I come away from the Barcelona test feeling that this is going to be a great season of racing, but in a very different way from the McLaren vs Ferrari battles of the last two years.
The testing performances we have seen so far suggest that McLaren has, if not a mountain, then certainly a big hill to climb, while Ferrari, BMW and Toyota look very strong, one might almost say equally strong.
If the performance we’ve seen here is carried over to the early part of the season, as it has been in recent years, then you could see Kubica, Heidfeld, Raikkonen, Massa, Trulli and Glock fighting for wins and podiums early on. I don’t think it will be too long before Alonso joins in either, as the Renault team made a big step forward this week thanks to a new front wing and underfloor parts. They started behind and are still a bit behind, but closing in fast.
Kimi Raikkonen said that the Ferrari team has not yet pushed for the ultimate lap times, implying that there is more to come, but from what I saw in Barcelona there is little to choose between the top three teams on pace. Certainly when the BMW does similar runs to the Ferrari, it sets similar lap times. When it comes to racing, Toyota may have a slight disadvantage from not running KERS at some tracks early on, but they are adamant that the decision, taken early, not to start the season with KERS was the right one. Their car is very driveable, predicatable and consistent. Jarno Trulli thinks he can do great work with it. The car is still not as comfortable as some of its rivals over the kerbs, but it’s a vast improvement on last year’s model.
The new rules have cut the maximum downforce level available on the cars to below the level they used to have on low downforce tracks. This has meant many things, but one of them is that braking stability is now harder to find, as downforce is an important part of getting the car slowed down. I stood at the heavy braking zone at Turn 10 for a few hours this morning and studied this closely. Everyone is more jittery than they were there last year, but if I had to pick a winner under braking I would say that it’s the Ferrari. The Brawn car is giving a little bit away there compared to the Toyotas and BMWs, and so is the Renault.