All eyes were on southern Spain last week as the Circuito de Jerez played host to the first of three weeks of testing ahead of the 2013 Formula 1® season.
The four days of action are always keenly anticipated as they present the first opportunities of the new racing year to witness the full range of updated vehicles in action. The week in Jerez also provides an early chance for fans to familiarise themselves with drivers new to F1® , or simply new to their teams after switching in the off-season.
But aside from all the novelty, what does the first week of testing actually tell us about the fortunes of teams and their drivers ahead of the new campaign?
An honest answer to that question would probably be, “not as much as you might think.” Such are the myriad variables involved in the four days in Andalucia it is almost impossible to gauge their relevance to the Drivers’ or Constructors’ championships. Fuel loads fluctuate, tyre choice varies, and in some cases even test drivers are employed, obfuscating meaningful attempts to measure and compare season readiness.
Though accurate comparisons across manufacturers may be difficult to make, there is still plenty to take from these early-season expeditions. Below is a flavour of what we've learned so far from 2013 testing.
Red Bull’s appetite for silverware shows no sign of diminishing following the first run out of the RB9. Only minor modifications to the championship winning RB8 have been made and both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber appear pleased with the outcome.
Reliability and consistency were Red Bull’s keywords in Jerez with both drivers praising their vehicle after clocking up around 200 laps each. This provided team engineers with plenty of valuable data, in particular about how the RB9 operates on the new Pirelli tyres. Race Engineering Co-ordinator Andy Damerum was happy with his week’s work, suggesting a solid foundation had been set and that more instructive information could now be gleaned from Barcelona testing.
It might be a different colour to 2012, but the Red Bull still looks the car to beat in 2013.
Ferrari’s week in Spain is amongst the most difficult to evaluate. The absence of lead driver Fernando Alonso obviously complicates matters, especially with test driver Pedro de la Rosa suffering a gearbox issue on the final morning. However, that is all offset by Felipe Massa setting the fastest lap-time of the week by any driver. The Brazilian left Jerez impressed by the new F138, indicating it was an easier car to drive, more stable and better balanced compared to the F2012.
Some promising signs then for the Italian giants and their army of followers, but a real picture of Ferrari’s performance will not emerge until after Barcelona.
McLaren’s week got off to a difficult start with a fuel pump problem limiting Jenson Button’s opportunities in the MP4-28. With mechanical dependability a major concern in 2012, doubts have again been raised as to whether arguably the fastest car on the grid is capable of finishing enough races to secure a championship. Things improved thereafter though with Button recording lap times described by Felipe Massa as “incredible” and Sergio Perez looking at ease in his new surroundings.
There’s no question McLaren has the performance to compete in 2013 but the past week in Jerez has not put lingering reliability fears to bed.
Kimi Raikkonen ended the week of testing as the fastest driver, with team-mate Romain Grosjean the fourth quickest overall for the week – so something must be going right with Lotus’s E21. As notoriously unreliable as the first week of testing can prove, Lotus appears to have as much to cheer as any team departing Jerez.
F1® fans should keep a close eye on the Enstone outfit for the remainder of the pre-season to establish if there is any measurable improvement to back up this positive early form.
The Silver Arrows continued their launch theme of expectation management following a mixed week of testing. The opening two days for Nico Rosberg and new-boy Lewis Hamilton were disappointingly brief, courtesy of front-break and wiring-loom problems. Once up and running the F1-W04 looked competitive without suggesting it was yet a rival to the established front-runners.
Hamilton acknowledged the Mercedes offering was less than he was accustomed to at McLaren, saying, “I definitely notice the difference, but it is nowhere near as bad as it could be."
With Hamilton and Ross Brawn already talking about developing the 2014 model, Mercedes will have to impress in Barcelona testing to give any indication they are worth close attention in 2013.
Predictably, none of the remaining teams put in performances that would suggest a marked difference in results in 2013. There were a few encouraging displays though, notably from F1® rookies Jules Bianchi and Esteban Guttierez.
Bianchi, a test driver for Force India, recorded the third-fastest time of the week, doing his chances of a regular drive no harm at all. Gutierrez, driving alongside Nico Hulkenberg for Sauber this year, recorded the sixth-fastest time overall. Just 21, the Mexican is the latest prodigious talent to cut his teeth at the pinnacle of motorsport.