What we've learnt at Bahrain Test Two
A team-by-team review after the final test of the winter
By Pete Gill, James Galloway and Mike Wise
Last Updated: 04/03/14 1:39pm
Still very much the favourites for 2014 with paddock insiders convinced the Silver Arrows boast a clear and potentially decisive speed advantage over the field entering the new campaign.
Although Mercedes have denied Pirelli's declaration that Lewis Hamilton's table-topping effort on Sunday night, which all-but matched the fastest time of the test by Williams' Felipe Massa, was produced on a used set of softs, the pace of the Merc looks prodigious. Hamilton went faster still in the first sector of his second flying lap on the supersofts and his warning afterwards that the W05 still hadn't been fully stretched rang out with menace. This is a quick car, no question.
Yet the W05 is by no means without flaws. Just consider the litany of problems the team endured throughout the third and final test of the winter: persistent overheating on Day One when the team had to abandon their attempt to run a Melbourne race specification, a spin for Hamilton and a gearbox failure on Day Two, an eight-hour overnight engine change that curtailed their Day Three running, and nearly four hours of track time lost on Day Four due to another gearbox complication. If any of those problems are repeated in Australia, their speed advantage will count for naught.
So how should we consider the team's prospects? Well, there is little dispute that they are favourites to prevail in Australia. But whereas in any other year the favourites would arrive Down Under expected to win, Mercedes are merely the team most likely to win. Their chronic unreliability in the final test - when they would have been expected to enjoy their most trouble-free running rather than persistent trouble-filled aggravation - is vivid illustration of just how difficult all the teams are finding F1's brave new world and how difficult the new season is to predict.
Just when does a dark horse become the form horse? While there's little debate Mercedes are the team to beat in Australia, the paddock are beginning to take the pace of revitalised Williams very seriously indeed. "Mercedes and Williams seem to be in a very good shape," was Ferrari chief Stefano Domenicali's telling verdict as testing came to a close in Bahrain.
Headline lap times are generally unreliable indicators of the true pecking order during testing but no-one appeared to be disputing that Felipe Massa's benchmark lap from Bahrain of 1:33.258 was the real deal. On supersoft tyres the Brazilian's lap was the fastest set in both tests - fractionally so than Lewis Hamilton's 1:33.278 the next day, with Valtteri Bottas's 1:33.987 on the soft tyre (also on Sunday and set during a run that was longer than a qualifying practice run) further showing that the FW36 is probably as close as anything else to the W05.
If that is the case, Williams' competitiveness represents an astonishing revival. Fans of the former multiple champions won't need reminding that the Grove outfit garnered just five points all last season. Crucially for their chances of capitalising on the FW36's strong foundations in the early rounds, the team ended testing with the most reliable car - and just a single on-track stoppage - after completing more miles than anyone over the two weeks in Bahrain. Should Mercedes stumble in Melbourne, then Williams' apparent revival means the start of F1's new era could produce quite the heart-warming story.
The winter-long mystery of Ferrari's whereabouts in the 2014 pecking order appears to have been partially solved with Domenicali's admission that the Scuderia currently lack Mercedes and Williams' pace. Yet two critical unknowns remain: whether Ferrari are also behind McLaren and Force India, and whether their transparent lack of qualifying pace - Fernando Alonso's best time was still a second down on Lewis Hamilton despite being run on a set of new supersofts - is representative of their race speed as well.
The long-established modus operandi is for the team to improve the longer a weekend goes on and the F14 T's general reliability - which saw Alonso second in the charts for most miles completed per driver - suggests that they will start the season as a force to be reckoned with.
Don't expect a red car to be on the front rows in Melbourne, but, as ever, do expect the Ferrari to be there or thereabouts on race day.
A week is a long time in Formula 1 and it's certainly true that expectations surrounding McLaren's likely competitiveness in Melbourne were dampened by the events of the second Bahrain test with the team not mirroring the step forward made by some of their rivals.
Frustratingly, the MP4-29 that completed the final day was essentially still the launch-specification car. The bulk of McLaren's Melbourne package didn't arrive in time for the weekend's running and then they ran out of time to properly test a new front wing after various problems curtailed Jenson Button's final-day running to 22 laps. Indeed, speaking earlier in the week, the British veteran's pragmatic assessment of the car's current shortcomings - "I'm quite happy with the basic car that we have, but I know we need more downforce" - perfectly outlined where the Woking team are with the MP4-29 right now.
Good but not yet great.
Still, while not yet on the pace of Mercedes or perhaps even Williams, McLaren go to Albert Park in far better shape than this time 12 months ago and if reliability levels can improve, then an immediate return to the podium after last year's season of woe can't be ruled out. Certainly the pace and poise displayed by their new rookie protégé Kevin Magnussen throughout the winter reflects the new level of hope protruding from Woking this year.
Very much still in the reckoning despite a quiet conclusion to their winter preparations with Nico Hulkenberg, somewhat curiously, unable to match the 1:35.290 Sergio Perez produced on soft tyres to top Day Two when he bolted on a new set of supersofts on Sunday. But fuel loads, as ever, remain the great unknown when dissecting the lap times.
Yet, in general, it's clear that the Force India is a fast and reliable motor car and it's a racing certainty that the team are positioned somewhere between second and fifth in the pre-season pecking order. They could be on the outer reaches of the top ten in Melbourne; they could also be on the podium. 2014, a year of such enticing uncertainty, can't begin quickly enough.
