Barcelona test preview - the search for speed begins 20 Feb 2012
The recent Jerez test was (for those that launched 2012 cars) all about systems checks, baseline set-ups, reliability and getting to know Pirellis 2012-spec tyres. This weeks Barcelona session is where the teams really start hunting performance - and where a genuine pecking order for the new season could start to emerge. It will also see the public debut of Mercedes new MGP W03 and Vitaly Petrovs first appearance for Caterham. We examine the form book ahead of Tuesdays first runs at Spains Circuit de Catalunya
Anyone hoping for an explosive display of pace from the world champions came away from Jerez disappointed. Instead Webber and Vettel went through the RB8s first test programme in a professional low-key fashion, not once topping the timesheet at the end of a day, but calmly clocking the third- and fourth-fastest laps of the week among the 2012 cars. Tech chief Adrian Newey admitted the ban on exhaust-blown diffusers may cancel out much of the teams 2011 advantage, but with speculation surrounding the true function of the RB8s distinctive nose slot, many suspect the Red Bull design guru has plenty of new tricks up his sleeve. Still the team to beat was the paddock consensus.
Much like Red Bull, there was little to say about McLarens Jerez form other than they looked quietly confident. The Woking team have bucked the trend in not going with a stepped nose - a stroke of genius, or a hideous miscalculation, depending on who you listen to - and appeared to be pushing the limits of legality with their exhaust exits, but plenty will change on the MP4-27 before Melbourne and the early signs were that McLaren remain very much in the hunt.
With the F2012 so radically different to its 2011 predecessor, it was perhaps inevitable that Jerez would provide mixed messages regarding Ferrari. All agreed there is plenty more to do. Less clear is whether there is plenty more to come. With the new car featuring so many changes, notably its pull-rod front suspension, pinpointing exactly where performance is being lost and gained was always going to be difficult. On the plus side, the team seemed confident they have solved the tyre warm-up issues that blighted their 2011 campaign, and Alonso ended the week on a high with the final days best time. On the down side, some questioned whether the Spaniards hot lap (set on Pirellis softest tyre) was little more than a glory run designed to distract from the F2012s fundamental lack of pace. Rivals will be looking for the truth to emerge in Barcelona.
Ross Brawns men were the only front-running team not to launch their 2012 machine at Jerez. Instead, having been shaken down at Silverstone and tested for a day in private at Barcelona last week, the W03 will be officially launched on Tuesday. Using their 2011 car at the opening test may have given Mercedes a better understanding of Pirellis new tyres, but this week there will inevitably be an element of playing catch-up. The conspiracy theorists would have you believe that the new cars late arrival is a deliberate ploy to ensure rivals dont have time to copy some killer innovation, perhaps related to the F-duct front wing tested by the team late last year. The important question is simply whether that extra development time in the factory will pay off against the stop watch.
Lotus were the team grabbing the headlines in Jerez. There was a huge buzz surrounding the return of 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, especially after he clocked the fastest lap on day one, and team mate Romain Grosjean - another making his F1 comeback - went on to set the best time of the week for a 2012 car. The E20 was consistently quick and reliable, despite the absence of any obviously revolutionary design features (the teams much-talked-about reactive ride-height suspension having been outlawed before testing began). Its way too early to talk about Lotus being championship contenders, but their form did prompt bookmakers to quickly slash the odds on Raikkonen taking a second world title.
Jerez marked a solid if unspectacular start to the year for Force India and their new VJM05. A crash for new test driver Jules Bianchi combined with a lack of spare parts cost them some track time, but the teams new race line-up of Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg both put plenty of mileage under their belts. There were few clues about the packages true 2012 potential, so they will be closely scrutinised in Barcelona.
Early days for the Swiss team and their Ferrari-powered C31, which finished pretty much slap-bang in the middle of the aggregate timesheet from Jerez in the now tried and tested hands of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez. With the revised exhaust regulations theres no doubt the midfield is going to be particularly tight this year and Sauber are going to have to work hard to stay in the mix.
Toro Rosso ended 2011 on a high, with some strong late-season showings almost lifting them above Sauber in the final standings, and all the signs from Jerez were that this momentum is being carried into 2012 by the all-new - and admittedly inexperienced - driver line-up of Australias Daniel Ricciardo and Frances Jean-Eric Vergne. Of the STR7s 2012 opposition, only the Lotus, Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren went quicker, and its reliability looked impressive too, as it completed more than 1,400 kilometres over the four days.
After the disaster that was 2011, things can surely only get better for Williams in 2012 and overall it was a case of so far so good with the new Renault-powered FW34 in Jerez. It may not have set the world alight in terms of pace, but it did prove highly reliable in the hands of Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna, the latter quickly finding his feet with his new team. Williams thus look to have established a firm base on which to build on in Barcelona, where Finnish test driver Valtteri Bottas - set to drive in 15 Friday practice sessions this season - will get his first taste of the new car.
Jerez showed that Caterham (formerly Team Lotus) have taken another major step forward ahead of what will be only their third F1 season. Unlike fellow newcomers HRT and Marussia (ne Virgin), they had their 2012 machine ready on time (it was in fact the first new car to launch) and it proved impeccably reliable, racking up almost 350 laps, despite the team running KERS (provided by Red Bull) for the very first time. The CT01s initial pace may have looked modest, but the air of confidence and optimism exuded by the team - veteran chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne described it as the best first test I have ever been involved in throughout my career - suggested they are expecting far more come Barcelona. The unexpected twist this week is the team have a new, albeit experienced driver to bed in after the late signing of former Renault racer Vitaly Petrov to replace the veteran Jarno Trulli.
The omens for HRTs 2012 season are not great thus far. After running last years car at Jerez, the revamped Spanish team had hoped to introduce the new F112 this week. However, following delays caused by crash test failures, thats been put back to the third and final pre-season test at the start of March and they have opted to skip this weeks session altogether to focus on factory-based preparations.
Like HRTs, Marussias pre-season testing programme is not exactly going to plan. The Russian-backed team (formerly Virgin) missed the Jerez test altogether and will not have their new car at the first Barcelona session either. They will run their 2011 car, which should at least provide valuable tyre data as well as giving rookie driver Charles Pic with some much-needed track time, and then hope to debut the MR01 at the second Barcelona test next month.
This weeks driver line-up - subject to change (Tue, Wed, Thur, Fri):
Red Bull - Vettel, Vettel, Webber, Webber
McLaren - Hamilton, Hamilton, Button, Button
Ferrari - Alonso, Alonso, Massa, Massa
Mercedes - Schumacher, Rosberg, Schumacher, Rosberg
Lotus - Grosjean, Grosjean, Raikkonen, Raikkonen
Force India - Hulkenberg, Hulkenberg, Di Resta, Di Resta
Sauber - Perez, Perez, Kobayashi, Kobayashi
Toro Rosso - Ricciardo, Ricciardo, Vergne, Vergne
Williams - Senna, Bottas, Maldonado, Maldonado
Caterham - Kovalainen, Petrov, Petrov, Kovalainen
Marussia - Pic, Glock, Pic, Pic
Check back throughout the week for the latest news and images from Barcelona.
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