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Inside line: F1 final group test

2010-03-03 09:28

Dieter Rencken

Due to regulation changes – which, amongst other aspects, ban refuelling during a race and mandate front tyres narrower by 25mm over last year – those cars powered by fuel efficient engines and gentle on their rubber (particularly the front pair) will hold the key to this year’s world championship battle.

Adding a twist is the stipulation that cars race with both (dry) tyre compounds as supplied by Bridgestone for a given race weekend. Thus, at least one pit stop will need to be factored into race strategies. Stops will, though, be brief as no fuel will be taken onboard. Teams are predicting stops of around three seconds, plus ins and outs – in turn dependent upon pit lane length and layout, which vary according to circuit.  

However, F1 is more than a set of technological and strategic challenges, for drivers are obviously equally crucial to overall performance. Thus in 2010 drivers with gentle, flowing turn-ins and progressive exits will be better at conserving rubber and fuel. Given the specific gravity of a litre of race fuel of around 0.7, the weight of a full tank (estimated at 220l) comes in at around 160kg.

Technology issues

Save 5% and that equals 8kg saved, over a full race distance at that – and given weight penalties in F1 run at around 0.30 seconds per lap (depending upon circuit layout, length and gradients), that’s 0,24 per lap, every lap. Multiply by 60, and the advantage pans out at average 15 seconds over a Grand Prix. The closest finish ever, the 1971 Italian Grand Prix, was won by 0.01 secs – and over 60 Grands Prix in the 60-year history of F1 finished to a victory margin gap of less than a second…

While virtually impossible to draw firm conclusions from winter testing times due to teams running different agendas, taken over the full 16 days of the four four-day sessions a clear pattern emerges, particularly when pace over race distance runs (over 320 kms) is analysed. Generally the greater the average distance, the less technical issues a team experienced.

Champions over long runs were Ferrari, who ran 7 000km in testing, averaging 440km per day. Of the other main contenders, McLaren put in 1 600km less (340 km/day), while Mercedes GP (formerly 2009 championship-winning Brawn outfit, nee Honda), recorded an average of 390km (6200km total). Red Bull skipped the first (Valencia) test, so partook in both Jerez sessions and the Barcelona runs to clock up 4 200km, averaging out at 350km over the 12 days to place the 2009 runners-up third behind MGP, but ahead of McLaren.

However, McLaren’s CEO and former team principal Dennis once famously said ‘anyone can build a slow, reliable car which will remain slow, whereas a fast car can be made reliable,’ and with speed being very much of the essence in F1, who set the tracks alight?

Again, outright pace is influenced by many variables – and often disguised by ‘sandbagging’ and sector timing, during which sectors are systematically driven at various speeds, with the fastest times strung together for a ‘perfect’ lap - but for the final test session before cars and kit are packed for the opener (14 March in Bahrain in 2010) drivers invariably go for ‘glory runs’ at some stage.

Final group test

So it was in Barcelona last week, with all drivers going for glory over the final two days. Lewis Hamilton proved fastest, with McLaren also coming out tops over the combined four days. Below is a table showing the fastest lap times over the three day testing period Barcelona (in terms of the regulations teams were permitted only one car per day, although driver changes were allowed, while intermittent rain over the final two days also affected times):

