06.03.13

Testing times

After a long winter of development work, the pre-season tests are the first chance for Formula One teams to assess their opponents’ strengths, weaknesses, and reliability.

Twelve days, three sessions, two circuits, and tens of thousands of kilometres driven. Formula One’s winter tests have come to an end and the competitive season is now underway, with people and freight making their way to Melbourne for the first race of the year.

“The reliability, the mileage and the step-by-step improvements that we have achieved during the three tests are all very encouraging.” Lewis Hamilton

There is a strong temptation to use the winter tests as a form guide for the season to come, comparing lap times and run lengths with a view to establishing a pecking order. According to those in the know, however, it’s still far too early to tell.

“There's still a lot of work ahead of us to get to where we want to be but the team is doing a great job,” Lewis Hamilton said. “The reliability, the mileage and the step-by-step improvements that we have achieved during the three tests are all very encouraging. Whilst we've been focusing on our own performance, we definitely haven't seen the full potential of our competitors yet, so it's difficult to predict where we might be.”

But all agreed that – based on the available evidence – competition was likely to be very tight in 2013.

“You've got nine teams within a second,” said McLaren sporting director Sam Michael. “That is going to make it close. It will make it extremely tight through the qualifying sessions in Melbourne. ... When everyone is on the same tyres, you still don't know where the fuel loads are. You're not going to know that until qualifying in Melbourne, and we'd be kidding ourselves if we thought we knew.”

“If you sum up all three tests, I think all the teams were limited to what the tyres can do, and at times it was extremely difficult to read the set-up changes and find a direction.” Sebastian Vettel

The winter tests comprise three four-day weeks of qualifying simulations, long runs, and fuel load subterfuge, making it hard to establish a car’s true capabilities. But one thing that can’t be disguised is reliability, with the number of laps completed a statistic that simply can’t be hidden.

One team who spent more time in the garage than most throughout the winter tests was Lotus, completing 3,524 kilometres of testing behind the wheel of the E21 over the three tests. In contrast, Williams logged 3,085 kilometres with the FW35 across the two Barcelona tests, having elected to miss Jerez and focus on development work in the factory. Despite their relative lack of running, however, Lotus remain confident of their prospects for the season ahead.

“Pre-season testing was not perfect for us but we are confident in what we have seen from the E21,” team principal Eric Boullier said. “We had glitches and we didn’t complete as many laps as we wanted, yet we still completed most of the assessments we required and have a good platform heading to the first race of the season.”

Adding to the pre-season challenge for the teams were the new tyre compounds provided by Pirelli. The Italian supplier has developed a new range of rubber with a possible view to increasing the number of pit stops per race, but the teams found it hard to establish a baseline from which to work. As familiarity with the new tyres grows, so will the teams’ understanding of their limits on the rubber.

“You've got nine teams within a second. That is going to make it close. It will make it extremely tight through the qualifying sessions in Melbourne.” McLaren sporting director Sam Michael

“We’re in good enough shape I think,” defending world champion Sebastian Vettel said. “Overall, testing has been good for us and we didn’t have too many problems. But if you sum up all three tests I think all the teams were limited to what the tyres can do, and at times it was extremely difficult to read the set-up changes and find a direction because the tyres were simply not good enough.

“In terms of how we did this week [in Barcelona], over the past couple of days we maybe didn’t tick all the boxes that we wanted to but we have bit of time left to prepare before the seasons starts. The target is there to improve and we will do that. I’m looking forward to Melbourne now and can’t wait for the racing to begin.”