Will Gray

Gray Matter: Why miles matter in Jerez

The 2014 F1 cars hit the track for the first time this week in Jerez – but where will the focus be and will the opening pre-season test give any indication of what to expect this year?

In recent years, teams would put in a good few hundred miles of running over the course of each day on the opening pre-season test but this year – as already demonstrated on Tuesday - that is likely to be very different.

Massive changes in the regulations have left little untouched and teams have a long to-do list including overall car systems set-up and checks, engine installation and performance testing, gearbox functionality, tyre evaluation and aerodynamics.

All are huge unknowns for the teams to deal with as they prepare for the new season – and due to the sluggish start there is even less time to work with than normal.

The opening day of testing saw only two cars complete a full flying lap by the four-hour mark and a total of 93 laps by the end of the day. That compares to 657 laps run on the first day of testing last year.

Ferrari achieved the best, with 31 laps, then Mercedes on 17 – but both also caused red flags out on track. McLaren failed to even get out the garage as electrical gremlins hit despite all systems working on fire-up back at the factory last week.

The fastest lap was 8.4s slower than last year’s fastest opening day lap – but this is not about performance, it’s about learning the cars, finding the issues and trying to resolve them as quickly as possible.

This week is all about mileage.

The build timeline has been so tight that most teams were right on the limit simply to make it to Jerez for the opening day.

Indeed, finance issues mid-season for Lotus caused knock-on delays that forced them to skip the test while a last-minute glitch forced Marussia to stay in England and travel to the test later in the week.

On the flip side, Mercedes, Force India and Toro Rosso were ready early and got a big advantage by doing permitted ‘promotional running’ days to clock up some limited mileage in the name of obtaining film footage and stills.

In recent years, due to limited testing, many teams have used this to do initial shakedowns on their cars and the benefit of this showed on Tuesday as Mercedes and Toro Rosso were quickly out on track as the rest were still going through procedures.

So now they’re all out on track, what do the teams now have to do to get things right?

SYSTEMS CHECKS

The initial systems checks this year have been much more involved than in the past because the addition of two new electrical power supplies – ERS-K and ERS-H – and the all-new turbo engine require an entirely new set of electronics and engine mapping software.

This software and hardware will have been tested for some time to check for any issues but as McLaren discovered, until they are in the car, combined with all the other systems onboard, in a real situation, they can never truly be guaranteed to work.

It was these types of glitches that limited mileage on the opening day, but feedback from the track suggest most are suffering only software issues, which are easier to fix than hardware, so once the systems are settled that reliability concern should diminish significantly.

ENGINE PERFORMANCE

The new powerplants are extremely complex and the lap times so far indicate nobody has pushed them hard just yet – indeed, in many cases the ERS-K and ERS-H systems will not yet have been used at all.

When they do come into action, and when the turbos are pushed harder, more problems will start to be unearthed as cooling, control systems and driver reactions will be tested for the first time.

The differing sizes of sidepods also suggest teams have taken radically different approaches to cooling. This should not be a problem in Spain in January, but it could be in Bahrain – so the teams need to evaluate their solutions before the end of this week to be ready for the next test in much hotter temperatures.

AERODYNAMICS

The cars are currently far from their Melbourne spec, with teams expected to add more detailed tweaks before the opening race – but this will certainly not be the primary focus at this test.

It is, however, important that the teams have a nose around the garages and try to spot trends so they can begin testing copycat designs and avoid being left behind.

Most will be sending out additional members of the aero department – as the usual race crew already have their hands full – to analyse the different nose and sidepod designs and snoop around at the more secretive rear diffuser treatments to decide what to focus their post-Melbourne developments on.

TYRES

Pirelli has introduced the final configuration of 2014 tyres in Jerez, and these are significantly different to last year’s designs.

They are, however, using a winter version of the compound to enable the tyres to work better in cold temperatures and Wednesday was also assigned as the compulsory pre-season wet weather running day. So the focus is unlikely to be placed on tyres until Bahrain.

GARAGE EFFICIENCY

With limited time, the teams cannot afford delays and must be slick in building and re-building the new cars – as Red Bull discovered to their cost when a mistake confined them to the garage on the opening day.

But they will also have to start working on their turn-around time when the car comes into the pits – because what was a well-oiled routine has been thrown out the window for this year thanks to the engine change, which demands a totally different shutdown procedure.

Getting to grips and improving it ahead of the opening race, where it will be vital to get in and out of the garage quickly, will be an important part of pre-season tests.

So, it’s a long list of to-dos.

Last year, the biggest challenge was in the tyres. This year new tyres will present a similar challenge – yet right now that is well down the jobs list with all the other elements to sort out first.

This is the first time since the ban on testing when even the top teams really have been up against it in pre season testing – and that makes it vital teams focus on prioritisation, organisation and efficiency.

And the team that gets that right will be the team at the top of the mileage sheets by the end of this week.