So the Bahrain GP is off, and as such we currently aren’t all sat here relishing the prospect of being just over a week away from finally seeing F1 cars in action again. In its place we have yet another test at Barcelona, where we can once again not really be able to judge the true competitive order.
Yes, testing is always a pretty tough place to judge these things, but this year it’s been made harder than ever. Laptimes could be being set on higher fuel loads, yes, that old favourite, but also times could be being set without the use of KERS, or the what looks to be not-very-exciting DRS.
DR-what? I hear you chant, like angry wolves. Yes, the Drag Reduction System is the plebby engineering term for the movable rear wing, a new gimmick to spice up races by making overtaking easier. This involves the driver having a button in the cockpit to contravene technical regulation regarding the use of movable aero devices to move an aero device. In a similar, but not at all similar, way to last year’s F-Duct system, which stalled the rear wing to gain an increase in straightline speed, the driver’s magic button will cause the top element of the rear wing to raise up, creating a gap and a lower wing angle, and thus less drag. Or something…
Either way, the plan is that they get less drag and more straightline speed, at certain points on track where the race director decides it’s possible, at the same time we have KERS which is a magic electric motor thing that allows drivers to press a button whereby their car turns into a fighter jet, takes off and strafes the car in front, leaving it in a fireball. Luckily the other driver can pre-empt the strafe, if he sees the attack in time, and launch chaff to throw the other car off his scent.
Okay, so I got carried away, but let’s be honest, Brundle is going to bust his brain trying to keep up with all this. Drivers can press their KERS button for more power, press their wing flap button for more straightline speed, adjust their differential settings, engine map, throttle mapping, fuel mixture, dynamic brake balance, and… Oh, now they don’t have an adjustable flap on their front wing anymore. Well that’s a relief. It’s going to be a quite the scene in the cockpit, and one has to wonder how many times we might see drivers off the road because they were too busy flipping a switch or pushing a dashboard button to remember that old fashioned notion of throttle, brakes and steering.
It’s odd that the invention of paddle gearboxes and traction control was enough to have everyone complaining that drivers had it too easy. So now there is no traction control (Which is definitely for the best!) but the drivers have a cockpit with more switches than a Boeing 747’s. How about, here’s a thought, pulling all that out and giving the poor sods a clutch and an H gate gearbox and letting them get on with it. As it stands drivers can manage to never blow their engine through overrevving or miss a gear, but they can end up going through Eau Rouge one-handed. In this era, where safety is apparently so paramount that a Mercedes pace car can run more laps in the lead of a race if it’s a bit wet, it does boggle the mind somewhat that a driver can be so remarkably pre-occupied and it not be considered a little risky for his safety.
Anyway, all that aside, the real intrigue for this year seems to be coming from the change to Pirelli tyres. Last year Bridgestone were far too concerned with company image to bring along the tyre that was going to degrade too much, and as such we often saw tyres that could easily last the whole race, and without the compulsory tyre stop rule we could well have seen this. Indeed, at Monza last year Vettel pitted on the final lap of the race. Only at Montreal did the Japanese firm drop the ball, and on the parkland surface of the Île Notre-Dame (co-incidentally pictured on the masthead of this site) all of the teams were struggling with high tyre wear, thus inadvertantly generating the most exciting race of the year.
Pirelli, being Italian, are all too aware of how to make something that falls apart after ten minutes, but also they understand what Bridgestone missed, that people want to see racing and overtaking in Formula One, and so have pledged to create marginal tyres that will wear heavily and cause drivers to work much harder to keep their cars on the road.
What we have seen in testing so far this year has reflected this, the cars and drivers that are too heavy on their tyres are struggling to keep things together over long runs, and all teams are seeing drop off to the region of five seconds per lap over a relatively short stint. What this means is that we should see races with potentially up to five pitstops for some drivers, crazy times, but this plays into the hands of the drivers that know how to manage tyres, and can keep a good pace while still being gentle on rubber. The level of drop off could lead to bigger gaps between cars, as such a driver than can hold onto his tyres just one or two laps longer could gain quite an advantage.
This is good news for old hands like Alonso or Button, both of whom are notably superb at looking after tyres, whilst any driver that can recall the 2005 season, where tyre stops were banned, should be in good stead this year. The drivers for whom this could be a problem are those that like to push one hundred and ten percent all of the time, such as world champions Hamilton and Vettel. It could be a big learning year for them both.
In terms of best guesses for the competitive order it seems quite apparent that Red Bull and Ferrari are at the top of things, with a gap back to a chasing pack that is very difficult to judge. Renault/Lada are looking strong, and Heidfeld’s experience will be a boon, Williams look to be around similar pace as do Toro Rosso with their radical double floor solution; all three of these teams seem to be running something a bit out of the box this year, with Lada’s front exiting exhausts and William’s slimline gearbox. Sauber also appears to be amongst this brigade, but I still maintain a niggling feeling that they are flattering to deceive. Their overly white car needs some sponsors, and perhaps running underweight in tests could help the decision process for potential sponsors.
The teams that are looking to be in trouble are the two sets of Silver arrows out there, McLaren and Mercedes. Both seem to be struggling to find the pace that the five teams ahead of them are showing, with tyre degradation being a big factor. Both McLaren drivers have had some very concerned looking faces, and whilst Old Man Mike seems to be getting on much better with the new tyres than he was with last year’s Bridgestones, he still doesn’t look over the moon, though he is talking up his team’s chances. Something Lewis Hamilton seems to be avoiding.
Behind this the Lotus and Virgin teams have showed progress, and seem much closer to the midfield, all the while HRT don’t actually seem to have made a car for 2011, so that could be interesting.
As we head to the final test next week the questions won’t really be answered, it’s clear that McLaren are working as hard as they can to make up the defecit they are facing, the extra two weeks to Melbourne have given them some breathing space, will it be enough?
Come Melbourne, on Saturday afternoon, the true pace of all the teams will be unleashed, along with all the gimmicks and gizmos they can find. Can I get excited yet please?