This week in Barcelona the F1 teams will have their final chance to test the new cars before shipping them off to Australia for the first race, which is just over two weeks from now.
The test starts on Thursday and runs to Sunday. It’s a crucial opportunity to put the planned development updates on the car which will be used in Melbourne and it should give us a clearer indication of who starts where at the opening of the season.
It is however important to point out that there is likely to be a lot of movement from the start of the season to the end, depending on the amount of development budget teams have and on the directions they take with their cars. So a team which starts strongly in the midfield in Melbourne, for example, could be behind its rivals by Silverstone, so much can change.
Conservative estimates would say that a decent development programme through the season would make a car around 2 seconds per lap faster in Brazil than it will be this week in Barcelona. That’s roughly what eight months and around £15 million of development spend will bring you.
From what I’ve seen so far and picked up from sources and friends in the paddock, Red Bull is ahead and has a significant update package to roll out this week. Whether they will go for an eye catching lap time remains to be seen, but from what we’ve seen so far in testing this year, caginess is the name of the game, so I doubt we’ll see Vettel stick in a low fuel flyer on the final day.
McLaren is close to Red Bull and there’s a mixture of relief and confidence in Woking; relief that the car isn’t a dud like last year’s was at this stage and confidence springing from that, which says that the intense development programme planned should put them in the hunt from the early races, even if they are a few tenths off in Melbourne qualifying.
Those two teams are out front at the moment. Mercedes is next, with everyone looking very closely at photos of the Mercedes diffuser, which has some clever solutions for channeling air and exhaust. It could be the first device to be widely copied, as everyone scrabbles around to recover lost downforce at the back of the car. Nico Rosberg did a very useful race distance run last week and we’ll be looking out to see another step on from there this week.
All eyes will be on the Lotus garage. The black and gold team suffered a major embarrassment when the car had to be withdrawn from testing on day one of the first Barcelona test due to abnormal behaviour of the chassis construction. New composite techniques aimed at lightening the weight of the monocoque appear to have backfired, costing the team four valuable days testing.
Prior to that the car looked quick in Jerez; the team had gone about that first test aggressively, Raikkonen looked impressively sharp for a driver who’s been out for two years and Grosjean was quick when he followed the Finn into the car. Perhaps the longer runs showed that they weren’t quite as quick as initial impressions suggested, but this week will give a better idea of where they are relative to Mercedes.
Ferrari are a big unknown at the moment. They made some progress last week in Barcelona after a painful birth for the car and it’s really a question of how calm they’ve been able to remain back at base in the face of what was starting to look like a mini-crisis. If they’ve stayed cool and thought carefully through the next steps, then we should see some further progress this week at the test with new solutions on the exhausts and on rear end aerodynamics in particular.
Force India look to be in very good shape. Their car is quick and they have two young, quick drivers who seem to be pushing each other along very well. This looks like the form outfit of midfield at the moment, with Toro Rosso also looking reasonable. Of the two you’d have to back Force India to go on and develop the more strongly over 20 races – it looks like being a good year for the Indian team. Their car has still got the characteristic of being very fast in a straight line, but clearly has plenty of downforce too, which bodes well.
Williams has done a massive mileage and now needs to squeeze out some more pace from its car. The emphasis this week in Spain will be on looking to unlock more speed, making sure that they’ve got everything working to the maximum. The team has a Renault engine and KERS, which is a good start.
Sauber did some reasonable times in the first Barcelona test, as it goes about its business without a technical director; James Key having left the team just before the start of the season. Qualifying pace is a key area for the team, after a patchy performance in this area last year.
Caterham is quite hard to read as some promising early signs were rather scrubbed out by reliability issues in Barcelona last week. We’ve not seen yet the kind of pace which is going to bridge the gap from where they were last year to the Williams/Sauber/Toro Rosso pace and that’s what we’ll be looking for this week.
As for the two backmarker teams, Marussia and HRT, sadly the new rule for 2012 which obliges all teams to pass 18 different crash tests has made life tricky for them. Marussia looks set to miss the week’s testing after failing one of the tests, while HRT has now finally got through. Hopefully they will make an appearance at some point this week in Barcelona.