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Analysis - the big talking points from the final Bahrain test

04 Mar 2014

The final pre-season test in Bahrain gave the teams four last days in which to hone their machines ahead of the opening round of the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship in Australia.

Once again, Mercedes-powered cars dominated both the timesheets and the mileage charts, but there were plenty more talking points to emerge from a fascinating session in Sakhir…

Mercedes and Williams looking strong

Two teams dominated the aggregate test times from the second Bahrain test - Mercedes and Williams. Felipe Massa recorded the fastest lap in Sakhir this winter, but Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton were only a fraction away from the Brazilian’s headline time, with Valtteri Bottas just behind.

Neither team has been immune to problems - indeed, Mercedes seemed to pick up more and more niggles as the test went along, perhaps as a result of running so many laps. However, both appear to have been able to diagnose and solve issues quicker than others.

It has to be said that while many expected Mercedes to be at (or very near) the front in terms of pace, Williams’ form has been more surprising, particularly as the team are coming off one of their worst ever seasons. Of course, having the front running Mercedes power unit has helped their cause, but the Grove-based squad must be congratulated on producing a car that is seemingly not only fast, but also more reliable than most. Williams completed 936 laps during pre-season testing and the FW36 only stopped out on track once - and that was a high mileage failure in the internal combustion engine on the final afternoon of running.

Perhaps understandably, both Williams and Mercedes have played down their form somewhat (Hamilton preferred to focus on how quick Red Bull’s RB10 could be once they get on top of their problems), but Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali was less hesitant in his appraisal, saying: “From what we have seen so far, there are two teams out in front: Mercedes and Williams. After them, it could be us.”

Ferrari not quite where they want to be

Speaking of Ferrari, the Italian team have been ‘there or thereabouts’ throughout the entire pre-season, and it was the same at the final test. They don’t look to have the pace of the leading Mercedes-powered cars, but the Scuderia are convinced that there is a lot of potential that still needs to be unlocked from the F14 T, and in particular from its power unit.

"I think the most important thing to understand on our side is how to manage the balance between electrical power, the ERS, the battery, all these things have an effect in terms of horsepower," said Domenicali.

Fernando Alonso, who along with team mate Kimi Raikkonen lost a fair chunk of track time in pre-season because of technical issues, agreed with his team principal’s assessment:

“There are a lot of things to learn with the use of the power unit to improve the performance of the car and we are not yet where we want to be.

“Everyone in the team is very competitive and we are working day and night in order to get all the potential out of the F14 T as soon as possible.”

Force India looking like the dark horses

Force India didn’t achieve the same outright pace as Williams, Mercedes or even Ferrari in Bahrain, but after early teething troubles with the Mercedes-powered VJM07 in Jerez, they looked swift and -more importantly - reliable in Sakhir. The team completed three successive days of 100-plus laps to begin the final test, and that bodes well heading to Australia, as does the fact that both Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were able to conduct important set-up work and race simulations.

“Our time in Bahrain has gone largely to plan with the mileage achieved leaving us in good shape going into Melbourne,” said Andrew Green, Force India’s technical director.

“We’re feeling positive about our reliability and have explored some encouraging directions for improving car performance. The other focus has been on our race readiness and we’ve done a great deal of homework to prepare the drivers for the challenge that awaits them in Melbourne."

Red Bull making progress - but not quickly enough

Red Bull might have managed 77 laps on the final day in Bahrain - their best tally of pre-season - but that doesn’t make up for the fact that on several days they barely turned a wheel. The world champions’ tally of 320 laps this winter was bettered by every team bar Marussia and Lotus (who missed the first test in Jerez entirely).

Many will point the finger at power unit suppliers Renault, but Red Bull must take some of the blame. The RB10 may be an inherently quick machine, but Christian Horner’s team simply haven’t been able to get it working for long enough to prove it. Whilst their rivals have completed numerous race simulations, Red Bull’s runs have mainly been on the short side, with regular pit stops to check everything is okay (particularly at the rear of the car where overheating has been a problem). All of this makes a strong showing in Melbourne - and even a race finish - improbable (though not impossible).

But for all their troubles, it mustn’t be forgotten that Red Bull are quadruple world champions for a reason and therefore it’s inconceivable that they’ll be in their current predicament for too much longer. As for the team themselves, they remain optimistic.

“Obviously we have had a lot of problems during testing, but we understand the problems and hope to have fixes in place for Australia,” said Red Bull’s race engineering co-ordinator Andy Damerum.

“We know the pace is in the car, as we saw from Daniel's performance here; what we have to do now is put all the pieces together and establish reliability for the race in Melbourne. There is plenty of motivation in the team and we'll keep working hard over the next two weeks."

Lotus well behind the curve

If Red Bull’s test period was bleak, Lotus’s wasn’t any rosier. After missing the first session of the year in Jerez, the Enstone team needed the remaining two tests to run smoothly, but after a successful shakedown of the twin prong-nosed E22, things went downhill rapidly in Bahrain.

Clearly they are having issues with the Renault power unit and its installation and even if the problems can be fixed before Australia, Lotus will head to Melbourne significantly under-prepared, and not just from a car point of view, but from a driver point of view too.

“We’ve ended our pre-season test programme with a lot of unknowns and a full workload for the days ahead,” said Alan Permane, Lotus’s trackside operations director, after Sunday’s final test running. “We’re all focused, both at Enstone and in Viry, on analysing all the data we have gained to make as much improvement as we can before we get to Australia for the first race of the season. Today we put some more mileage on the E22, but once again we stopped early, which is obviously not what we wanted. There will be some long days and nights before the first race but we are determined to make as much progress as possible.”

No one knows what to expect in Australia!

Trying to get anyone in Bahrain to commit to a prediction for the season’s first race in Melbourne was like trying to get blood out of a stone. All anyone could agree on was that it is going to be highly unpredictable and reliability is likely to be the defining factor.

All we know is that it’s going to be an unmissable event. Keep up to date with all the action from Australia on from March 13-16.