Pre-season testing form and what it really means
Formula One racing is set for one of the most open seasons in years. There is no other conclusion that you can draw when you study the teams' winter testing form from the Barcelona, Jerez, Valencia, Bahrain, Imola and Vallelunga circuits.
2006 has all the hallmarks thus far of a brilliant season, with world champions Renault battling it out again with McLaren, and Honda moving forward to challenge both of them. Ferrari and Toyota should also be close, while Williams, BMW Sauber and Red Bull - with their Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso (formerly Minardi) teams - are definite dark horses.
Then you have a very heavily revamped Midland team (formerly Jordan) and the return of former Zakspeed/Larrousse/Footwork racer Aguri Suzuki with his Honda-powered Super Aguri team. Its a particularly healthy sign for the sport that a new team have joined after several years with 10 runners.
Testing, however, isnt just a crucial information-gathering technical exercise; its a poker game. The trouble is that everybody is following their own specific programme on any given day. For instance, one team might be conducting qualifying-type runs, but carrying a high fuel load deliberately to disguise their true performance. All of them know to a high degree of accuracy what effect 1 kg of fuel has on lap time, and can therefore extrapolate the time they could expect if the car was running as light as it would be when the absolute maximum performance is demanded.
Meanwhile, others may be attempting race distances. A Renault, for instance, might seem to have similar pace to a BMW Sauber or a Red Bull, but could really be running with a much heavier fuel load.
We cannot take it as read, either, that everyone is running the same tyres, even runners from the same camp, be it Michelin or Bridgestone. This is still the point at which the tyre companies are trying different compounds and constructions.
Then there is the fact that many teams will have last-minute aerodynamic revisions in time for Bahrain, that they have not been able to test beforehand.
And dont forget the engine factor. All the V8s are new, of course, though some development programmes have been going on longer than others. Cosworth and Toyota are believed to have the head starts here. Some manufacturers whose cars have been setting fast lap times, may have to turn down the wick and qualify and race at lower revs than they have used in testing, in order to ensure that their power units can survive the mandatory two races.
The real truth, then, will not start to emerge until Bahrain on March 10, when the teams take to the Sakhir circuit for Fridays first practice. And that, as any dramatist will tell you, is just as it should be.
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Click here to go to Part 3 of our Season Preview.