Formula 1’s final pre-season test finished on Saturday at the Circuit de Catalunya outside Barcelona. Rather uniquely, teams had a choice of running Tuesday through Friday, or starting a day later and ending Saturday, with Ferrari selecting the second option.
The test had been planned for the previous week in Bahrain ahead of the season opener at the desert kingdom’s Sakhir Circuit on 13 March. That was postponed (or possibly cancelled) due to the political unrest that has troubled the island. F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone is hopeful of slotting an alternate date in before the end of the season, a decision is expected early-May.
Under the agreement struck between all teams, testing is restricted to only one car at any one time, but F1 was flexible for the final test due to the special circumstances in which the test had been arranged..
However, this staggered schedule meant no real benchmark emerged, for the heavens opened on the final day, forcing the likes of Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes, to continue development, before shipping the cars and kit to Melbourne for the new season-opener on 27 March.,.
By contrast, Red Bull, Renault, Sauber, Force India, Toro Rosso, Lotus and Virgin ran early, in order to ship their equipment a day earlier. As always, teams have different agendas, F1 never having clear-cut rights or wrongs to the challenges they face.
So, with the full programme of 15 test days now done and dusted, no clear cut leader has emerged. Only once has a driver topped the timesheets on consecutive days: Red Bull Racing’s reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel, who set the fastest times on the opening two days of the previous Barcelona test a fortnight ago.
Equally significant is that different teams have set overall fastest times during each test. Robert Kubica’s final lap in Valencia in the Renault was quickest during the first tests, Rubens Barrichello came out top for Williams in Jerez. The first Barcelona session saw Felipe Massa and Ferrari rule the roost, with Michael Schumacher doing so last week in the Mercedes.
In Valencia Vettel, Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) and Kubica (Renault)went fastest over the three days, with the order in Jerez being Massa (Ferrari), Schumacher (Mercedes), Nick Heidfeld for Renault (and Barrichello (Williams). In Barcelona the daily order was Vettel, Vettel, Rosberg (Mercedes) and Massa.
The final test saw Mark Webber (Red Bull) top the time sheets on the first day, against reduced opposition however, with Vettel, Sauber’s rookie Sergio Perez and Schumacher in the heavily updated Mercedes setting the pace on the following days. Nico Rosberg was fastest in the wet; again against a thin field.
So Red Bull Racing have set four comparable fastest times, with Ferrari and Mercedes setting three each. Renault has two fastest times, , Williams and Sauber have one each. Note McLaren’s absence from the list...
Significantly, paddock sources suggested there was little to choose from between the performance of the Ferraris and Red Bulls, with some suggesting the scarlet cars had the edge in overall consistency.
New tyre supplier Pirelli has been widely criticised for the degradation of its different compounds, but the Italian company’s stated intention (and its brief) is to ‘spice up the show’ through increased tyre stops. Teams tested the compounds that have been allocated for the opening three races (Australia, Malaysia and China) last week, although the cool temperatures in Spain (13-15C) are hardly representative of what is expected during that set of races.
Of greater concern, though, is that minimal rain fell during the four tests (apart from the final day). Drivers therefore face the prospect of acclimatising to Pirelli’s unknown wet rubber compound during an actual race perhaps in Malaysia’s monsoon conditions, if not in Australia! Should be fun!