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I am referring to F1’s three pre-season testing sessions in which all eleven teams use the strictly allotted time and track to sort out any issues their new challengers might have, collect valuable data in understanding their cars’ true potential and finally, start to put together the road map that they will use to arrive next month in Melbourne ready to race when the red lights go dark.

Due to the massive regulation changes this year including completely new engines, the first test in Jerez was just about getting the car up and running. Well, that was not exactly what every team was able to do. I am referring to the Renault powered teams Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Caterham, and poor Lotus who did not even show up.

The second test has just concluded and here are the only stats you need to be concerned with: Mercedes 315 laps, Red Bull, a paltry 116. Less than half. The disparity in laps between Mercedes AMG F1 and Infinity Red Bull is quite telling.

In a post I wrote a few weeks back I mentioned that I did not feel there would be any real reliability issues this year, that we are not about to experience the engine failures of bygone eras when F1 cars did not make it to the finish line on a regular basis. It looks like I was both right and wrong. I am still of the opinion that when the season gets underway and a few races are run the engine suppliers and partner teams will have effectively put this issue to rest. But as far as testing is concerned, for at least one of the three engine manufacturers I stand corrected.

Despite the obvious results, it is hard to believe the troubles that continue to plague Red Bull Racing. Each time I checked the daily testing results, I thought it would finally be the day that Red Bull racked up the miles and ended the day with their car on top. How many of you thought the same thing? It never happened.

I would venture to say it is time for some serious high level meetings back at Milton Keynes. Despite Renault stating that they still have issues to iron out, my feeling is that Red Bull’s issues lay with the general design of the RB10 and specifically the rear end.

Ironically for Red Bull, the area of the car that Adrian Newey was so successful in developing these last four years might just end up being their and his downfall. To state the obvious, time is running out and without any substantial laps so far, Sebastian and company will be at a great disadvantage come the start of the season. Who ever said building a race car was easy?

I have been saying since the start of the first test back in Jerez that I expect Red Bull to fully recover and be right up at the sharp part of the grid at the season opener. Part of me still feels that way, however part of me is reading the writing on the wall, and now I am not so sure. The next test will surely confirm if they can recover enough to achieve this, but as of right now it is not clear.

One thing was abundantly clear over the four-day test; the guys in Stuttgart and Barkley have done their homework. Lewis Hamilton mentioned that Mercedes has not been without their share of problems, but I did not see any. Whatever form these issues took, from the indication of their lap count and the resulting times at the end of the day it would seem these troubles were more or less what a team would be encountering with any pre-season test irrespective of a change in engine formula.

Nico Rosberg put up a time on Saturday that was the fastest of the week all the while completing 89 laps and what was described as “low-fuel stuff” and “finding the balance.” That sounds to me like qualifying work and this early in testing that is impressive. With still another test to go it would appear that Ross Brawn has set the foundation for the heirs apparent to succeed where he did not.

McLaren, and by that I mean Ron Dennis, must also be extremely pleased or at least relieved with the progress and pace the MP4-29 exhibited. They completed plenty of laps, and took fastest lap on day two in the hands of Kevin Magnussen. After last year’s drought in terms of results and a personnel change at the top of the race division, Woking needed to come out of the corner swinging and that is exactly what they have done.

I would like everyone’s opinion on something. Are we seeing the beginnings of a great battle between McLaren powered by a Mercedes engine and Mercedes powered by a Mercedes engine? I personally would love to see this drama added to the F1 stage this year.

Nothing gets under the skin of a manufacturer more than when a customer team with presumably less resources and not holding all the cards outperforms their vendor/partner. With that said, there would be no shame in McLaren out-racing Mercedes, they are a world class organization not to mention they know how to win, a lot. But McLaren becoming a car manufacturer did not sit well with the guys in Stuttgart and then the announcement of Honda power next year presented complications to Mercedes and McLaren while still partnering for this year so I doubt very much that Niki, Toto or Paddy want to see the other silver/gray cars running the same Mercedes engine in front of them on the race track.

