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What's It All About?

EVENT COUNTDOWN

ALBERT PARK

12-15 MARCH 2015

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

The second of three pre-Melbourne Formula One test sessions has come and gone, this time in Barcelona – a track where most of the drivers could circulate in their sleep. Come to think of it, why don’t they do that – put robots in the cars and send them whizzing round and round so that human beings don’t need to endure the boredom? It’ll come…

The question is, what do they do these days and days of testing for? Well, there are different ways of answering, so let’s just take a broad look at what’s been happening in Spain – where it did, incidentally, rain for the final test day.


THE BIG BOYS AND THEIR NEW TOYS

Four different drivers topped the time sheets on the four days of the Barcelona test – but three of them used Mercedes power to get there.

On day one it was Nico Rosberg with a best lap of 1:22.616; day two saw Sergio Pérez go quickest for McLaren Mercedes with a 1:21.848; Ferrari flew the flag on day three when Fernando Alonso clocked 1:21.875; and on day four it was Lewis Hamilton’s 1:23.282 in damp conditions that did the trick for Mercedes again.

And yet… it’s the Mercedes-powered boys who seem to have come away with the longest faces. Jenson Button – three times the Melbourne winner in the last four years – says there is a lot of work needed to understand MP4/28; Lewis Hamilton insists his new Mercedes team can’t win, at least not in the early stages of the season. Smoke-screens or serious concerns?


IT’S ALL ABOUT GOING ROUND AND ROUND

If we look at pre-season testing as a whole, a pattern begins to emerge. Jerez: shakedown, sort out the little gremlins. Barcelona 1: pound round and round trying to break things and making sure – if possible – that you don’t, to prove the car’s reliability. Barcelona 3: out-and-out performance – are you quick enough to go racing?

Red Bull, for example, stopped early on day one in Barcelona when Sebastian Vettel encountered gearbox problems; on day two he stopped out on the track in the afternoon, insisting it was “nothing disastrous”; but when Mark Webber took over on day three he was able to fire in 104 laps with no trouble.

Lotus too had difficulties to overcome: day one saw Kimi Raïkkönen manage just 44 laps (when all around were piling up 90 and more) because of a telemetry glitch; on day two the Finn was handicapped by a gearbox problem and ran for just 43 laps.

“We test to find problems,” said the laconic Kimi, “so in that sense we’re doing a good job…” But next day in hopped Romain Grosjean to reel off 119 laps including the E21’s first full race simulation.

Hamilton, meanwhile, is upbeat about his relationship with his new crew, but his theme song for the week was The Name of the Game – which, he maintained, was “to improve our downforce”.

So the eagle-eyed among us will check the look of the cars when they take to the Albert Park track and cross-check against how they looked in Barcelona to see just how many tweaks the drivers and engineers have asked for between the shakedowns and the start of the season.


NEW KIDS GETTING TO GRIPS WITH A NEW WORLD

There will be a minimum of five rookies in the Formula One field this year, so you can see how important testing is: not only do they get to grips with cars for a sustained period, unlike the odd Friday Free Practice session in 2012, they also get to bond with their new buddies in the garage.

Sauber’s Esteban Gutiérrez did two of the Barcelona days and racked up 164 laps – a couple of Grand Prix distances – in the process.

Over at Williams Valtteri Bottas completed more than 90 laps on day two and gained “a really strong impression” of what FW35 might be capable of; while at Marussia newcomer Max Chilton didn’t do so much pounding as hanging around between short runs – but still, the team insisted, to good effect.

On day two, for example, Team Principal John Booth said: “Today has been one of those days where the benefit of our efforts is perhaps more evident within the engineering community rather than to the outside world looking in.”

Booth hit the nail on the head: whatever spin we try to put on the testing lap times, these sessions are engineering programs run for the benefit of the guys who have to bolt the cars together – and make them into faster missiles for the drivers to fire.

Just as importantly, the fact that it rained on the final day was an opportunity, not a threat: some of the new boys had never experienced those conditions at this level. “I learned so much today,” said Gutiérrez after his 96 Friday laps. “This was just what I needed.”

With performance running out of the question, the teams turned to another key element of F1 racing these days: pit stops. Again, the lessons learned could prove invaluable—just ask Bottas.

“The big things to work on as a driver,” he will answer, “are braking as late as possible for the pit lane speed limit to minimise the time lost, perfecting your positioning in the box and finally, getting away quickly and cleanly.”

Caterham’s Charles Pic, going into his own second year, summed the whole thing up perfectly. “This week,” said the Frenchman simply, “hasn’t been about times.”


THE PIRELLI FACTOR

Last but not least, testing this year has perhaps more than ever been about getting to grips – pun intended – with the latest offerings from tyre supplier Pirelli, which has deliberately gone softer on its 2013 compounds in a bid to force more pit stops and an even greater emphasis on race strategy.

“In winter testing it’s so hard to say if anyone’s better than anyone else,” observed Mark Webber in Barcelona, “especially with the tyres going off the way they are – you’re losing four or five seconds over the course of a stint, so figuring out who’s doing what is pretty difficult.”

“The tyres do look very difficult to manage,” said Lotus Trackside Operations Director Alan Permane, while drivers like Nico Hülkenberg commented that their lives were made difficult “because the tyres degraded quite quickly”. They were not alone: Force India’s Chief Race Engineer Jakob Andreasen said firmly, “The new compounds are a challenge for all the teams.”

Pirellli’s Paul Hembery was able to offer some consolation: “The conditions we had in Barcelona are far from typical of the rest of the season, with much cooler ambient and track temperatures than we would normally race in, and even some rain on the final day,” he explained.

“This put the tyres outside of their usual working ranges, which led to problems such as graining. The conditions were particularly unsuited to the supersoft tyre , due to the circuit layout and the roughness of the surface in addition to the cold temperatures. Coupled with the fact that teams are still making big set-up adjustments to their new cars and trying out our complete range of tyres to optimise the package, we saw levels of degradation that are not typical.

“Once we get to Melbourne the tyres should be much more within their intended working range, which will eliminate the unusual amount of degradation that some teams have experienced.”

Meanwhile watch this space: the third and final test – the one where we should see teams going for outright performance – will be held in Barcelona from February 28 to March 3.

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