Position    Driver                Team                    Best lap time                   
1.    Lewis Hamilton           McLaren                      1:20.472                   
2.    Mark Webber             Red Bull                      1:20.496                   
3.    Felipe Massa               Ferrari                         1:20.539                   
4.    Adrian Sutil                Force India                  1:20.611                   
5.    Nico Hulkenberg         Williams                       1:20.614                   
6.    Fernando Alonso         Ferrari                         1:20.637                   
7.    Sebastian Vettel         Red Bul                       1:20.667                   
8.    Nico Rosberg              Mercedes                    1:20.686                   
9.    Michael Schumacher    Mercedes                    1:20.745                   
10.  Rubens Barrichello       Williams                       1:20.870
11.  Kamui Kobayashi         Sauber                        1:20.911                   
12.  Pedro de la Rosa         Sauber                        1:20.973                   
13.  Vitanio Liuzzi               Force India                  1:21.056                   
14.  Sebastien Buemi         Toro Rossoi                  1:21.413                   
15.  Jenson Button            McLaren                      1:21.450                   
16.  Jaime Alguersuari        Toro Rosso                   1:21.571                   
17.  Vitaly Petrov               Renault                       1:22.523                   
18.  Robert Kubica             Renault                       1:23.175                   
19.  Jarno Trulli                  Lotus                         1:25.059                   
20.  Heikki Kovalainen         Lotus                          1:25.251                   
21.  Timo Glock                 Virgin                          1:25.942                   
22.  Luca di Grassi              Virgin                         1:26.160                   
23.  Fairuz Fauzy                Lotus                          1:28.002                   

What conclusions can be drawn from the times (above) and testing overall?

First, Ferrari seems to be gentler on its rubber, and thus better equipped to exploit narrower front tyres despite both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa have pointy styles (they ‘throw’ the car into the corner, heavily loading the fronts and sliding the rears), while the team seems to be missing little (if at all) in terms of outright pace. On fuel economy the engine seems on the good side, but not exceptional.

McLaren seemingly have pace, but Hamilton has probably the ‘pointiest’ style of all, as evidenced by his astronomical tyre wear in the past – disguised by running multi-stop fuel strategies which are, of course, banned in 2010. However, reigning champ Jenson Button has arguably the smoothest style out there, so, while giving away a little outright speed to Hamilton, could be strong when it counts, namely at the flag.

Red Bull Racing seems to have a good mix of speed and reliability, but in F1 ‘good’ is never, well, good enough. However, Adrian Newey’s cars are generally late developers, while both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber are highly experienced (despite the former being in only his third full season), so the necessary speed is sure to materialize. The RB6 has trick suspension, which should aid tyre durability, while Renault’s engine department has worked hard at improving fuel consumption.

That Mercedes has niggling problems is evidenced by the team’s lack of scintillating times.  Sure, Michael Schumacher has been out of the cockpit for three years and Nico Rosberg is still finding his feet with the team, but, given the background of the operation, they surely should have been up to full speed after 16 days.  Can the team win races in 2010? Highly likely; Will it win the opener - highly unlikely…

And for the rest?

Force India, particularly with Adrian Sutil proved fast, but the Mercedes-powered car is a proven dragster on fast tracks, so circuits such as Melbourne and Shanghai will reveal its overall performance, while BMW Sauber (an oxymoron given the car’s Ferrari power unit) certainly impressed via the consistent Pedro de la Rosa, while Kamui Kobayashi set a string of fastest times in Jerez.

Williams-Cosworth, with Rubens Barrichello and GP2/A1GP champion Nico Hulkenberg  made steady progress, with Renault rebuilding itself after the scandals of 2008/9. Toro Rosso, which has drawn heavily on the design concepts of sister team Red Bull Racing in designing its STR5, proved a mid-field performer as testing progressed – albeit with occasional bouts of speed.

New F1 teams

Of the four – a reincarnated Lotus, Virgin Racing, Campos Meta 1, and the much vaunted USF1 – only the first two made the tests, with both missing the opening session in Valencia. Lotus and Virgin proved about six seconds off the pace, with the gap to Williams (using equivalent Cosworths and Bridgestone tyres) being around five seconds. Given Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen (the Lotus line-up) and Timo Glock (Virgin) are hardly slouches, the gap proves how difficult it is for incoming teams to be competitive from the off.

As for Campos and USF1 – the former is under massive pressure to make the season opener, which, incidentally, celebrates 60 years of F1 after the championship was first instituted in 1950, while USF1 is believed to have requested a grace period of 12 months to get its act together.

Only 10 days to the first practice session!

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