Predicting unpredictabilityChris Medland February 25, 2013
The second pre-season test was supposed to give us more answers as to who has the most competitive car this year. Long runs and race simulations should have given a reasonably accurate idea of who would be quick come Melbourne, and we'd be left eagerly awaiting the major upgrades to be introduced at the final test with the ability to predict the pace-setters.
That's not quite the case, because the game has changed slightly. True winter testing conditions (Friday saw hail and rain, with snow just a few kilometres away) meant low track temperatures and a battle to get the Pirelli tyres to work. After just one or two laps the cold track would cause the tyres to grain - effectively shredding the surface of the rubber - and lap times would immediately drop away.
There was some concern among the less experienced drivers that these tyres would be impossible to race with. The contrast at McLaren was clear with Sergio Perez saying there would be "seven, maybe ten" stops needed in Australia at this rate, but Jenson Button laughing of the suggestion: "That won't happen because we don't have that many tyres!"
Button well knows that this won't be the situation come Melbourne; the tyres are just designed to work in much hotter temperatures. In fact, he described this year's Pirellis as "a lot easier" to understand and "more of a fair playing field than last year" while Romain Grosjean admitted there was no suggestion of these levels of degradation when the teams got to test the 2013 tyres in warm weather during Friday practice at Interlagos last November.
With just three pre-season tests and at most 11 days of dry running after Friday's rain, the teams aren't trying to fine tune and hone their cars as expected. Instead, it's become a race to understand as much of their machines as possible so that when they face more normal race conditions in Australia they can react more quickly and effectively than their rivals.
With that in mind, Williams looks to be sitting pretty. It got some form of understanding with the tyres at Jerez using a known quantity in the FW34 and has been able to get straight down to work with the FW35 this week. Technical director Mike Coughlan said the team nearly skipped the first test completely, but by launching its car late Williams has avoided some of the troubles many teams will have faced.
"To begin with we didn't plan to do Jerez at all," Coughlan said. "We only did Jerez because Pirelli were bringing their new tyres and we felt it would even be better with the old car so that we had a known platform. I'm sure a lot of people who went to Jerez with a new car, new driver and new tyres, got lost. We didn't."
A case in point was at Caterham, where Charles Pic was keen to try a set-up he'd had some success with at Marussia in order to try and get the tyres working. However, the team declined his requests and focused on its original schedule which may not have pleased Pic but ensured Caterham avoided some of the perils Coughlan outlined.
That's the trade-off that all the teams are battling with. Nico Hulkenberg confirmed it is "quite difficult to make the tyres last and get some proper testing on the way", with the window for understanding the car being "not very long but there is a lap or two in there where you can feel it". Changing the car set-up solely to try and make the tyres last on a 6C track could have proven successful but would have been irrelevant data for almost every race this year.
Hulkenberg was "not negative" about the Sauber, but hardly effusive in his praise of the car like the Williams pair were. There were also smiles at Red Bull and Lotus after race simulations were carried out, but the standout factor was not lap time (which was close between the two) but stint length, with even Grosjean having to admit that his 24 laps on medium tyres on Thursday was "impressive".
While Red Bull, Lotus and Williams appear to be the teams closest to focusing solely on performance at the final test, most of the other teams are still far from ready. Button even went as far as to say "I haven't even started testing yet".
Spare a thought for Luiz Razia too, who appears to have yet to finalise all aspects of his deal with Marussia and sat out the whole test. The official line was that the team stuck with Max Chilton for "consistency", but the changeable conditions on Friday ensured there would be little to no comparisons with the rest of the week possible. Razia has had just two days of running in the new car, and he'll need to sort his funding issues by the final test and hope he gets all four days to get somewhere close to settled in the team.
Rapidly-degrading Pirellis and single-figure track temperatures really don't mix, and as a result there's still so much to learn, and not enough time to learn it in. The sound of the paddock moaning about the tyres should be music to the ears of fans and observers, especially when Button added "I don't think there is one standout team, or two standout teams at the moment; there might be at the first race but at the moment there's no-one really that stands out to me as being superior."
An unpredictable start to the year ahead? You bet.
Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1