Over the winter we were told by teams and drivers that it was very hard to guess what the pecking order was simply from looking at testing.
With so many variables like the DRS wing, KERS and fuel loads, establishing a clear picture was difficult during the four official tests.
On top of that the McLaren car which turned up in Melbourne at the weekend was so utterly transformed, performance wise, from the one which stuttered through testing that it was unrecognisable.
This shows that the scope for rapid development with these new rules is significant, at least in the early stages of the season. So the gaps will change a lot in the next few races.
Most of the downforce on an F1 car is generated by the diffuser and with these being cut back from double to single diffusers this year, the pressure is on to get the exhaust gases blowing across them and to find every possible way to maximise the downforce of the car, efficiently, with not to much drag. Hence the exhaust arms race going on at the moment, which was started by Renault.
Red Bull has clearly got the most advanced car; Vettel was 17km/h faster through the high speed chicane at Turn 11 than Hamilton’s McLaren and more like 25km/h faster than the midfield teams.
The time sheets from the first Grand Prix of the season tell a partial picture, as not everyone was able to unlock the pace in their car; Ferrari and Mercedes in particular were not as fast as they expected to be in qualifying and at the other end of the grid, Lotus did not show the step closer to the established teams on Saturday they believed they had achieved.
Vettel was on pole by 8/10ths from Hamilton, with Alonso six tenths slower than the McLaren, Petrov three tenths behind. To me that indicates that the Renault is probably as fast as the Ferrari. Rosberg was a couple of tenths behind, with the Sauber there too. Williams didn’t show what they can do in qualifying or the race, really. It was a messy weekend for them.
However looking through the fastest laps from the race points out a few more important indicators about performance. Jarno Trulli’s fastest lap was a 1m 32.550, one second slower than the Force India of Adrian Sutil. This is still not as close as Lotus thought they were, but still a big improvement on their qualifying pace and on where they were last year.
Meanwhile Virgin’s pace in the race highlights just how far off they are, D’Ambrosio’s fastest lap was two seconds slower than Trulli’s. They are adrift at the back of the field, and judging from a comparison of the lap times that Liuzzi turned in his brief spell on the track, there is a danger that Hispania might actually be faster than Virgin, once it gets a chance to do some set up work, in Sepang.
Meanwhile at the front, Vettel and Hamilton were cruising on Sunday, Hamilton had a damaged floor and Vettel just maintained his pace to manage his tyres. He could have gone a lot faster if he needed to.
So the fastest race lap was the Ferrari of Felipe Massa, pushing very hard in the closing stages after a late pit stop for new tyres, Alonso was also quick after his third stop. Although these laps on fresher tyres do not tell the whole story, they do show that there is pace in this Ferrari. Its problem is high tyre wear.
Sergio Perez amazingly set the 7th fastest lap – fourth fastest team – on tyres that had done 16 laps and when the car was still heavy on fuel. The Sauber is quite a car it seems, capable of qualifying in the top ten and easy on its tyres, with plenty of raw pace. That’s a points scoring combination.
Toro Rosso were consistent; they qualified 10th and 12th and in the race set the 10th and 11th fastest laps.
However we must be careful, Melbourne often shows a picture which isn’t born out by the races that follow. KERS will be more important in Sepang and Shanghai and whatever system Red Bull has, it’s going to need some help from it at those two circuits. Tyre wise Sepang is smooth, like Melbourne, although with some higher speed corners, so the tyre wear will be slightly higher, but not back to Barcelona levels.