Now for the guys in red. Ferrari is a tough one to call. They have also put in a very respectable lap count as well, 287 if I added correctly. I cannot help but notice they have not put in any real competitive laps. However, competitive laps were not the focus of the test just concluded and Ferrari has gone out of their way to state that they were not going for any real timed laps. But still one has to wonder if Ferrari is truly concentrating on their program and holding their cards close to their chest or if the F-14T is lacking some pace. At any rate what we can cipher from these past four days is that the car is reliable and currently that is something worth a lot more than a fast lap. This being the particular team I am most concerned with, I am anxiously awaiting the first qualifying session and the subsequent race results on Sunday the weekend of March 16 before I either heap a ton of praise on Maranello for the job they have done or sock-it-to-them via my key board. We shall see. ;-)

On to Lotus. I’m sure Pastor Maldonado would have liked his first outing to have been a little more fruitful. Still, considering that his new teammate Roman Grosjean drove around the Bahrain circuit only 26 times in two days, Maldonado’s 74 tours must have felt like a blessing. Gerald Lopez’s comments to the press indicated that he thought missing the first test in Jerez looked like the right choice in hindsight considering all the troubles the Renault partner teams experienced, but no question that Lotus still has some things to work through.

Lotus did however use an official filming day to shake down the E-22 if only for a hundred kilometers, and I for one was expecting a little more from Lotus over these four days seeing as they went out of their way to let everyone know the shakedown was successful and went 100% according to plan. I wonder now if some of the headlines (not verifiable) had indeed some truth to them – not much running occurred and the running that did was not at speed. Whatever the case may be, Lotus need to make the most of the next test or those lovely liveried black cars will be stuck right behind a black ball. The one with an eight on it.

Sauber seems to me to always have the potential to do something more than just finish in the midfield or with the occasional podium now and then. All I can say about the Swiss team as of right now is that they had a fairly uneventful test session except for the last day in which Adrian Sutil was only able to drive a handful of laps. They appeared to log a good amount of mileage and aside from that nothing really caught my attention. Unlike the big four teams Sauber was happy to just play it low key and concentrate on their program.

Force India and Williams are teams to watch if testing is any indication. If for no other reason than that they both have a Mercedes V6 turbo at the back end that clearly is the power plant to have. I am excited at the prospect that either of these teams could prove to be a spoiler over the season and maybe even reach the podium. I could easily see either of these teams being the so called fifth best team behind Merc, McLaren, RB, and Ferrari.

Williams and Force India have both had mixed days of good and bad when talking about fast laps or time spent in the garage. A bit more time is needed to see the direction they are heading, but both have put in some respectable lap times alongside the top teams so this year could really mean something for each of these F1 teams. It’s odd to compare Williams, a former world champion many times over, to Force India, the new kid on the block but that’s how it is. It would be a great reversal of fortune to see Williams back at its true fighting weight and also some wins for Felipe Massa who many people feel got a bit of a raw deal in his last years at Ferrari alongside Fernando Alonso.

Just a few words about Caterham, Marussia and Toro Rosso. Aside from the connection Toro Rosso enjoys as Red Bull’s junior team, most of the time the smaller F1 teams such as these don’t receive a lot of copy. Such is the fate when you are a backmarker. With such a dramatic regulation change there are two sides to the coin. The opportunity for one of these backmarker teams to interpret the rules in an innovative way, get it right and gain an advantage is always a real possibility, although I can’t remember when this has happened quite frankly. With that said, Caterham was able to complete a solid amount of laps during this test and that may allow them to overhaul some of the midfielders in the first half of the season and collect a few constructor’s points.

On the other side of this coin is Marussia’s lap count for this test. An abysmal 29 so don’t look for this team to capitalize due to the change of regulations. However, we know the Ferrari engine and hybrid system is reliable, so if the team can get it to work with their chassis properly then similar to Caterham they could collect some welcome points when the opportunity presents itself.

Torro Rosso always seems as though they are on the verge of making their way further up the grid but somehow this never comes to pass. Red Bull’s joiner team qualified well last year and made it through to Q3 on more than one occasion. I was expecting to see a further improvement from them this year. But again the teething issues the Renault-powered teams are experiencing have quite comprehensively prevented any insight as to what these teams are capable of in regards to lap times.

In summation, Mercedes and Mercedes-powered teams are clearly holding an advantage, that much is quite obvious. What is not obvious is how much of an advantage and how long it will last. One more test remains, the final dress rehearsal for Melbourne which is the last winter test taking place next week also at Bahrain. During this test we will start to see the Melbourne configuration taking place: new body work, new front wings, new rear wings, maybe a new floor, revised engine mapping, software updates, etc. and some real qualifying work from the teams. F1 is changing all the time, but that being said nothing changes that fast or that quickly when it comes to the performance of a car, so my guess is the times from the next test will be a good indication of where all the teams stand at least in terms of outright pace.

