There is a question mark over the adjustable rear wing. It’s been introduced to help effect overtaking, and there are three levels of success that might be achieved (or, to be more exact, one level of success and two levels of failure). If it does not work, then it will have failed. But, if it works too well and actually hands an advantage to the chap behind, then that’s artificial, unfair and a bit rubbish. The happy medium is that it aids overtaking and gets rid of the dirty air problem without making second place the position of choice for the penultimate lap. We’ll have to wait and see whether it’s brilliant, useless or worse than useless.
The distortion effect (due to it being available throughout a lap for practice and qualifying but only on one straight when a second or less behind someone in the race) will vary from circuit to circuit. More long straights will maximise the difference, obviously, and I think this may lead to Mercedes-powered vehicles (McLaren, Mercedes etc) being underestimated for the race following qualifying (at some circuits).
So, to testing!
Renault had a nifty idea. They’ve rejigged their exhaust system to increase downforce, basically. It seems to work nicely.
“BBC Sport's Andrew Benson: "In answer to 'anon' below, it's fair to say the Pirellis have proved in Valencia to go off very quickly - particularly the rears. But the company has been asked to provide less durable tyres than Bridgestone tended to make, because there's a belief that tyres that go off quickly make better racing - just look at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2010. The tyres have been developed since the post-season test in Abu Dhabi, and there is a media briefing on Thursday at which more will become clear about Pirelli's plans."”
That was from the live text from the first test, day two.
After the first test Schumacher said that the new tyres were like driving on ice, whereas Button really liked them. Kubica also indicated that they degraded rapidly, and Barrichello expressed some concerns about the increasing number of buttons on the steering wheel increasing the driver’s workload. It’s very difficult to read much into testing, but Button’s best time was 0.8s faster than Hamilton’s in test 1. That could be down to anything, but if it’s repeated at other tests it may indicate that Button’s chances are better this year than last.
Between tests 1 and 2 there was some very sad news. Robert Kubica, Renault’s lead driver and one of the most talented chaps on the circuit, was involved in a crash whilst rallying. He was trapped for over an hour, during which his hand was partially severed. Whether he’ll ever return is unknown (edit: he should be able to return, and is trying to come back this year), and even in a good scenario, rehab could take a year. I really hope he can return, as he is a very fast driver and has the skill (if not the car) to take a world title someday.
On the driver front, it creates a huge problem for Renault. The only chaps equal to Kubica are probably Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton, and they’re not up for grabs. The team has indicated that it’s considering Bruno Senna (reserve driver), Nick Heidfeld and Vitantonio Liuzzi for the seat. I’d go for Heidfeld if Kubica’s out for one year and Liuzzi if he is not going to return. Of course, the team may not have that information when they make their choice.
During the second test, Vettel said (in a Q&A with the official F1 website) this:
“When the tyres go off, it’s not as easy to use as when the tyres are fresh, but you get used to it. KERS is not so easy to use, but again it’s a case of getting used to it - its practice in the end.”
That’s quite interesting, and may suggest that, as well as the obvious reasons relating to tyre degradation, changing tyres might have the additional advantage of improving speed by making the adjustable rear wing more effective.
Alonso, interestingly, believes the adjustable rear wing will only be of benefit if the car being pursued is substantially slower than its pursuer:
Schumacher raised doubts about the Mercedes pace in the second test. Ultimate pace seems fine, as he posted a very good fastest lap indeed, but the consensus appears to be that Red Bull and Ferrari are the quickest right now.
Immediately after the test, this interesting piece was posted on the official F1 website (http://www.formula1.com/news/headlines/2011/2/11745.html):
“From what we learned from those so far, we believe that we’re still on course to see two pit stops per race, which obviously might be one stop on some circuits and three stops on others, depending on the individual cars and track characteristics,” explained Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery.
Between tests 2 and 3, something interesting and disturbing emerged. The fourth test was shifted to Bahrain, from 3-6 March, with Bahrain also hosting the first Grand Prix from 11-13 March. The ‘problem’ is that recently the Arabs have decided that toppling dictatorships is tremendous fun, and Bahrain has been seeing its share of angry protestors and trigger-happy security forces.
Hopefully, the two sides can negotiate and peacefully reach a settlement, and the race (admittedly a minor point in the grand scheme of things) can go ahead. If there is trouble, it may jeopardise both the first race and the 4th test (I’d guess they’ll have a back-up track lined up for the testing).
Update, 17th February: now the streets of Bahrain are quiet, armoured vehicles are patrolling and the government’s had a crackdown. A GP2 race has had qualifying shifted to the morning of race day. Unsure if that’ll happen with F1.
The first day of the third test saw the first wet running with the new tyres, due to heavy rainfall the night before. There was also some wet running on day three.
We also learnt, from the excellent Ted Kravitz, that the Red Bull loves the adjustable rear wing:
“Red Bull and Ferrari have topped the timesheets so far, and from watching the cars on track, look the class of the field. The Red Bull RB7 is using its moveable rear wing in places no other car can, for example in the middle of the fast corner heading onto the main straight.”
The 20th saw Ecclestone finally (not) make a decision regarding whether there ought to be a race in Bahrain. He’s ducked it, and said it’s up to the crown prince. So, the crown prince either takes a tremendous risk by letting go of the race, knowing it may never come back after £1bn of spending, or he takes a tremendous risk, knowing that any main or splinter opposition group could disrupt the race or even pose a threat to the safety of those involved.
I’m unimpressed with this, frankly. Ecclestone’s right to say that the crown prince knows the security situation far better than he does, but it’s Bernie who runs the show. The crown prince is not the king of F1. He ought to be asked for advice, and then Ecclestone should make the decision.
Update, 20th: Ecclestone has stated that if Bahrain is cancelled in March it could occur later in the year. This may be the best option.
On the 21st we finally got the not entirely unexpected news that the Bahrain test is cancelled and the race itself has been postponed to an unspecified date. The first race of the season will be at Australia on the 27th of March.
Given the lengthier than planned wait, I might write yet another pre-season article.
Anyway, here are my general impressions, based on the BBC live text of the various sessions:
Red Bull and Ferrari are both looking competitive in terms of pace, but the prancing horse has the edge when it comes to reliability. Indeed, most cars look a bit suspect in this area.
McLaren and Mercedes both look off the pace, though with the testing variations the times themselves can be highly misleading.
Toro Rosso and Renault look like they may punch above their weight in 2011. However, Sauber looked the same pre-2010, and it was a dog in the first part of the season.
Bahrain is a Ferraritastic circuit, so McLaren and Mercedes will not exactly be in tears about getting extra testing time and delaying a race where they may not get the top spots.
Looking through the calendar, the only other real potential flashpoint is Abu Dhabi, but that’s in November and I’d expect any disturbance to either be done and dusted or not happen at all by then.
My earlier vague witterings about Mercedes and Schumacher/Rosberg now look a shade silly. Still, I did state expressly that they weren’t tips and that I’m not betting pre-season. As of now, Vettel and Alonso look like the chaps with the best prospects, but the season is longer than ever and will be tricky to predict.
A reminder, to me as much as anyone reading this, that whilst practice is valid as a guide for qualifying, neither practice nor qualifying will give us a true picture of race pace. This will make predicting races somewhere between tremendous fun and infuriating, especially as they’ll now average 2 pit stops per track.