business, signed off the testing with a positive message, “We wanted a competitive car and I think we’ve achieved our goal. It’s difficult to say who worked best. Today the time sheet says Hamilton, but we’re all very close together, it’s just tenths of a second. I think that we’re part of the group. I don’t agree at all with those who say we’re the strongest: I think we’re there, together with some other teams. I can’t say that we’re going to Bahrain to win, but I know that we’ll fight for it.”
Headline Lap Times – Barcelona Day 4
1. Lewis Hamilton McLaren Mercedes 1:20.472 134
2. Mark Webber Red Bull 1:20.496 61
3. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:20.539 114
4. Adrian Sutil Force India 1:20.611 100
5. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:20.667 76
6. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1:20.745 123
7. Rubens Barrichello Williams 1:20.870 84
8. Kamui Kobayashi BMW Sauber 1:20.911 67
9. Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 1:22.135 88
10. Robert Kubica Renault 1:23.175 107
11. Heikki Kovalainen Lotus 1:25.251 65
12. Lucas Di Grassi Virgin Racing 1:26.160 49