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Pre-season analysis - reading the formbook harder than ever 03 Mar 2011

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB7.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Jerez, Spain,  Saturday, 12 February 2011 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F150th[ with the media.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Barcelona, Spain,  Friday, 18 February 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Monday, 21 February 2011 Adrian Sutil (GER) Force India F1 VJM04.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Monday, 21 February 2011 Jarno Trulli (ITA) Team Lotus T128.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Jerez, Spain,  Thursday, 10 February 2011

You’d be kidding yourself if you believed you could predict a pecking order for the 2011 season from the opening three tests. Without knowing fuel levels and teams’ programmes, judging test pace has always been notoriously difficult, but with this year’s new Pirelli rubber, the return of KERS and the new moveable rear wings, evaluating relative performance has suddenly got a whole heap harder.

Who’s running what, and when? Is anyone sandbagging? Who’s slotting in low-fuel glory runs? Whose car is waiting on critical updates? What is smoke and mirrors and what is credible performance? It’s a minefield out there and as the data stacks up it becomes increasingly easy for the casual onlooker to stumble into potholes. A cursory glance at the top of the timesheets is testament to this.

Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Williams have all shared the top slot, but whether this means they will make up the frontrunners in Melbourne, and whether the absence of McLaren spells disaster for the British team, is a different matter. So exactly what, if any, hints are ready and waiting to be gleaned from the timesheets?

Well, the perceived wisdom is that Red Bull and Ferrari almost certainly have the edge at the moment. Just in terms of mileage, they are way ahead of rivals. Ferrari have covered around 5,200 kilometres; Red Bull 4,400. And aside from an oil leak at the first session in Valencia and a few niggles in Barcelona, Ferrari’s F150th Italia has boasted remarkable reliability. Red Bull too have run into very few issues, with just one day of the 11 days they’ve completed interrupted significantly. The pace of both teams has been strong and consistent, with Red Bull seemingly leading the way. Perhaps no surprise then that both also appear quietly confident, especially with further upgrades coming before the Australian season opener.

Red Bull’s closest rivals in 2010, McLaren, seem at first glance to be on much shakier ground. They certainly don’t appear to have the pace of the blue or red cars, but this could be down to differing priorities, with McLaren openly admitting that one of theirs has been gathering data for simulation work. Perhaps more worrying is that McLaren are way down the mileage order - ninth of the 12 teams - having racked up around 2,500 kilometres with the new MP4-26 - less than half Ferrari’s tally.

The car’s late launch date clearly contributed (McLaren used their 2010 car at the first test), but a succession of reliability niggles have dented their pre-season preparations. The MP4-26 is clearly a complex car, perhaps why the teething problems have been more pronounced. These disruptions have bred frustration, and the team are no doubt grateful the season’s start has been delayed. It means more time for hard work to pay dividends.

Mercedes seem struck by a similar malady. From the outset the MGP W02 appeared distinctly lacking in both pace and reliability. Still, thanks to an early launch, the team have collected around 4,300 kilometres of running, and recent developments to the car seemed to make a real difference at the last test in Barcelona. Team principal Ross Brawn remains upbeat, insisting the plan was always to start with a simple car, establish reliability, and then rely on an ambitious programme of updates to provide the speed. Only time will tell.

Of all the new cars, Renault’s R31 has raised the most eyebrows. Its black and gold livery and - more importantly - its innovative forward-facing exhausts are striking, and judging by its test performance, the R31 could just drag the team back into title contention this year. It’s not all been smooth running - the team have managed 3,700 kilometres after a series of issues, predominantly KERS-related. Another problem, of course, is a star driver sidelined by a rallying crash. Nick Heidfeld is the worthiest of replacements, and is well equipped to lead the team through any development struggles, but Robert Kubica he is not…

Innovation has also been the watchword at Williams. The FW33’s short gearbox and extremely compact rear-end packaging has been widely discussed and the aggressive design has boosted the British team’s confidence, even if its on-track potential arguably remains unproven. If Williams can harness that potential it would be difficult for rivals to copy and could well haul them back out of the midfield pack. There have been a few reliability problems, but technical director Sam Michael is confident they are minor.

Another quietly confident midfield team is Sauber. Undoubtedly helped by its Ferrari engine, KERS system and comparable rear aero package, the C30 looks a worthy charge for 2010’s stand-out rookie Kamui Kobayashi, who believes he will be able to score points at most races. Kobayashi’s new team mate, rookie Sergio Perez, may regret his time-sapping crash during the Jerez test, but he - and the team - look full of promise relative to 2010.

Going into their second season without the creative nous of sister team Red Bull, Toro Rosso have managed to design a striking - and seemingly quick - car single-handedly. The Italian team have completed around 3,700 kilometres of testing and with Jaime Alguersuari clocking the second-quickest time on day two in Barcelona, the STR6, complete with its unusually high sidepods and ‘dual floor’ design, seems to have reliability and pace.

With Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso apparently making gains over the winter, Force India could be in danger of losing out come Australia. As the last team bar HRT to launch their 2011 car, they only got round to sampling their new KERS system for the first time on the final day of the third test in Barcelona. But their overall tally of around 3,700 test kilometres is none too shoddy, and now convinced of the VJM04’s stability, the team are targeting a significant performance boost at the final test.

Lotus appear to be leading the way among the new teams, aided and abetted no doubt by their new Renault engine-Red Bull gearbox package. The T128 hasn’t been a paragon of reliability (2,400 kilometres completed), but in terms of pace it seems to have lifted the team clear of nearest rivals Virgin and their solid but slower MVR-02. Finally, HRT’s 2011 car, the F111, has yet to make an on-track appearance, but at least the team appear pleased with how new signing Narain Karthikeyan is fitting in, as the Indian reacquaints himself with F1 performance levels five years on from his last Grand Prix.

As predicted then, drawing concrete conclusions on the teams’ relative performance is pretty difficult at this point. One area in which we have learnt plenty, however, is tyres. Arguably under more pressure than the teams combined, Formula One racing’s new suppliers Pirelli have been quick to fend off any criticism of the durability of their rubber, on the grounds that less hard-wearing compounds are exactly what everyone asked for. And that fact is set to give Grands Prix a very different complexion in 2011.

Previously a driver’s lap times would generally improve throughout a stint as his fuel load lessened. This season we will see the opposite - greater tyre degradation will outweigh the fuel effect and lap times will deteriorate - hence placing more importance on a driver’s ability to manage tyre wear, and on his team’s ability to pick the optimum tyre strategy. One-stop races will be a thing of the past, with two stops, possibly more at some circuits, becoming the norm. Qualifying - in particular Q1 and Q2 - could also be far more fraught, thanks to a greater performance gap between the prime and option tyres. Teams that were once able to cruise through Q1 on the option may now have to resort to the prime to be sure of progressing.

Pirelli were particularly disappointed at the cancellation of the planned Bahrain test. They felt the higher temperatures would have given a more representative picture of the tyre performance we can expect at the opening few rounds of 2011, where durability of their hard and soft compounds (the super soft won’t be used until at least May) is expected to prove greater than that seen in the cooler climes of the Spanish tests. But whatever comes to bear in Melbourne next month, it’s clear tyres will take centre stage this year.

Before that, however, there’s one more test, again in Barcelona, in the second week of March. Expect all the top teams to bring major upgrades. Just don’t expect everyone to show their hands.

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