What we learnt from the Jerez Test
So who has the upper hand after the first test of the winter?...
By Pete Gill, James Galloway, and Mike Wise
Last Updated: 22/02/13 6:07pm
A very solid start from the World Champions, bordering on serene progress. The "evolutionary" RB9 proved to be hugely consistent, registering a mammoth 372 laps with scarcely a glitch, and any fears about its pace were swiftly allayed by the lap of 1:18.565 which Sebastian Vettel set mid-morning on Friday when running on the hard tyres. The RB9's fuel load is the great unknown, and at that stage of proceedings the track was at its optimum condition, but Vettel's lap was nevertheless the fastest set all week on the hard compound. Equally ominously, it was also only eight-tenths of a second slower than the week's quickest lap, set by Felipe Massa on the soft compound - two steps above the hards.
In summary, Red Bull are - as ever - looking well set, with a big upgrade still in the pipeline for the second Barcelona test. Neither of the team's two drivers were particularly bullish afterwards - Vettel said his two days felt "a little bit better" than last year while Webber described himself as "satisfied" - but the trackside impression of the RB9 was rather more enthusiastic, especially during Vettel's impressively-consistent long run on Friday afternoon. Still the team to beat? Nobody would dare bet otherwise at this stage.
Whilst it's still too early to conclude whether or not the F138 is a substantial improvement on the F2012, the good news is that the Scuderia's new charger looks to be far better balanced, and far less of a handful, than its unloved predecessor. Although unhappy not to have undertaken any performance runs, roadrunner Felipe Massa nonetheless still set the fastest lap of the week - a 1:17.879 on Day Three - and described the F138 as being "on a different planet" compared to the F2012 twelve months ago.
The stage is thus set for Alonso - who played a blinder in skipping Jerez while his subordinates did all the donkey work - to find out just how quick the car is in Barcelona when its performance capabilities will be fully explored.
Although several teams went faster over the rest of the week, the timesheet-topping lap of 1:18.861 set by Jenson Button on Tuesday was very arguably the most impressive given that it was made on hard tyres and, even more pertinently, when the circuit was still green. Massa rated it as "incredible" and Button himself said he was surprised when he saw the time on his car's dashboard. Bodes well.
The rest of the week was rather more subdued, with Sergio Perez learning the ropes and Button conducting aero checks and set-up changes throughout Thursday. Of greater concern, was the fuel-pump failure which waylaid Button on the opening day, and the team will be keen for more track time in Barcelona - only three teams completed less mileage than McLaren in Jerez - as they strive to fully exploit their new front suspension arrangement.
A test of two halves for the Mercedes team, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton's long-distance running on the final two days adequately compensating for Tuesday's fire on the W04 and the a brake failure on Wednesday that put car and debutant into the barriers.
Hamilton's insight that the W04 is quick to warm up its tyres was of further encouragement, especially as this was an area of weakness for the W03 last year, but what should be read into Lewis' subsequent admission that his new car doesn't boast as much downforce as the 2012 McLaren? Was it a hurry-up to his team or a clue that the W04 is still adrift of the frontrunners?
A new five-element front wing was introduced for Day Three, but it was noticeable that the W04 continued to lose time relative to its peers in the middle sector of the lap where downforce is key. Plenty of work still to be done then.
The fact that Lotus topped the timesheets on two of the four days at Jerez was probably that rarest of things: a welcome accident in F1. According to Technical Director James Allison, the E21 carried "plenty of petrol throughout the test", and an element of pleasant surprise was detectable in his concluding remark: "And yet we've shown a decent turn of speed."
Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen rated the E21 as a clear improvement on the E20, although the new car wasn't particularly busy: despite Mercedes' time-consuming early difficulties, the E21 completed 50 fewer laps than the W04 over the course of the four days.
Quietly impressive. New recruit Nico Hulkenberg reckons the aesthetically-delightful C32 is definitely a "fast car" and retains the high-speed cornering hallmarks of its predecessor.
As with the Red Bull, the C32 wasn't handicapped by any discernible reliability problems, with both of the car's two on-track stoppages caused by fuel-depletion checks, while Esteban Gutierrez was able to complete a 55-lap race simulation across four stints on Friday, comparing tyre performance over long runs.
The VJM06 could succinctly be summarised as a tidied-up version of last year's Force India and the team's position at Jerez looked to be what you'd expect to materialise from that conservative evolution: better but not ground-breaking.
Of greatest interest was Jules Bianchi's performance on Friday when the Ferrari protege seemingly strengthened his claim for a race seat by setting the second-fastest time of the day. Qualy-style runs are reputed to be a weakness in Bianchi's armoury, and his lap of 1:18.175 was set on a very short run - and his last of the day. Was it good enough to land the young Frenchman the final remaining race seat for 2013?
Only time will tell if Williams' decision to delay the introduction of the FW35 until Barcelona is the right decision or not. Their rationale is easily appreciable, with the team running fuel loads in the FW34 throughout the test to collect a raft of data about the new Pirelli tyres and 2013 development parts from a known base. But it can't but be wondered: if Williams' strategy was really such a good idea, wouldn't a few of the other teams have tried it as well?
Is there far more to the STR8 than meets the eye? According to Jean-Eric Vergne, who seems rather enamoured with his new office, the car features "massive changes" compared to its predecessors. To the naked eye, any such transformation isn't apparent, although the timesheets at least suggested a step forward. Quite how large that step is, along with the extent of the changes made to the STR8, is rather harder to determine.
Whereas the majority of the rest of the field are planning on updates for the Barcelona test, the word about Caterham is that their next major upgrade is being built for the race at Barcelona in mid-May. Quite the contrast. The impression persists of a team in transition, with their presence only really felt in Barcelona due to an exhaust filter which, after a reputed query from Lotus about its legality, was removed on Friday.
It's a question of perspective. While Marussia's full participation in this week's test will sound like a matter of little consequence, it amounted to a big step forward for the team itself. As they themselves tweeted: 'Today we leave the first of three pre-season tests with 1000kms in the bag...As we left for Australia in 2012 we had a mere 100kms on our package!'. The lap times weren't especially noteworthy, but this week's test also marked Marussia's first use of the KERS system.
Slowly but surely, genuine progress is underway.
The week's fastest times, per team
1:17.879 - Ferrari, Felipe Massa, soft tyres.
1:18.148 - Lotus, Kimi Raikkonen, soft tyres.
1:18.175 - Force India, Jules Bianchi, soft tyres.
1:18.565 - Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel, hard tyres.
1:18.669 - Sauber, Esteban Gutierrez, soft tyres.
1:18.760 - Toro Rosso, Jean-Eric Vergne, soft tyres.
1:18.766 - Mercedes, Nico Rosberg, soft tyres.
1:18.861 - McLaren - Jenson Button, hard tyres.
1:19.851 - Williams, Valtteri Bottas, 2012 car.
1:21.269 - Marussia, Max Chilton, soft tyres.
1:21.311 - Caterham, Giedo Van der Garde, soft tyres.