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Too close to call - the 2013 Season Preview Part One 08 Mar 2013

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB9.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, 20 February 2013 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4-28,
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 3 March 2013 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F138.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 1 March 2013 Romain Grosjean (FRA) Lotus E21.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 21 February 2013 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W04.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 22 February 2013 Pirelli's 2013 Formula One tyre range Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 21 February 2013 Esteban Gutierrez (MEX) Sauber C32.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, 19 February 2013 Jules Bianchi (FRA) Marussia F1 Team MR02.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, 2 March 2013 Valtteri Bottas (FIN) Williams FW35.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, 2 March 2013 Red Bull Racing RB9 rear detail.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 1 March 2013 Paul di Resta (GBR) Force India VJM06. Force India VJM06 First Run, Silverstone, England, 1 February 2013.

Formula One racing’s final season with 2.4-litre V8 engines promises to be yet another humdinger, as teams hone their 2012 designs before the wholesale regulation changes that will come in 2014. Last year was close, until Red Bull got their RB8 really hooked up in the second half of what was an often confusing season, and the early indications are that not only might we expect further initial uncertainty this year, but also the field will be closer than ever as teams encounter diminishing developmental returns.

Jenson Button stunned early on in the winter’s first Jerez test, but says that while the latest Pirelli tyres are easier to understand than their 2012 counterparts, McLaren are still struggling to understand their MP4-28. Fernando Alonso says that Ferrari are ‘200 percent’ better off than they were this time last year. Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean are both delighted with the balance and poise of their Lotus E21. Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber are looking quietly confident about Red Bull’s RB9.

And while Lewis Hamilton said at one stage that he thought rivals were overrating Mercedes when they suggested that the Silver Arrows could win a race this season, by the end of the second Barcelona test he was suggesting just that himself.

But who has done the best job of understanding their Coanda exhaust systems which caused so many so much heartache in 2012? Now that active double DRS is no more, who will best optimise their passive systems? And, perhaps most critically, who will be able to best understand the aforementioned Pirellis with their revised construction and compounds? Cool temperatures in testing led to excessive (and, according to Pirelli, unrepresentative) tyre degradation, so getting a grip on how the new rubber behaves in warmer weather will be crucial, not just in Australia, but throughout the season.

Most of the latest cars are evolutions of their 2012 predecessors, only McLaren with their innovative pullrod front suspension and Sauber with markedly narrower sidepods seeming to have braved truly uncharted territory.

There have been 12 days of testing in Spain since February, but testing these days is always a fraught business for the performance sleuth since some teams seek to look as strong as possible in the hope of making themselves attractive to potential sponsors, while others deliberately sandbag in order to keep their true potential a closely guarded secret until the first race so that others have less time to assess the reasons for any advantage and copy them.

It’s clear who is running what tyre these days thanks to Pirelli’s sidewall colourings (note that for 2013 the hard compound will bear vivid orange markings instead of silver). What’s harder to know is just how much a driver might be pushing in a given sector or what specific programme he might be running, and of course what fuel load he might be carrying at any given time. Roughly, at the Circuit de Catalunya, every extra 10kg of fuel equates to another 0.36 seconds added to lap time, so while a car might appear to be as much as a second and a half off the pace of the fastest on a given day, it might simply be running a lot more fuel...

A year ago it was apparent that Ferrari were in deep trouble; this year none of the top five teams - Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus, McLaren and Mercedes - seems to be struggling. Indeed, all of them had turns at being fastest in testing.

Button was quickest on the first day in Jerez, setting an amazingly fast time for McLaren in poor conditions; he was followed by Romain Grosjean for Lotus, Felipe Massa for Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen for Lotus.

In the first Barcelona test Nico Rosberg showed the way for Mercedes, followed by Sergio Perez for McLaren, Fernando Alonso for Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes. The second Barcelona test saw Mark Webber kick off with fastest time for Red Bull, followed by Grosjean again for Lotus, then Hamilton and Rosberg for Mercedes. For what it’s worth, Rosberg’s 1:20.130 set that final day in Barcelona was the fastest time recorded at the Circuit de Catalunya over the winter.

Perhaps the most interesting fact is that Sebastian Vettel was not among the nine different drivers who were fastest in the 12 test days. In the second Barcelona test, Red Bull went back to being very secretive about their car, prompting suspicion that they were at pains to conceal the nuances of their passive double DRS for as long as possible, but there is no air of concern within the team. Mercedes, Lotus and Sauber also experimented with such systems, with fewer theatricals.

Then there was the promising speed shown by Force India, while Williams and Toro Rosso also had some stand-out moments.

On the driver front, Hamilton’s move to Mercedes and the arrival of Perez at McLaren will inevitably generate considerable interest, as will the return of Adrian Sutil at Force India. But there will also be five rookies making their race debuts: Esteban Gutierrez at Sauber, Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi at Marussia, and Giedo van der Garde at Caterham. The rookie of whom most is expected is Finland’s Valtteri Bottas at Williams. Many see in him the traits of the young Mika Hakkinen, who just so happens to be his mentor…

There have been minimal changes to the F1 technical regulations for 2013, thus creating a period of evolution of existing designs rather than encouraging the sort of breakthroughs that we will probably see when the new formula comes into force for 2014.

Active double DRS systems, such as that pioneered by Mercedes last year, have been outlawed. These utilised inlets in the rear wing endplates that were exposed when DRS was activated and flowed air through channels in the car to slots under the front wing, with the intention of stalling that further to reduce straight-line drag. However, as seen in testing, ‘passive’ double DRS systems such as those first tried by Lotus and Mercedes last year are still permitted.

The FIA have also stopped the free use of DRS in practice and qualifying. Now in these sessions drivers may only activate DRS in the areas where it may be used in the race. It is expected that there will be two DRS zones at many races.

Since Pirelli’s new tyres are heavier, the minimum weight goes up from 640kg to 642; front wings must now be even more rigid; and, finally, a small but important change - the ugly stepped noses seen in 2012 may be alleviated by the addition of vanity panels.

In the interests of continued safety improvements, all the chassis that a team manufactures will be subject to mandatory FIA crash tests rather than just one generic unit, and there is a tougher test on the monocoque structures and the roll hoops.

Now that there are only 22 cars, with the demise of the HRT team, the slowest six cars will be ejected after Q1 on a Saturday afternoon, followed by the slowest six in Q2.

Provided that the ambient and track temperatures are high enough, Saturday afternoon in Melbourne will finally begin to show us the first genuine indications of the pecking order, and most of the top teams and drivers expect things to be very close indeed…

Continued in Part Two

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