Pre-season testing has commenced at Jerez with 11 teams in attendance (everybody bar Marussia). As always, these early tests are not about performance. The teams are trying to establish the baseline performance and set-up for their cars. This is a very important procedure in order to understand (a) how the wind tunnel and CFD data correlate to the real world and (b) if there is any fundamental flaw embedded in the basic design concept of the car. This is why this week we haven’t seen anything extremely interesting, technical-wise. Teams have been trying different exhaust outlets and positions; it turns out that the most difficult aspect to fine-tune is the airflow management of the exhausts and to understand how it interacts with the clean airflow working the rear wing, the beam wing and the diffuser. We have seen burnt bodywork in the Ferrari exhaust outlets on the first day and also reports of overheating suspension members in the Toro Rosso, again on the first day. Both teams appear to have corrected these issues; Ferrari, however, hasn’t been able to complete as many laps as other teams have. F1 fans, therefore, been treated to a vast selection of thermo-strips, sensors, vis-flow and periscope columns; all used to understand what’s going on with the car and how accurate the design office has been with the calculations.
Ferrari, in particular, seem to be in a bit of a situation. It appears that their concept is so radical that they have some initial problems in understanding it. Felipe Massa has confessed that the work required is more than anticipated. As we explained, these early tests are not about the pursuit of performance, but are meant to establish the baseline. Ferrari seem to have a problem doing that. They have so many parameters to play with (this being a completely new design philosophy) and apparently they are still far from where they want to be (or, from where they thought they were going to be). It remains to be seen if the reason is that they simply need more time to understand the design and find the sweet spot for their baseline setup, or that there is a fundamental flaw in their basic design concept. From what I understand, Ferrari are not ruling out any possibility. If it’s the former, then Ferrari should be in good condition, because apparently such a radical design offers more scope and opportunity for development. If they have managed to create a solid baseline design, then they can follow development paths that other teams will not be able to, because they don’t have them hard-coded in their original design.
If, however, it’s the latter (i.e. basic fundamental flaw), then Ferrari will have to introduce a B-version of their car by mid-season, which means that 2012 will be a write-off. It’s too early to even hypothesize at this moment. However, you know that things are bad and the atmosphere is “heavy” within the team when Pat Fry claims that the snow in Maranello prevented them from doing their installation runs and this hurt them and they are playing catch up ever since. They’ll have to come up with much better excuses than that, if things turn out to be as bad as feared.
It goes without saying that we can’t (and shouldn’t) read anything in laptimes. In any case, we can make a few early remarks: Red Bull have been running consistently heavy (half to full fuel loads) and they look good. The car has suffered a bit in terms of downforce loss (due to the regs) and is sliding about a bit more, but their pace looks very good and consistent and all signs are that they will be contenders in 2012 as well. McLaren have adopted a low-key approach to testing so far, but there are positive vibes coming from within their camp. They should definitely be in better shape than they were during the 2011 pre-season tests. Force India looks fast and consistent, but the most impressive package out there, at the moment, seems to be Toro Rosso. I wouldn’t read too much into Lotus’ headline grabbing times. Romain Grosjean has admitted that their pace was due to quali-style laps with low fuel loads (potential sponsors hanging around the Lotus motorhomes add another piece to the puzzle). More encouraging is the fact that both drivers liked the handling and found it predictable and easy to take to the limit. This means that the overall aero balance is good and there are no ugly surprises. Williams and Caterham have been focusing in long runs with heavy fuel loads, so there’s not much we can deduct at the moment. Sauber’s car also looks promising and they have been able to register a lot of laps so far, which is encouraging. Of course it’s needless to say that we shouldn’t read anything into the Mercedes’ times; they were all done using a fully 2011 spec car, with exhaust blown floors, to get a direct comparison between 2011 and 2012 tyres. A 2011 Red Bull would probably lap Jerez in the 1:15’s, in quali trim.
As I said, there’s no point in comparing lap times. In 2011, the fastest laptime in Jerez was recorded by none other than Rubens Barrichello, in his FW33 Williams, and we all know how accurate that turned out to be. We should get a better picture in the next test in Barcelona (21st of February), when the teams will start pushing for performance. Mercedes are expected to unveil their car there and go testing; we have already hypothesized here about their hydraulically interlinked front-to-rear suspension to prevent anti-dive, and it appears that Mercedes have taken their time to maximize development time. Michael Schumacher was quick to rule out the possibility of them producing a title-winning car, but they desperately need to take the next step and become regular podium visitors.
This could be the year that Mercedes slot into the top 3 and the year that Ferrari slide out of it….