Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes made a firm statement of intent today as they finally ran the Pirelli soft tyre and dominated the penultimate day of pre-season testing in Barcelona.
Having been the only team to not yet run the yellow banded soft tyre, the F1 paddock would not have anticipated that Hamilton would shave over a second off the fastest time that we have seen in Barcelona so far this year. Mercedes themselves believed their gain to be closer to half a second, so their improvement will be thought provoking for their rival teams.
Mercedes’ tyre difficulties have always appeared during warm weekends, hence the team’s only win coming at a cold Shanghai, in 2012. This being the case these issues may still exist, but they are not showing up in early March. Hamilton set three times in the 1m20s, all on the soft tyre and at the beginning of a five-lap stint. Of course we cannot read too much into the numbers since we don’t have the respective fuel loads, but Mercedes are certainly significantly closer than how they ended last season.
“There is no reason to be impressed,” said Hamilton. “We came through all the tests and all the programmes we wanted to do and obviously our upgrade has been a positive, it was a small step forward for us.
“This is a good track to test on and give you a rough idea; if your car is good here then it should be good anywhere. If you look at the (Mercedes) car last year it was quick in Monaco so it should be competitive on the street circuits. When it comes to the downforce circuits it could be quite tough there. The most important thing is that single lap pace can be easily achieved, it’s long run pace that is the tough one.”
There were few improvements this afternoon as teams took the chance to perform a race simulation whilst the weather was on their side. The only driver to improve was Felipe Massa on a set of soft tyres, pulling himself within a second of Hamilton. Ferrari dedicated Massa’s final morning of pre-season testing to mid-length runs on the medium tyre, before a series of short stints in the afternoon. During these Massa adopted the on-off-on approach to his tyres, evaluating qualifying strategy for when the season begins.
There was a moment of concern for Ferrari however, when Massa lost his front-left wheel along the back straight late in the day. It looked as though the car suffered a wheel-nut explosion and the team will need to look deep in to how the problem occurred.
Nevertheless, reliability looks generally pretty good for most of the teams as testing comes towards an end.
Ferrari have had a much improved Winter testing programme compared to last year and they should provide a challenge. New sidepods and exhausts mounted yesterday performed as expected, according to Fernando Alonso, who will have one more day’s running tomorrow.
The Spaniard also noted some very positive longer runs where the car managed to keep degradation under control over 14 laps. He thinks success in Melbourne will come down to teams being at the top of their game operationally and strategically, dealing with the uncertainty over the degradation of the new Pirelli tyres. For Ferrari, qualifying close to the front will be vital as this was something they struggled to do last season.
Mark Webber was in the Red Bull seat today and had another typically understated day, frustrating fans and the media alike who are keen to see what the RB9 can produce.
Adrian Sutil in third place went through much of the morning without setting a time, instead focusing on pit stop practice and installation laps. Following the lunch break the returnee and his Force India squad turned their attention to some qualifying simulation runs using the super soft tyre. After three one-lap stints his lap of 1:21.627 put him in second place at that time, albeit over a second off Hamilton’s pace and he used the rest of the afternoon to conduct a race simulation.
Williams maintained their programme of sharing the car between both drivers with Pastor Maldonado handing the reigns over to Valtteri Bottas this afternoon. The team’s plans for today were delayed due a late delivery of new parts, most notably the Red Bull-style sidepods that they are looking to understand and exploit over the final days of testing. Maldonado used a set of the super soft compound to end the day in fourth place.
Having topped yesterday Romain Grosjean had made his way back to Paris with Kimi Raikkonen set to take over the Lotus E21 for the final two days of testing. However, Raikkonen fell sick overnight and Grosjean was ushered back to Barcelona. In the meantime Lotus gave last year’s GP2 Champion, and reserve driver, Davide Valsecchi an opportunity drive during the morning session until Grosjean arrived.
And Valsecchi seemed to enjoy his morning in the latest Formula One machinery, “It was a really good surprise this morning because Kimi had some problem and his physical trainer said he was not fit enough to drive, so the team decided to use me,” he said. “I use everything from Raikkonen,” he added. “Seat, overalls, shoes, pants, socks. Only the underwear was missing!”
At Marussia, new boy Jules Bianchi was quickly up to speed, fitting in with his new team and getting into the groove. He completed 65 laps and seemed happy with his new surroundings.
Tomorrow is the 12th and final day of pre-season testing before the teams pack the cars and set off for Melbourne.
Barcelona Test Day 3
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m20.558 97 Laps (S)
2. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m21.457 +0.899 85 Laps (SS)
3. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m21.627 +1.069 109 Laps (S)
4. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m22.305 +1.747 34 Laps (S)
5. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m22.468 +1.1.910
6. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m22.553 +1.995 86 Laps (S)
7. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m22.694 +2.136 81 Laps (S)
8. Mark Webber Red Bull 1m23.116 +2.558 50 Laps (S)
9. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m23.223 +2.665 105 Laps (S)
10. Davide Valsecchi Lotus 1m23.448 +2.890 16 Laps (S)
11. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m23.482 +2.924 30 Laps (M)
12. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m24.028 +3.470 65 Laps (S)
13. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m24.520 +3.962 119 Laps (M)