Will Gray

Gray Matter: Lessons from testing

Will Gray

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Sauber hit the top of the timesheets last week in Barcelona but nobody really believes they will be front-runners when the real racing begins - so is there really anything we can read into testing outcomes?

In the eight days of pre-season running so far, six different teams have finished at the top of the times — Red Bull, Ferrari, Renault, Force India, Williams and Sauber.

In reality, times mean little in this period because, in the same way as Grand Prix practice sessions often see unusual table toppers as teams concentrate on different programmes, testing sees the same situation but with the range of variables expanded even further, making times even less relevant.

But despite this, there are still some conclusions that can be taken from the early running and some pointers towards things to look for as the final pre-season test begins.

DISTANCES

At this early stage of the season, with so few opportunities to run the cars before the opening race, the biggest measure of success in testing is simply the amount of time teams have spent out on track.

It's argued that you can't make a reliable car quick but you can make a quick car reliable — so a positive and methodical testing programme can sometimes make a significant difference.

Williams has run the most, with 825 laps over eight days — every day other than their first seeing them clock close to or over 100 laps. McLaren, meanwhile, have also had a solid set of sessions, with 777 laps in total and regular days around the 115 laps mark.

In contrast, Red Bull are clearly quick but have had reliability issues and have done 120 laps less running than their rivals from Woking while Ferrari failed to meet Fernando Alonso's target of 100 laps per day and have so far done only the fifth highest number of laps with 619.

In these days of bulletproof reliability, the early days of testing now tends to be the only time teams struggle with reliability problems.

And while it may not sound much, any delay in this important preparation time and any stutter in a smooth testing programme can cause knock-on effects to the early season plans.

With two tests down, all those reliability problems should be ironed out for the top teams — so each should be aiming for nothing less than a full programme next time out.

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD

Talking of track time, the biggest disaster is not running at all — and Lotus's decision to stop testing due to chassis problems is certain to have a significant impact on the start to their season.

With only seven laps on the opening day of the second test before they were forced to quit, Lotus lost four days of running — and now an FIA rule clarification has ensured they will not, as suggested, get one day of private running as compensation.

A lack of testing time is just the first of their worries. A chassis problem could mean a number of things — the team are keeping tight-lipped on the situation — but if it's a problem with the chassis itself it will be difficult to re-design.

It has been speculated as a mounting issue and if that is the case, Renault may get away with a temporary fix for the next test, with a re-design of the section in question before the opening race. But by then, however, their rivals will have plenty of track time over them.

MERCEDES

Perhaps the most exciting outcome from the last test in Barcelona was the suggestion that a possible newcomer could break into the top three.

Mercedes took their time arriving at the track with their new car, but once it was unveiled it showed several design departures from its predecessors, with a longer wheelbase allowing improved packaging.

The nose and front wing have undergone some key changes, bringing the wing in particular in line with their rivals, while further back there is a significant sidepod undercut — but there is some criticism that the rear section is more bulky than that of their competitors.

It is understood that intricate exhaust approaches are being looked at as an alternative to the current top-exit solution, while there have also been intriguing questions over whether it has a front wing 'F-duct'. Innovations from here, then, could be interesting.

There are some concerns over fragility of certain parts of the car, but the pace is there and, in the long runs at least, times indicate they are currently the second quickest team out there, putting them right in the mix to add some extra intrigue to the front-running battle.

CHANGING GAME

So far, it seems Red Bull is ahead of the game — on-track observers say their car is more 'planted' on the track than any other — but McLaren and now Mercedes, from long-run analysis, appear to be in the picture, closing the gap on the world champions.

Ferrari, regrouping after a tough initial test, may still have a question mark over them but if you believe their comments they now have a clear understanding of their new machine after their initial relationship problems.

But at this part of the season, the development pace is huge and the factories are working as long as the Resource Restriction Agreement allows, in an effort to improve their initial packages.

Each team will be working on dual programmes right up into the early part of the season, fast-tracking their own pre- and post- Australia development packages while also working on assessing designs of their rivals to determine which could work on their own car.

We can, perhaps, expect to see some teams showing their hand with some innovative exhaust approaches in the test later this week, as well as perhaps the appearance of bargeboard and turning vanes that the higher chassis undersides encourage.

But if there is one aim all the teams will have for this next test, it's not hitting the top of the timesheets — it's posting the highest number on the distance charts.

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