All eyes will be on Barcelona on Thursday when the 11 Formula 1 teams bolt on the definitive specifications of their new cars and target performance gains in the final four-day pre-season test before they head to the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
On the evidence of the first two tests, this season is set to be another close run thing, with teams very close in terms of pace.
Red Bull, who have won the constructors’ championship for the last three years, appear to be the frontrunners after eight days of testing, but they hold only a narrow advantage over Lotus with Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes just behind.
Lotus look particularly good in terms of race pace and consistency. Romain Grosjean’s long run in Barcelona, when he ran with Hard, Medium and Medium tyres, looked more consistent and better on its tyres than anyone else in the field. Team owner Gerard Lopez told JA on Monday night that the team is delighted with the step up in performance revealed so far.
Williams’ new car caught the eye too, with Pastor Maldonado demonstrating that the car was most consistent across the different tyre compounds.
Ferrari started last season with a car that was some way off the pace, but this year look to have a better base to start from and the car is much more user-friendly. The team has focussed on short runs so far and one lap pace looks reasonable. The team is likely to do some race distance running this week, when it will bring its definitive Melbourne specification parts, including exhausts. There will also be some development parts tested out for later in the season as well as a fix for overheating of electronics experienced in the tests so far. Felipe Massa was quickest after the first test in Jerez while Fernando Alonso was second fastest overall, behind Sergio Perez’s McLaren, in Barcelona.
However, on Monday night at the Motor Sport Hall of Fame team boss Stefano Domenicalli said the team are unlikely to have the quickest car in Melbourne,
“I would be very surprised if it was the quickest car at the first race,” he said. “But if we are all close together in a couple of tenths, then the season is really long and everything is possible.”
McLaren have looked quick at times, but Jenson Button has admitted that so far they have not fully understood their new car, as it is a significant departure from the 2012 model. This means that they probably will not set the pace in Melbourne, but believe that over 10 months they will have more development potential than their rivals – it’s a tortoise and hare scenario.
Red Bull, meanwhile, have yet to reveal their exact pace in testing, but rival team sources suggest that they are the benchmark currently.
Further down the grid, Marussia look to have made a step forward with Max Chilton clocking a fastest lap that was one second quicker than either Caterham driver – Giedo van der Garde and Charles Pic – could manage in Barcelona.
While in the first test the teams focused on basic system checks on cooling and brake systems as well as taking aerodynamic measurements, the second test focused on reliability and getting an understanding of the new Pirelli tyres.
This year’s tyres have been designed to degrade quicker, which in turn will create more pit stops during a race, and they seem to be doing so as many drivers, including Sergio Perez who was very good at tyre management last season, have complained about graining.
However testing has been conducted in cooler temperatures with warmer conditions expected when the season gets under way.
The final test is the most crucial as it focuses on performance. With the teams so closely matched, Saturday afternoon’s qualifying sessions will prove even more important as starting one at the sharp end of the grid will be key.
So expect the teams to focus more deeply on tyre understanding, especially on low fuel, single lap pace as well as looking to keep the rear tyres in on race runs. They will also try out any new components which they want to bolt on the car in Melbourne.