The third official test starts tomorrow. Analysing the lap time sheets from last week in Jerez, it is clear that the front running teams have already begun experimenting with the tyres and how to use them in qualifying and the race. This is critical this year because the fastest ten cars will have to start the race on their qualifying tyres so it’s essential to make sure you pick the right one.
The work done by Ferrari and Mercedes last week in particular gives us some clues about how the race weekends might play out and it tells us a bit about what the Ferrari may have been designed to do.
Looking at lap times by themselves is meaningless, but if you look at groups of runs and the relative lap times, you can work out on which ones the car was full of fuel and from that benchmark lap time you can calculate how much fuel they were carrying at various stages.
One of the problems the teams will face is that there will simply not be enough time during free practice sessions at the Grands Prix to evaluate how the tyres degrade over a long run. However in testing we have seen Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes doing 35 to 45 lap long runs and it’s clear that there was quite a bit of work done on evaluating whether qualifying on the harder tyre might be the way to go.
Stints of 45 laps are unprecedented in recent F1. They are also a significant factor for the drivers as the lap times will be some three or fours seconds slower at the start of the race than in previous years and that means far lower cornering g forces, which is good news for 41 year old Michael Schumacher and a key part of the reason why the new rules made a comeback more feasible.
Looking at last week, Alonso and Schumacher carried out some short three or four lap qualifying runs, then pitted and went out for long stint race runs on around 110kg of fuel, to evaluate how it might work, although they did not carry low fuel for the qualifying evaluation at this stage. Alonso used the medium and Schumacher the harder tyre.
The interesting thing was that the medium on the Ferrari seemed to be quickest on its 2nd flying lap and it then it went into a long drop off period. So Jerez showed that it could be used in qualifying on a four lap run and then prove a good race tyre despite the drop off period.
It takes quite a few laps before the performance comes back, but when it does it is pretty constant so that by the end of the run, the falling fuel weight is far more significant for lap time than the tyre degradation.
But if you are at the front and the cars behind cannot pass you then it’s a good option.
If this is the character of 2010 tyre on some tracks it will be very hard to find out during practice sessions whether stopping earlier than your rival is going to be the better option, as some people have been suggesting. So much will depend on track characteristics and how the tyres degrade on those tracks.
Alonso’s performance showed that if Ferrari can weather the long drop off period of the softer tyre without getting overtaken, then they have the faster qualifying tyre and one which will still be going strong 45 laps into the race.
Ferrari may have designed their car with a tactic in mind; it seems to work the tyre well in qualifying trim, so they will be well placed on the grid and once the tyres are through the drop off period, caused by the rears graining, it looks fast and consistent, so they are in good shape.
Schumacher’s long run on the harder tyre on the Mercedes was very consistent and showed another way of doing it. But that tyre was up to half a second slower on the qualifying lap.
But, as I said, it will be hard for the teams to get a thorough evaluation of the tyres in the time they have allocated for practice sessions, as no-one does huge long runs like that in practice.
So you might see teams split with one driver pounding round doing a long run tyre evaluation on Friday afternoons while the other works on fine tuning set up. This is what the drivers mean when they talk about working together for the team, because they will have to be well organized.
At Williams, for example, I could see Hulkenberg being sent out to do the long run, with Barrichello responsible for setting the car up across a range of different fuel loads.