Now that I have thought about it for a bit, maybe I should have titled this post eight down, four to go. That sounds better, that sounds not as final, that sounds as though there is still a relatively good chance (four of them) for the teams that have not quite had the start they want to catch up. We wait and see.

  • jeff

    Perhaps an excuse for being noncommittal, but I believe it’s too early for season predictions. Yes, Mercedes power kicked out mileage w/ comparatively hot lap times (330kph trap speed? Wow), Ferrari banged away, and Renault (Red Bull) suffered severe reliability. Those are all trends that point to a Mercedes/Mclaren season, w/ Ferrari a dark horse and Redbull in deep doodoo.

    However, the season’s long, and the big budget guys will surely be developing the car throughout it, sat least for 2015 development. Example: You posit Redbull’s reliability issues are due just as much the RB10’s tight packaging as the PU; I feel the same, and think that’s a Positive for that team. with FIA’s restrictions on layout, Newey’s team has a fairly strict layout on what goes where (no multiple battery packs next to a hot turbo, for example); therefore, the bodywork rather than the fundamentals of the car are, if we’re correct about packaging, what is causing the heat issues.

    I get that flow structures and heat extraction fundamentally change these cars’ performance, but opening bodywork w/ the attending performance penalty sounds less devastating than re-crashing a new tub, repackaging gubbins, and whatnot; it is Newey. These teams are creating new bodywork every day it seems, and for a big budget team like them, I’d expect the aero permanence and cooling of RB10 to be competitive shortly. We’ll see if Renault can work out it’s primary shaft and horsepower-deficit issues.

    For the smaller budget teams like Marussia, I agree the problems faced will have a dramatically larger impact on their year. The likely early-season unpredictability of the new technical packages will give the small guys their best chance for relative success; these teams’ packages must be reliable and relatively fast, as they don’t have the resources to develop over 19 races. Therefore, Marussia (no running) and Sauber/Caterham (slow deltas) might be concerned.

    Finally, although teams such as Ferrari/Mercedes/Williams have indeed hammered out the laps, they’ve actually experienced more problems than Redbull. Granted, their reliability issues seem to be less significant than Redbull’s, but in a race, it doesn’t take catastrophe to end a race; if the car stops on track and is unable to run w/o reset or mechanics’ input, game over. We’ll see.

    I’m not a Redbull fan, despite how it sounds; in truth I’d love to see Nico and Lewis hammer it out for the title, and early proof is that’s the case. However, as a fan I love the unpredictability of these season, and believe many surprises are yet in store for us. Bring it on 2014.

    • jeff

      I forgot Ferrari; contradicting what I said earlier about being too early for predictions (rolls eyes at self), it might be oh crap time for them. Reports on track are that the Ferrari looks comparatively poor. Those present and whom I feel have a strong grasp of car performance are saying the Ferrari has an unstable backend and poor traction out of low-speed corners.

      Despite having plenty of time/resources to improve their car like the other frontrunners, those characteristics have plagued the Scuderia for the last 3 seasons; with these grunt new engines, that problem is magnified. To my completely untrained eye, the clips of Kimi losing the rear under braking, Fernando experiencing tons of wheelspin throughout Jerez T6, etc. all looks a concern.

      They have their new wind tunnel and James Allen, so we’ll see, but not good news for them.

  • Tom

    Personally, I’d love to see a battle between Mercedes and Ferrari to unfold. That would be epic. But my guess is that it will be the Mercedes engined cars that will dominate early on, with Red Bull, Ferrari and Lotus possibly joining the party later on.

    I haver recently read an article/interview where a German reporter walked around the track with Gerhard Berger who gave his input on how the cars look to him. There were lots of interesting insights, but there was one part that may be very relevant at the season start which I’ll try to translate here:

    “We arrive at turn 10. Rosberg isn’t on soft tires anymore but on the medium compound. Promptly, he misses the breaking point twice in a row when approaching the turn. He even spins [the car] once. While breaking into the second-gear left-turn his rear wheels stand still. ‘There’s something wrong with the setup of the break balance or the engine mapping. Maybe it’s due to the different grip level of the medium tire. But before, on the soft rubber, he was driving really well.'”

