The short off-season came to an end last week when the new 2013 cars hit the track in Jerez – so is there anything we can learn from the first pre-season test?
The huge variation in testing programmes, with teams running different fuel levels and set-ups on long and short runs at different times, always makes it tough to compare the new cars relative to each other – and this year it’s harder than ever.
The sustained regulations mean the different cars are now so tightly matched that the variation in lap times caused by running on different test programmes is far greater than the variation caused by genuine performance improvements due to car design.
The opening day or two of testing – for most teams the first time the car so much as turned a wheel – were used for systems checks, mechanical checks, data gathering on the new tyres and assessing new bodywork for overheating issues (particularly relevant this year with such a focus on managing exhaust flow to the diffuser).
For those runs, many teams used old aero parts to avoid revealing secrets too early, rendering the times relatively meaningless. Only Lotus showed their hand early, while other new toys (like Mercedes’ passive DRS system) popped out later in the week.
Only later could we start to get a few more signs of what’s to come, with more genuine times coming at the end of the test as teams tried to gather more meaningful performance data.
Even then, the times – topped at different points by McLaren, Lotus and Ferrari - remained a bit of a mystery because of a lack of long runs, which are hard to do due to Jerez’s abrasive surface.
In general, then, all we could determine is that the usual leading teams appear likely to remain up the front again this time around.
Unlike 2009, when Brawn’s double diffuser gave them a significant edge, there was no standout development that pushed one team ahead of the pack. Equally, unlike 2011, when McLaren’s ‘octopus’ exhaust sent them back to the drawing board, or last year, when Ferrari’s launch car was almost un-driveable, no lead team appears to have had a nightmare - even Mercedes, who suffered problems on the opening two days, recovered well by the end.
One thing that can offer an early indication on new car performance, however, is simply looking at the cars out on track – because it is quite easy to tell how good or bad a car is by how responsive it is and how it handles key corners, particularly high-speed turns.
Again, reports from Jerez suggest that the big four still stand out.
Observers noted that the Red Bull and McLaren cars both look settled in the high-speed corners; little was said about the Ferrari (apart from it being streets ahead of the 2012 machine); and the Lotus was said to be generally well-balanced with significant front-end grip for a strong turn-in. The Mercedes, however, appeared less comfortable on the higher speed stuff.
In the midfield, there are indications that the chasing pack may narrow the gap further.
Sauber’s new narrow sidepods passed the initial temperature test and the car looked sharp (although the desert heat of Bahrain and hot humidity of Malaysia are quite different to the cooler climes of Jerez in February). The Force India reportedly had better traction, as did the Toro Rosso, the latter suggesting a focus on improving mechanical grip and adaptability could pay dividends.
In terms of reliability, Sauber took the advantage of most laps as they completed almost 2,000km – around 15 percent more than any other team – and that can be important in terms of gathering data to make the most of the next test as the first race draws ever nearer.
The next runs in Barcelona may give more insight into the competitive order – its corners and track conditions are more typical of other F1 tracks - but from what we have seen so far, it appears that normal order will be resumed...