This week’s test in Valencia threw up some interesting talking points, some of which give us pointers to the season ahead. It’s early days to be making predictions on who is fastest, but we learned quite a lot about the new Pirelli tyres, how they will affect the racing and what some of the key talking points will be from a technical point of view. It certainly looks like Renault has moved forward, that Mercedes has some work to do and that Red Bull and Ferrari are more or less where they were last season. But the devil is in the details and it’s still too early to be sure of the details as people were at different stages, for example not everyone used KERS, which affects the final few tenths of a second per lap.
There has been a lot of talk in the last few days about the Pirelli tyres and how the performance drops off after the initial fast lap. Whenever something is new in F1 there is always a bit of a negative reaction, especially from drivers. I remember the moaning about the comfort of the HANS device, which you never hear anyone mention now.
Pirelli is clearly less advanced than Bridgestone was in making F1 tyres and in the design of the compound and the construction there is less science at this point. THe result is that the tyres are probably a step too soft through the range. The supersoft was losing around 2/10ths of a second per lap in degradation, equivalent to 10 seconds over half a race, which is too high for F1. The soft and medium were losing around 0.05s to 0.1s per lap, which is on the high side but workable.
Pirelli are playing their cards close to their chests, saying that they are following the brief they were given to make the tyres less durable than Bridestone and thus make the racing more variable. In all likelihood they will go one notch harder on each compound by the time they specify the tyres for the season.
What is happening is that the rear tyre is proving difficult to manage. The performance is going off and once it becomes more worn it drops off more steeply. This leads to an oversteery car. The drivers say that when it starts to go it’s quite sudden, quite knife edge. Managing this degradation by a combination of driving style and set up so as not to overstress the rear tyre is going to be crucial for the season. The Ferrari looks like it is quite kind on its tyres and maybe this is an area where Red Bull will have to be careful.
The top ten drivers will start the race on the tyres they qualified on and no set up changes are allowed after qualifying. There is a school of thought that the cars which produce the most downforce at the front of the grid could therefore be likely to punish the tyre more and therefore be forced to stop earlier than the midfield cars, who might be able to go longer on a set of tyres.
A well driven midfield car therefore might have a chance to compete with the slower of the front running cars. It could be a bit of a leveller.
There is no doubt that race preparation in the teams’ simulators is more important this season than ever. It’s clear that McLaren’s strategy since the November tests in Abu Dhabi has been to develop the most sophisticated simulator model of the tyres possible. I’m told that the thing that Jenson Button was happiest about from his testing on Thursday was that the real thing was impressively similar to the McLaren tyre model. Other teams will be aiming for the same thing, but McLaren’s strategy with Gary Paffett’s programme in Abu Dhabi and Valencia, looks like it was a priority.
Drivers will spend more time preparing for each race in the simulator and a team which has a good tyre model will have an advantage over the others as they will be able to use more of their time at the race track on things like KERS or development and less time on tuning the car in to the tyres.
From what we have seen this week it is likely that most races will be two pit stops and only freak conditions – as we saw in Montreal last season – will produce races with lots of stops. It is feasible, if Pirelli goes a step harder on compounds, that one stop will be possible at some venues, which is an important variable to keep in the mix. It could be, in other words, that there will be a range of possibilities which will make for good racing. It is clear that the role of the race strategists is going to be more important than ever this year.
What is also clear from the first test is that there are some interesting engineering challenges this season, from incorporating KERS, to the adjustable rear wing and the various parts of the floor exhausts can be blown over. Renault has innovated with its sidepod mounted exhaust outlets and it is likely that other teams will have known about it for a while and will be trying it to see if the gain is worth changing the car for. Williams too has innovated with a rear end set up which is aimed at getting as much air flow to the rear wing as possible.
The adjustable rear wing didn’t give as much of a straight line speed advantage in Valencia as many expected, it was certainly less than 10km/h. At some venues it will be more. Remember that the drivers can use it as much as they want in practice and qualifying, but only for 600 metres in the race. So most people will be working on how best to use it for lap time gain and let the racing sort itself out.