    The point being that this season, the teams really have to once again figure out their setup anew as can be seen with Rosberg’s problems. Not only are there yet again new tire compounds that are presumably very different, but they also have completely new drivetrains that need a completely new software mapping on top of having the break-by-wire system that renders everything they knew about breaks useless.
    These kinds of things aren’t insurmountable obstacles, on the contrary, but they simply need time to figure out, that’s why the head start of the Mercedes engined teams might prove to be even more significant than it would have been in previous years.

    Beyond that, it’s hard to make any predictions of course. Lotus looks good, but it’s obviously still lacking a functioning engine, Red Bull looks abysmal but they shouldn’t be underestimated. Mercedes looks to be in front right now ahead of McLaren while Williams seem to have a good shot at once again joining the upper tier of F1…but I’d guess that most teams play their cards close to their chest at this point. I certainly expect Ferrari to be ready by Melbourne, maybe not quite on the Mercedes level but close. Lotus and Red Bull might need more time, depending on Renault.

    Although there were rumors, supposedly coming from a source within Lotus, that the Red Bull has some fundamental problem regarding its layout and that they basically need a complete redesign of the interior, which would be a massive blow. According to that source, Red Bull will bring a B-spec car by the time the European season kicks off in Barcelona. If that were true, this may very well be the end of Red Bull’s title ambition…unless of course we’ll be blessed with three events that hand out double points…Horner must already be heavily lobbying for that.

    Among the midfield teams, I’d really like to see a tight battle between Sauber and Force India…for some reason I have a soft spot for both of those teams.

    • jeff

      Hi Tom,

      Do you happen to have a link to that Lotus-RB10 packaging article?

      I don’t know if it’s kosher to post links to other sites; why I don’t mention them by name. If it IS, I’d love to read it. Since the battery and turbo are reg’d and MGU-H is attached to the turbo, I guess it might be the MGU-K placement?

      You got me thinking about parts; what if it’s the “Energy Store” i.e. batteries (stupid F1 acronyms) overheating? Red Bull supposedly uses “Super” capacitors in addition/replacement of some battery cells in the pack. Since MGU-K must and MGU-H sometimes interacts w/ the battery, it could be a problem w/ excess heat or energy conversion. Even though the placement wouldn’t change, a redesign of the battery (only part not homologated in the “PU”) would I assume be costly and difficult.

      I’d read about Berger’s observations also. One of the technical wonks (a Scarbs-type) thinks it’s a problem coordinating how much MGU-K and DBW braking effect the cars should have; since each corner’s different, tire wear, driver preference, etc., sounds like the easy auto brake-biasing’s proving difficult to program for.

      Me too Re: Midfield. Love Sauber’s history, management, attitude. Not so much their drivers this year…

      • Tom

        Re: The Red Bull/Lotus rumors

        I read it on a German site which you can find here: http://goo.gl/tqKSTt

        But I’ll try to translate the relevant parts again:

        “When isolating the RB10 from its drivetrain, then Sebastian Vettel and Dabiel Ricciardo have a good feeling. The car is well balanced and apparently has sufficient down-force. With Adrian Newey, anything else would be astonishing. New rules won’t throw F1’s tech guru off track. “The temperature issues of Jerez have also been resolved,” team advisor Helmut Marko explained.

        And yet, the Renault V6-Turbo and its energy recovery system cause more trouble at Red Bull than at Lotus, Toro Rosso and Caterham. Is it coincidence? At Lotus, word has it that Red Bull made errors integrating the components. It’s not just about how individual modules are cooled, but also where exactly they are placed.

        And already rumors are spreading that Red Bull wants to build a B-spec version with a completely new rear end and updated installation before the Spanish GP. In any case, Adrian Newey returned home prematurely, as he did in Jerez. An indicator that there is apparently still some homework to do in Milton Keynes.”

        It’s still somewhat vague, so hard to tell where exactly the problems are. But “Auto Motor und Sport” is usually among the more reliable sources.

        • jeff

          Thanks so much, hadn’t seen it quoted. Yes, AMUS is great for those who can read it.

          I hope it comes out specifically what’s too tight in the Red Bull, like the Mp4-18.

          • Tom

            Recently, this has made the rounds on the internet. Apparently it’s a posting from a legit insider and from the content, it’s pretty clear that it must be someone from Lotus. Of course I cannot vouch for its authenticity myself, but it certainly sounds credible:

            “For those interested. Here are some of the changes Renault have made since Jerez.

