Rain spoiled the party today at Barcelona (at around 15:40), with many teams forced to stop their race simulations before their completion. And if it’s hard to decipher dry running lap times, it’s practically impossible to make any sense of the wet laps, which is why we will be focusing on the lap times up until the rain started. A lot of talk has been generated about Mercedes’ tyre degrading issues – Autosport in particular have been quite vocal in suggesting that Mercedes are eating up their soft tyres. We argued yesterday that Mercedes don’t appear to be in any sort of special predicament, and Norbert Haug confirmed today during testing (talking to Autosport) that “every team can improve in every area, but I cannot see specific issues on the tyre front for us“. I continue to believe that Mercedes are not suffering from excessive degradation patterns, and here’s the data to back it up.
Let us begin with Rosberg’s shorter stints. As I have already argued, when a team is chasing performance (i.e. evaluating set-up changes and new components), the drivers usually push harder at the start of every stint, it is therefore normal to see increased degradation in comparison to race simulation scenarios. Let’s examine some of Rosberg’s such (short) stints, in comparison to other short stints performed today by Webber, Massa and Raikkonen:
As we can see even from the slopes of the various lines, it’s clear that in such a scenario, the degradation for all teams is quite severe. There is nothing to suggest that Mercedes is suffering particularly from it, and that’s even more clear in the following table which gives an overview of the laptimes and the degradation figures. It’s interesting to note Webber’s 2nd stint, for instance, which started off much slower than his other stints, and, as was expected, suffered very little degradation.
I did not include Rosberg’s last short(ish) stint in the above table, because I think it was so impressive it deserves its own analysis: Nico started the stint with a 01:22.932 (on the soft option tyres), which is comparable to the single quali laps that some other teams were doing at the same time, on the softs and super softs. However, he kept going for another 12 laps, ranking 15 laps in total (including in and out laps). His degradation within that stint was similar to the ones posted above (i.e. higher than what you would expect to see in a race simulation, or a real race, but expected taking into consideration how hard he was apparently pushing at the beginning). It’s therefore clear that in a qualifying situation Nico would be carrying at least 13 laps worth of fuel less than he did. If we accept an average fuel penalty of 0.150 seconds / lap (which is a somewhat conservative approach – it could be higher than that), then the calculated, theoretical quali lap would be 01:20.982. This falls nicely into our predictions that the top teams can go into the 1:20’s bracket on minimum fuel runs. I expect Mercedes were even running a bit more fuel than that (possibly 5-6 laps more), so all in all, again, I have to say that they are looking in very, very reasonable shape. There’s only one potential area of concern so far, though, and this is that most of the really exciting stuff that Mercedes has done during testing has taken place in the hands of Nico Rosberg and not Michael Schumacher. In fact, if I were to examine Mercedes’ performance simply on the basis of Michael’s lap times, I would not be so confident that Mercedes have taken a big step forwards. Let us hope that in tomorrow’s testing (and the remainder of the season) I am proven wrong.
The same picture is also apparent in the longer stints that the teams started to embark on until of course the rain started. Webber did one stint on what it appears to be (I believe) the beginning of a race simulation. Nico Rosberg did a series of long stints, all of which were apparently heavy fueled and definitely not part of a race simulation (more like back-to-back comparison using heavy fuel loads and long runs). Finally, Massa also did 3 stints on what appears to be a race simulation as well – judging by the short first 2 stints, he was probably going to follow Alonso’s 02/03 strategy of 4 pit-stops, but his 3rd stint was interrupted by the rain. I am presenting those stints in the figure below:
Without even having to crunch any numbers, it’s already clear to see that the degradation of the tyres on the Mercedes is quite reasonable and comparable to Red Bull’s and Ferrari’s. In fact, if this was indeed the beginning of a race simulation by Ferrari, the tyre degradation looks much, much better than it looked in the hands of Alonso, yesterday. And, since we are on the subject, the average degradation for each stint was: (a) for Nico Rosberg 0.244 sec / 0.210 sec / 0.182 sec, (b) for Felipe Massa 0.186 sec / 0.300 sec / 0.250 sec and (c) for Mark Webber 0.264 sec. In heavy fuel, long stints therefore we don’t see anything to suggest that Mercedes are suffering from extreme tyre degradation.
Unfortunately, with the rain cutting short many of the race simulations, we cannot produce and meaningful comparisons in terms of overall race time. McLaren did very few laps (also due to a hydraulics failure in the morning), and their fastest lap time came in a single lap burst. Since Martin Whitmarsh has suggested that they would be attempting no quali simulations until Melbourne, it’s fair to assume that McLaren had decent fuel onboard, much like Mercedes did in their 15-laps stint that produced their fastest lap. It’s all too close for comfort, and I tend to believe that this year’s championship will be decided on two factors: (a) in-season development pace and (b) reliability and consistent points scoring throughout the season – I don’t think we are about to see another championship being decided in August.
Several of the midfield teams also embarked on long stints, heavily fueled, and these are the results:
What we are seeing is, I believe, a full race simulation by Force India, a race simulation by Williams that was cut short a few laps before its completion and long runs, heavy fueled for Sauber and Toro Rosso. Sauber’s runs could be a race simulation, only from the looks of it seemed that they skipped the 1st stint, and started from the 2nd (i.e. short-fuelled the car). Are all these assumptions solid and bulletproof? Far from it. What we are seeing in the graphs is a very tight battle going on in the midfield and it’s impossible to tell at this moment who will be the leaders of the pack. I presume, much like 2011, we will have a season of up and downs – remember last year Sauber starting strongly with their race pace and Lotus was mixing it with Mercedes, but come the end of the season, it was Force India (mainly) and Toro Rosso who came out on top. Lotus seem to be in a good position pace-wise, provided they sort out their reliability problems (Kimi was stranded in the morning with steering issues). With Caterham hauling themselves up to a 01:22.630 today (even if this was a minimum fuel, quali lap), the battle to get out of Q3 will be immense this year.
What’s a bit worrying is that Marussia and HRT will be starting the season so far off the pace. This will be their 3rd year in the sport, and the state that both teams are in is simply unacceptable. This will also be a challenging year for Force India, financially wise, with Vijay Mallya in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons and Sahara unwilling to invest in an enterprise they are not interested in. Ah well, I am getting ahead of myself there. Tomorrow is the last day of testing and we expect two things to happen: (a) times will tumble to low 1:21’s (or even 1:20’s should any of the top runners decided to do a quali sim) and (b) all teams will attempt as many laps and race simulations as it is possible. Stay tuned for this, and our analysis, which will also feature a synopsis of what we have seen so far from all the teams…