The season kicks off with the top three teams all downplaying their chances – but as Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren prepare for battle do any have a surprise up their sleeve?
The current testing restrictions usually give teams little chance for ‘sandbagging’ to hide true form but the pre-season predictions suggest there is either some poker playing going on or a genuine confusion over who will be the strongest at the front of the field this year.
McLaren had arguably the fastest car for much of last season but tore it up and started again with their new MP4-28 - and although Jenson Button’s initial pace give them confidence, subsequent set-up issues left them admitting they are struggling to ‘understand’ the car.
Ferrari driver Felipe Massa said his team’s test performance was on a ‘different planet’ to last year but the evolutionary design appears not to have given them as much of a step as they had hoped for and they left Barcelona admitting others were still faster.
Red Bull have been ominously quiet and although they stand to be the ones to lose the most from the ban on double DRS this year having made big gains with it late last season, most teams still believe they have a car that will make them the ones to beat in Melbourne.
All three are also looking nervously over their shoulders at Lotus and Mercedes after the two contender teams showed hints of improved performance in the winter tests.
But high tyre degradation with the new Pirellis has thrown confusion over testing and the final sessions, in which teams try to close in on their Melbourne spec, were hit by low temperatures and very limited dry running which left everyone unclear over comparative pre-season form.
The only performance indicators have come from on-track observations and the occasional standout performance that although good on paper is hard to verify against other rivals – so what have we really learned so far?
Last year’s Ferrari was simply not good enough from the start and although Fernando Alonso took it to heights it should have reached, the team will need a much better platform to build from if he is to mount a serious challenge again this time around.
The timesheets, for what they’re worth, appear to show they have achieved that – and although the post test comments appear to indicate there is still some work to do to make it a championship contender, Alonso is brimming with confidence, says he’s better prepared than ever and bullishly insists he only needs a car that is within 0.2s of his rivals for him to make up the difference.
There are some aggressive plans for early-season development and the car that tested in Barcelona will have “some more bits” on it in Melbourne with another upgrade planned for Malaysia and a “bigger upgrade” for China.
Much of last year’s poor performance was put down to aerodynamic problems with the accuracy of Ferrari’s own wind tunnel – and it was so bad that this year’s car has been developed outside Maranello at the Toyota wind tunnel in Cologne.
The pre-season test gave the team strong indication that the new approach is working, with good correlation between CFD, wind tunnel and track – and with an aggressive development plan, that bodes well for the season.
McLaren have two challenges to face this season – the first is to get to grips with a dramatic change of concept on their car and the second is to cope with the loss of Lewis Hamliton.
Despite the success of last year’s machine, the new McLaren has had a very significant overhaul. It’s all to do with the importance of in-season development, and the team believes that the changes they have introduced will create more areas to explore and improve this season.
The car appears to have good initial baseline but the team kept their excitement in check when Jenson Button set an impressive single-lap time in the opening test and after subsequent running they admitted to concerns over the long-run consistency of the new MP4-28.
The change from pushrod to pullrod suspension – something Ferrari did last season – appears to have led to set-up challenges, with access problems causing long delays in testing.
That has been exacerbated by the fact the team are struggling to understand the set-up of the car – and with the team saying their car “has potential” it appears they are either downplaying their chances or they are genuinely concerned that they haven’t got it quite right yet.
In the early stages of the season, a lack of running provides limited data for the baseline set-up so the team starts each race weekend with a wider window that takes longer to refine. The access issues could, therefore, be critical - and if those testing delays are not smoothed out, it could cause problems in qualifying for the early races.
How much the team will miss Hamilton will depend on how well Button can lead and how Sergio Perez will handle stepping up from Sauber into a position that demands consistency to go with his proven pace.
Perez showed flashes of brilliance last year but he was also wayward at times and needs to keep that in check to make the most of his opportunity. If he can do so, he could challenge Button – and that could give McLaren more problems than if he plays convenient number two in his first year.
Button, meanwhile, has for the first time ever had the team’s car developed with a focus on him and his uniquely smooth driving style, and having a car that suits him perfectly could give him a significant performance boost.
Early testing suggested the car will indeed provide the balance and rear-end grip that Button favours, and if he can firmly establish himself ahead of Perez early on, McLaren could be in a rare position of focusing on a one-man title challenge.
In their quest for their first drivers’ title since 2008, that could make all the difference. To take their first constructors’ crown since 1988, however, they will need the pair to work together to have any chance of fighting such strong opposition.
The fact that Red Bull has been determined not to give anything away all winter is ominous.
They went to great lengths to hide their cars from prying eyes in testing with boards around the garages and aside from one admission from Sebastian Vettel that they “didn’t tick all the boxes” during testing they have said very little so far.
Their pre-season press release was amusingly indicative of their determination to keep quiet, with a highlight quote from Vettel saying: “Australia is an amazing country - it's great that you can see animals you'd only otherwise see in zoos, such as kangaroos and koalas...”
Technical director Adrian Newey says the car is more evolution than revolution and it certainly didn’t set any blistering times in testing – but there is a good reason why that is likely to change in Melbourne.
Red Bull traditionally runs with a heavier fuel load than rivals in pre-season testing and if that assumption is true again then fuel-adjusted analysis from some observers has put them firmly in the mix, if not slightly ahead of the pack.
They did bring out some of their Melbourne upgrades early in the last test, suggesting a more urgent need to do so, but that could be simply because they had more to evaluate and there certainly doesn’t outwardly appear to be much concern.
The only worry is that the late-season step change in performance that made them dominant at the end of last year and ultimately won them the world title came from the successful introduction of a double-DRS system tuned perfectly to their blown diffuser.
That gave Vettel the chance to demonstrate his supreme skill in controlling races from the front when he has the car to do it – and it is only when he has this kind of opportunity that he is at his best.
The ban on that system will set them back but they have already clearly progressed with their passive version of the DRS, which ran in testing and although probably not race ready yet could be coming soon.
This is a crunch year for Mark Webber, who secured an extension to his rolling one-year contract at the end of last term. Tyre issues hampered his campaign last year but the changes to this season’s Pirellis could suit him as they offer a bigger set-up window in which to play.
Red Bull’s constructors campaign has always benefited from the strong driver pairing of Vettel and Webber, but if the latter can mount a serious challenge within the team this year, as he did in 2010, it could be an issue.
Ferrari and McLaren and even Mercedes and Lotus all have line-ups that suggest they could be focusing on one driver in the title battle – and if Red Bull cannot do the same they could lose out.
After pre-season testing, Lotus boss Eric Boullier said he believes Red Bull have been “very much hiding what they are doing” and admitted to hoping they “hide too much and they got lost...”
That, however, is highly unlikely – and the “surprise” within the top three could, therefore, actually end up coming from where you would expect it most...