            Change of battery cell provider. The individual cells that make up the Energy Store have individual over-charge and over-discharge protection. These were proving unreliable due to thermal/vibration issues. Whilst the energy store is sealed in our fitment, I am informed the cells are now supplied by Panasonic.

            Change to MGU-K to Crank drive gearing. The original torque multiplication factor was calculated to give a wider spread of torque on acceleration. Track testing found that this was causing traction dificulties and overloading the gearset and causing failure of the crank casing.

            Change to turbocharger wastegate function. Renault had originally intended for the H to regulate Turbine speed in 95%+ of normal running. They facilitated this by allowing the H to pull charge (when the energy store was at capacity) to an air cooled heat sink. This strategy proved ineffective in certain environments and a more coventional wastegate is now being used to supplement the H.

            Due to both the change in K gear ratio, boost control strategy and the energy store, most of the software relating to the charge and discharge cycling has been modified daily and continues to be refined. There are still issues relating to turbine speed control via H but these are mostly to do with fine tuning of the control software and the syncronisation between H control and wastegate control.

            There has been swift progress and software related driveability now appears to be the main issue.”

            “Re the H to K transfer.
            There are times when you can’t (or wouldn’t want to) transfer power from the H to the K but still need to limit turbo speed.

            Think along the lines of a short burst of accel then slight decel then accel (such as feathering throttle for traction or in a switch back). The last thing the driver would want is for the K to feed power into driveline.

            During those transitional situations Renault wanted to control the speed of the turbo by using the H to maintain shaft speed at or close to max rpm. It turned out (partly because of the driveability issues) that H was dumping to the heatsink far more than had been predicted or modeled. This was causing severe heat related issues in some cars at Jerez and the Renault ‘patch’ was to disable the H entirely and rely on the mechanical wastegate for the remainder of the test.

            Obviously this resulted in dramatically increased lag and reduced performance but allowed some mileage to be put on the ICE.

            In the interests of transparency it should be disclsclosed that we have had no first hand experience with the original spec PU used in Jerez.

            Our running experience started with a version that had basic H functioning and limited K output.”

          • jeff

            Great post Tom, Thanks.

            So:
            1. Bad Batteries in the “Energy Store.”
            2. A “lower final drive ratio” to the MGU-K (wrong terminology, but comparative to a numerically higher ratio in the rear end.
            3. More boost regulation via the wastegate vs MGU-H bypass

            #1 jibes w/ rumors about battery issues, #3 w/ software, and #2 driveline fragility/low performance.

            #2 is most interesting to me; it’d been rumored Renault had input shaft problems, that essentially a part couldn’t handle the torque of the new motors. This sounds true, as #2 would be spreading the power more gradually throughout the driveline, spreading out the torque curve. As it’s also been rumored that not only are the Renault teams down on trap speed, but also spending less time at V-max, it sounds like Renault’s motor-hybrid integration is mechanically weak, and they’re sacrificing performance relative to competitors to keep the cars running.

            Fascinating stuff; Renault’s editorial on compressor speed and acceleration sounds like PR damage control; they’re contending the changes made will improve drivability, when reduced MGU-H/increased Wastegate boost control should increase turbo lag, and that throttle control/torque control should be manipulated via software rather than hardware.

            Either way, Yikes!

          • Jeff

            Mean’t #3 most interesting to me; I wish the site had an edit function for those too dumb to proofread… :)

  • Rapierman

    I think Merc engines have enough of an advantage that they will find themselves at or near the front with the Ferrrari engines at a close enough second to make it interesting. I’ve yet to see what Honda might do, and I have serious concerns about the Renault engines. I’m not sure that their Turbo V6’s can withstand the stresses of Formula 1.

  • ChimpSafari

    It’s worth noting that Newey has a history of designing rear ends like this, including in the last 4 years. He was known to be storing the kers batteries in irregular places to improve weight balance and the primary reason kers often failed on the redbull was due to lack of cooling. When it did work it was often at 40%. Newey preferred the tight aero over extra kers power. This year he’s designed a car no different to previous years. One that pushes the limit, especially in terms of cooling. Rumour has it that Renault were pretty miffed about how they didn’t follow the reference design this year.

    • jeff

      This year, regulations specify the batteries in a single pack under the driver. You’re right though, it could be packaging, be it electrical wiring, ducting, insufficient radiator area, and so on.