Testing, testing ...Laurence Edmondson February 11, 2013
The first pre-season test of the year is always a funny affair. After all the excitement of the launches, the cars are finally let loose on a proper race track with proper race tyres. But to try to draw any meaningful conclusions that will still be relevant at the first round in Australia is almost impossible.
Due to teams running different programmes and different fuel loads at different times of the day, the times can be misleading. Felipe Massa's fastest time of the week, a 1:17.879 on soft tyres on Thursday, was impressive, but was it more impressive than Jenson Button's 1:18.861 on hard tyres and a green circuit on Tuesday? Massa certainly didn't think so . Then there was Vettel's 1:18.565 on hard tyres on the final day, which was proof that Red Bull hasn't lost its way over the winter months, but that's hardly headline news.
All of the top three from 2012 looked competitive, but perhaps that shouldn't come as a surprise with the regulations mostly unchanged from last year. But in 2012 we saw how the pecking order could change from track to track, and the same will be true this year. So a car that's quick at Jerez - not a track F1 races at and one with an unusually abrasive surface - could struggle in a month's time at Albert Park in Melbourne. Add to the mix some pretty big update packages over the next two tests, then even if we could pick out the quickest car it may well be out-developed by its rivals in time for Australia.
What we do know is that none of the top teams have produced a dog of a car. Last year it was clear that the Ferrari was a handful to drive, but this year no one looked in serious trouble. Lots of drivers suffered with understeer early in the week as the front tyres suffered from "shredding" on the abrasive surface but Pirelli is not expecting that to be an issue going forward.
Lotus looked competitive just as it did this time last year. Think back to 2012 when the team had to abandon its second week of testing after just seven laps due to a suspension problem, and imagine how much more competitive it could have been last season with that extra mileage. What's more, this time Kimi Raikkonen is also completely up to speed meaning there is every reason to believe Lotus could be at the sharp end of the grid in Melbourne.
Perhaps one of the hardest teams to read was Mercedes. Things got off to a bad start when Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton completed just 29 laps between them in the first two days, but the pair managed to make up for it on the final two days with over 140 laps each. Those early issues will be a distant memory by the first race, but the car's apparent lack of downforce compared to its rivals might not be. Hamilton noted that the new W04 lacked downforce compared to his 2012 McLaren and that's before you factor in the gains his old team has made with the MP4-28. In Mercedes' defence, it is trying to overcome a deficit of over a second a lap from last year, but its chances of success will be dependent on just how big a step its major upgrade planned for the final test offers.
On a more personal note, it was interesting to hear how Hamilton referred to his new team. We've all become accustomed to drivers' use the word "we" when describing their own performance in a race, which is understandable given the massive team effort going on between engineers and drivers during a grand prix. But Hamilton was still mostly referring to Mercedes as "they", suggesting he still feels like a separate entity to the team. That will no doubt change as he spends more time with his engineers over the coming weeks and for the most part he seemed happier than in recent years, even after losing rear brake pressure at roughly 200 mph.
The next stop is Barcelona where we should start to get a better idea of how the cars stack up over longer runs. In Jerez there was a big emphasis on reliability checks and aero testing, but at the second test there should be a shift towards set-up work and long-run performance. Hopefully that will bring a few more answers and we'll also see the final car to be launched, the Williams FW35. Things are just about to get interesting...
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1