This first test in Barcelona offered up the first slight glimpse at the competitive order for the 2013 season. We know who will most likely be fighting for the championship and who will be fighting for the final money-paying position in the Constructors’ Championship. What we don’t know, however, is who is fastest and who will eventually end up on top. We have 19 races for that to be decided.
The test was action-packed with four different drivers on top over the course of the four days. We also got some heavy rain and thus an opportunity to test the wet and intermediate tires on the brand new cars. Here are my winners and losers from Barcelona.
With a delayed car launch, many thought that the Grove-based outfit were in some sort of trouble. This was proved wrong when the FW35 turned out to be one of the most reliable cars of the test, while also showing a fair turn of speed in the process. The team has made it very clear that they intend to challenge the bigger teams in the 2013 season. Indeed, if they are to consider 2013 and improvement upon 2012, surely there need to be two wins in the book, right? They will also have some very stiff competition in the rest of the midfield, especially Sauber, who have impressed everybody so far with their reliability, speed and consistency. Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas will undoubtedly have more work to do to fully understand the new car before the season kicks off in Melbourne, but if the team and car keep operating at the same level as in the first Barcelona test, then they are in good shape for the upcoming season.
The team who enjoyed a very successful and productive test in Jerez continued the trend in Barcelona. A grand total of 308 laps over the course of the four day test ensured the Swiss team was one of the most productive of the field. Running without reliability problems was an added bonus to a thoroughly successful test. Both Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez weren’t chasing lap times for most of the test, rather they focussed more on set up work and further understanding the Pirelli tires, which have proven to be tricky to work with. Only on the final day of dry running did we see the C32 show a turn of speed in the capable hands of Nico Hulkenberg. He went second fastest on that day and racked up a fair bit of mileage. The small swiss team is looking like it could challenge the big teams again this year.
Many expected Caterham to have made the step from backmarker to midfielder by now. This is unlikely to happen if testing form proves to be the reality of their situation. Reporting trackside, experts have observed the unstable nature of the green machine, saying that it struggles to find grip in all types of corners and that its ungainly way of changing direction makes it look even slower than it actually is. Much of these observations could have been made while the car was on heavy fuel, as there wasn’t a lot of evidence that the team did any qualifying simulations. Running with lots of fuel would have accentuated any bad, underlying qualities of the car, thus causing this concern. However, if Caterham are to have a long-term future in the sport, they need to get their act together and make the step up to the midfield. Marussia seem to have made more relative progress than Caterham, and soon, they may well overtake them in the pecking order. Caterham have a good, if largely inexperienced, lineup in Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde. They are capable of being consistent and delivering good performances. Now, the car needs to be up to par in order for the drivers to deliver their best. At the moment, this is looking unlikely.
The team have also experienced some controversy with their exhaust. The team ran with a panel in their Coanda tunnel, thus breaching the technical regulations regarding exhaust design. The FIA have ruled it to be illegal but, since this is testing, the team aren’t required to remove it. If the team reach Melbourne with the panel still present, there could be significant consequences for the team.
In Jerez, one of my losers was the circuit itself. Many observed that the old and worn out track surface was causing the new tires to degrade at a far greater rate than expected, thus cutting runs short and potentially skewing data from the test. We were all relieved that the remainder of the test was to be carried out at Barcelona, a tried and tested racing circuit which the teams will be racing on this season.
What was perceived to be track characteristics causing the tire concern, has now been changed to tire characteristics. The teams found that even the surface at Barcelona was tearing up the tires within just a couple of laps. The data that the teams were gathering was inconsistent and runs were much shorter and carried out at slower speeds. After his pacesetting day in Barcelona, Sergio Perez said of the 2013 spec Pirelli tires, “I hope it changes, because if we are in this situation in Melbourne we are going to see something like seven or ten stops. There is very little what the driver can do to help the degradation.” This concern over tire life has put Pirelli in the hot seat as the potential for another “lottery” start to the season could well be upon us once again.
The problem with the tires last year was that they were very difficult to warm up and get within their working range. Once there, the tires were fairly durable and consistent over the course of a stint. The tires that Pirelli have on offer for the 2013 season have remedied this warming problem, but may have created another. All the drivers are full of praise for the tires’ ability to gain heat and get within their working window. However, the time the tires are within their working range in fleeting and soon the drivers are struggling for grip. This rapid switch from grip to slip is a bad sign for the season to come. These facts only go to show that Romain Grosjean’s race simulation on Thursday, where he did a behemoth stint of 20 laps on the medium tire, was one of the most impressive feats of all the preseason testing so far. It also proves that the Lotus has the potential to be the car to beat this season.
The weather may have also had an effect on the performance of the tires. Temperatures in Barcelona were much colder to those that will be experienced throughout the season. Perhaps the conditions experienced in testing were causing the tires to degrade at a more intense rate.
Whatever the problem is with the new tires, Pirelli need to solve it fast. Otherwise, their decision to bring the Soft and Supersoft compounds to Melbourne may prove to be disastrous.
With the final four days of preseason testing upon us in just two days, and the season opener just under three weeks, there is still a lot of work to be done. Stay tuned for coverage of each day of testing and another edition of Winners and Losers from the final four days afterwards.