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‘It's Impossible To Say Where We Are…’



31 MAR - 03 APR 2016

We began our review of the first Bahrain test with a comment from World Champion Sebastian Vettel, so perhaps it’s best to start with the Red Bull Renault ace again now that pre-season testing has come to an end with the final four-day session back in the same desert venue.

Digging through what teams and drivers say after days of difficult running is a bit like panning for gold: most of it you can take or leave but occasionally there is a nugget worth looking at more closely.

Vettel was slated to run on the final two days. On Saturday he completed one lap before a combination of electrical failure and a leak brought his day’s work to a halt. On Sunday Vettel completed 77 laps – but he was still extremely circumspect.

“Obviously it’s difficult to know where the car is,” he conceded on a day when rivals Mercedes confirmed they had completed 4973 kilometres over the four days in Bahrain.

“It’s not just the number of laps you do,” the German added, “but the type. It’s impossible to say where we are.” He also admitted that Red Bull doesn’t have race-winning pace even if it could find the reliability to last the distance.

Then the built-in spin doctor in most modern drivers kicked in and he concluded by saying “it was a positive end to a tough week.”

Over the four days Mercedes improved steadily to be second (Nico Rosberg) and first (Lewis Hamilton) on the final two time sheets, with Hamilton in particular capturing the intensity of the last few weeks.

“This has definitely been the most challenging winter I’ve experienced,” said the man who made his debut in Melbourne in 2007, “and the car is still very much a work in progress. There is so much to learn with these new cars; it’s just mind-blowing and I don’t think anybody can be fully ready.”

It was another Mercedes-powered car, the Williams FW36 of Felipe Massa, that posted the quickest time overall at Bahrain 2.

The Brazilian’s 1:33.258 on Saturday was also better than Rosberg’s leading lap from the first Bahrain test, a 1:33.283, which combined with 438 laps overall was heartening stuff for a team trying hard to re-invent itself this season.

“What we have done has been important for making sure that we have a car that can not only get to the end of the race but that will have good performance as well,” said Massa, whose teammate Valtteri Bottas was second-fastest on the final day.

As well as those 4973 kms for the factory outfit, Mercedes amassed a total of 17,993 kilometres’ running across their four teams: the Silver Arrows, McLaren, Force India and Williams. In fact it was Force India’s Sergio Perez who set the pace on both of the first two days, though McLaren’s testing came to an unsatisfactory end.

Jenson Button could manage just 22 laps on the final day, suffering engine problems and a ‘control electronics’ issue that meant they were unable to evaluate their Melbourne-spec front wing properly on what the team called “a difficult final day”.

Two days earlier it was also Button who suffered the team’s first major issue of the winter when his gearbox failed. The Englishman insisted the MP4-29 was basically good but cautioned: “In terms of balance and grip the car isn’t quite there yet”.

One of the real nuggets among the post-testing commentary came from Ferrari’s Stefano Domenicali. Last year it was early-season issues that left the Scuderia playing catch-up and the Italian believes Mercedes has already got the jump on his squad.

But he put his finger on one of the other challenges all teams will face when it comes to the heat of battle at Albert Park in a couple of weeks’ time.

"We also need to get used to the massive difference of the car in terms of layout and management,” said Domenicali. "This will have an effect on everyone, because if you have an issue, depending on what it is, during FP3 it will be an interesting challenge to be ready for qualifying, so I think that everyone has to learn.”

That has been one of the key themes of pre-season running: the sheer complexity of the new cars and the difficulty of getting at problems as and when they arise without having to go through a complete strip-down and rebuild.

One of the teams finding it more of a struggle than most is Lotus, for whom Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean could total only 127 laps between them over the four days – one fewer than Bottas put in for Williams on the opening day alone.

An exhaust issue, a fire at the rear of the car, wiring and engine troubles left trackside engineer Alan Permane admitting that they face “a lot of unknowns and a full workload” as they head Down Under. Or, as Grosjean summed it up, “We’re not in an ideal situation…”

Nor were Sauber on Saturday when Adrian Sutil, like Vettel, could chalk up just a single lap before ‘an anomaly on the engine’ (how many ways of saying that will they find?) stopped his running.

The final day saw the German complete a much more encouraging 91 laps; not only that but Mexican teammate Esteban Gutierrez got in and did 86 laps of his own. That allowed engineer Giampaolo Dall’Ara to say “the learning curve was very steep at the first test. Now it’s a bit flatter but there’s still enough to do.”

One of the teams taking heart from their winter efforts is Marussia, for whom sixth- and seventh-quickest times for Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton at various stages were good news indeed.

“This period of the year is always very intense but this time we’ve really had our noses to the grindstone,” observed team principal John Booth.

The English veteran then summed up the challenge facing every one of the 11 teams beautifully as they packed up and prepared for Melbourne.

“Unfortunately leaving Bahrain does not mean all the hard work is at an end,” he pointed out. “It is just the beginning.”

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