Drama has become a crisis has become a catastrophe. Even after the 21-lap travails of Jerez and the struggles of Bahrain Test One, the final test of the winter marked a serious and damaging new low for the World Champions.
Sebastian Vettel's two breakdowns on Saturday, complete with the defining image of the week but without so much as a single timed lap, was compounded by the frustration of another on-track stoppage on Sunday morning and was followed by the World Champion's stark admission that the RB10 currently doesn't have the pace of the frontrunners.
The truth is out: Red Bull have neither pace nor reliability.
Yet a team with such a vast arsenal of resource and record of success will not be down for long. Nor, despite talk of a B-spec car being introduced, is the RB10 necessarily destined for the scrapheap. "If that car goes round it will be quick," observed Jenson Button after being passed by Daniel Ricciardo when the Australian completed the 20-lap stint on Friday that constituted the team's longest run of the winter.
So what's the problem? Although partners Renault were vilified after Jerez, the small-print of the Bahrain tests, including plenty of laps for Caterham and Renault's insistence their power unit had been sufficiently remedied to be run at full power, pointed the finger of blame squarely at Red Bull and their ultra-aggressive design.
The team, in essence, have appeared to misjudge the nature of F1's latest revolution; daring designs might have inspired four successive title doubles but the latest manifestation of that philosophy - the ultra-tight rear end of the RB10 - is currently fighting a losing battle at the start of a complex new era in which conservatism is king.
Red Bull will find an answer, the only question is when - and if it will already be too late when they do.
It's hard to remember many winters when Sauber rose above the parapet and this one certainly didn't buck that trend. The Ferrari-powered C33 displayed encouraging reliability - the team completed the fifth-highest amount of kilometres across the three tests - and solid if unspectacular pace.
At Jerez the car's handling and, in particular, its brake-by-wire system were causing Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez all sorts of havoc, but updates across the Bahrain tests appeared to improve the situation on both counts.
Although an engine problem restricted the team's running to a solitary lap on the penultimate day of action, Sutil and Gutierrez between them racked up a winter-best count of 177 laps on Day Four. It appears the fringes of the top ten, at best, beckon for Sauber once more in Australia.
Bahrain Test Two undoubtedly resulted in some much-needed progress for Toro Rosso, yet like their senior Red Bull sibling, they remain a long way from where they need to be. The team's tally of 271 laps across the final four days of running more than doubled their mileage from their previous eight days with the troubled STR9, while Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniil Kvyat were able to complete some performance running on the softer tyres over the weekend, resulting in unspectacular 1:35 times.
Vergne, however, offered encouragement afterwards by reporting that he "had a really good feeling from the car" after the team worked on improving its driveability and assessing a new suspension, having already revised its front-nose section. Yet for a team that have a good recent points-scoring record in Melbourne, anywhere near the top ten come the chequered flag will be a commendable achievement on this occasion.
After the first two tests proved more stop than start for the MR03, Marussia needed a big second week in Bahrain and by and large they achieved it. A total of 258 laps in four days wasn't particularly spectacular when compared to some of the mileage counts elsewhere, but the more sustained running finally allowed the team to assess its Ferrari-powered challenger on a consistent basis.
The delayed verdict is that, while niggling problems with the challenger clearly remain - an electrical problem struck on the final day, for example - the car may have decent relative fundamental performance if Max Chilton's Day Four effort of 1:36.835 is anything to go by. The lap in actual fact was only just over six tenths slower than the team's fastest lap from Q1 at the Bahrain GP last year, which given the cuts in downforce and advent of harder tyres, suggests the Banbury outfit may have made some real-term gains. As Caterham didn't complete a comparable run, comparisons are difficult at this stage but it looks as though Marussia have a chance to repeat their early-season advantage from last year.
Once the initial outcry over their new car's obtrusive nose calmed down, Caterham's pre-season drew few headlines. However, the team can lay claim to one honour this winter - the most mileage completed by a Renault-powered runner. Given the French engine maker's ails since testing began at Jerez, that is undoubtedly a statistic of note - although Caterham's 3,141km place them only seventh on the overall mileage table.
Yet if reliability and not outright speed is destined to prove the determining factor in the early weeks of the season then the near-race simulation that Marcus Ericsson completed on the penultimate day in Bahrain could bode well for Australia and beyond.
As far the outright speed of the CT05 goes, there has been little, if any, evidence to suggest that Caterham are poised to break away from the lower reaches of the grid at the fifth time of asking, although the team didn't complete a qualifying simulation with Kamui Kobayashi on the final day in Bahrain. As a likely result, despite completing double the winter mileage of their perennial rival, Caterham trailed Marussia on the combined Sakhir test timesheet by over a second - a 1:36.835 for Chilton versus 1:38.083 for Ericsson and 1:38.391 for Kobayashi). As such, reliability is likely to be their strongest early-season hand.
Undercooked and underprepared. After the team 'opted' to miss the Jerez test, the two Bahrain meets generated less than 250 laps from the E22, a bad-tempered car with a worrying tendency to get hot under the collar at the smallest inconvenience of track activity.
Romain Grosjean suffered particularly badly, with the Frenchman yet to complete 100 laps in his new office. It's not right to assert that Lotus are a long way behind because with so little activity this winter and so much unknown about their car, it's far from certain that they are even that close to the front. By the evidence of Bahrain, even the formation lap at Melbourne may be a tall order for the E22.