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Friday and Saturday at Jerez: Germans Rule

Michael Schumacher in the Mercedes W02

German drivers topped the time sheets on the second and third days of testing this week at Jerez.  On Friday, Michael Schumacher showed there’s life in an old dog yet.  In the morning, on super-soft tires, he set a quick time that no one else was able to match for the remainder of the day.  Prior to Friday, both at the previous test at Valencia, and then on Thursday in Jerez, the Merc W02 had been a definite laggard, prompting concerns on the part of Mercedes fans.

But the situation was reversed on Friday, with Schumi looking very competitive.  One should never read too much into test times, but it’s nevertheless encouraging for Merc fans to see the W02 at the thin end of the wedge for a change.  Ditto, for Michael Schumacher.

While Lewis Hamilton said recently that he didn’t believe Schumacher’s form would be improved this year, vis a vis his performance in 2010, I suspect that Schumi is on an upward curve.  He struggled with the W01 last year, but in the closing races of the year he seemed to find his old groove again.  Schumacher himself tends to speak of his own performance in terms of contiguous evolution, rather than sudden changes.  It seemed to take him most of last year to reacquaint himself with the sport.  But that’s behind him now.  I think he’ll build upon that experience this year.

As for Lewis Hamilton, his skepticism isn’t surprising.  Hammy seems to reserve his most generous appraisals for…well, Lewis Hamilton.

As for the other usual contenders, the Ferrari was second quickest on Friday, in the hands of Felipe Massa.  Thus far, the Ferrari looks reliable.  Notably, only three cars went over the 100 lap mark on Friday (Marcedes, Ferrari and Mark Webber’s Red Bull), all of them testing the durability of their cars on long runs.  Jenson Button in the McLaren only 69 laps, but managed to set third quickest time.

Friday Times

1. Michael Schumacher, Mercedes GP, 1 minute, 20.352 seconds, 112 laps
2. Felipe Massa, Ferrari, 1:20.413, +0.061, 116
3. Jenson Button, McLaren-Mercedes, 1:21.009, +0.657, 69
4. Jaime Alguersuari, Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari, 1:21.214, +0.862, 72
5. Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing-Renault, 1:21.613, +1.261, 113
6. Adrian Sutil, Force India-Mercedes, 1:21.780, +1.429, 73
7. Sergio Pérez, Sauber-Ferrari, 1:21.857, +1.505, 56
8. Timo Glock, Virgin-Cosworth, 1:22.208, +1.856, 57
9. Vitaly Petrov, Renault, 1:22.493, +2.141, 65
10. Pastor Maldonado, Williams-Cosworth, 1:22.591, +2.239, 37
11. Jarno Trulli, Lotus-Renault, 1:23.216, +2.864, 40

Nick Heidfeld in the Renault R31

On Saturday, the talk of the day was Nick Heidfeld, who was being evaluated by Renault as a stand-in for the injured Robert Kubica.  Jerez was being billed as a shoot-out between Heidfeld and Renault’s official reserve driver, Bruno Senna, but Heidfeld certainly seems to be on the fast track to landing the spot at this point.

Even if Senna managed to equal the German’s pace (Senna takes over tomorrow), Heidfeld is vastly more experienced, and it would seem foolhardy, to say the least, for Renault to leave this year’s driving duties to two relative newibes, Senna and Vitaly Petrov, both of whom are only a few months out of their rookie seasons.

In the event, Heidfeld impressed. He edged out Fernando Alonso for top spot on the time sheets today, which no doubt left the Spanish fans on hand much chagrined, but probably boosted the confidence of the boys in the Renault garage.  Perhaps they’ll be able to salvage the season during Kubica’s absence after all.

Michael Schumacher was third, and Lewis Hamilton was fourth today.  Schumi fans will hope that this is the beginning of a trend — not the third place, per se, but Schumi’s running ahead of Hamilton.

If there was a surprise today, it was seeing Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel down in sixth.  His team mate, Mark Webber, managed only a fifth position yesterday.  Granted, this is testing, but last year the Red Bulls were the obvious class of the field, so one expects to see them on the pace straight out of the box.  However, one should also remember that most of the teams are adjusting to running both KERS and adjustable rear wings this year,  and their test times are apt to reflect this, as the drivers get used to the new systems, including the new buttons on their already crowded steering wheels.  Vettel, Alonso and Barrichello, to name a few, have already voiced complaints about this.  If the controls of F1 cars become any more complicated, the cars will need co-pilots.

It was also surprising to see the Williams drivers fair so poorly in terms of outright pace.  Rookie Pastor Maldonado was only 10th yesterday, and his team mate Rubens Barrichello was ninth today.  Williams have announced that they plan to sell off nearly one-third of the equity in the company by offering shares on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange next month.  Frank Williams has said the move will ensure the long term health of the company.

Many are speculating that the IPO is, instead, a way of covering bills in the short term.  But the team is quick to deny this.  Most of the shares being sold currently belong to the team’s co-founder, Patrick Head.  Frank Williams will sell off a bit of his stake, but will retain 50.3 percent, keeping him in control of the company.

Head is essentially beginning the process of transitioning out of an ownership function of the team.  This is what Williams means when he refers to the company’s long term future. At some point, if the public markets have an appetite for the shares, the team will continue to exist after Williams and Head have turned to dust.

Meanwhile, they will have to make the car quicker.  For privately held teams, performance translates into sponsorship dollars: sponsors are always willing to throw money at successful team.  Now, for Williams, performance will also be reflected in share price, as well.

Saturday Times

1. Nick Heidfeld, Lotus Renault GP, 1 minute, 20.361 seconds, 86 laps
2. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, 1:20.493, 131
3. Michael Schumacher, Mercedes GP, 1:21.054, 114
4. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes, 1:21.099, 36
5. Kamui Kobayashi, Sauber-Ferrari, 1:21.242, 84
6. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing-Renault, 1:21.574, 98
7. Sebastien Buemi, Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari, 1:21.681, 92
8. Heikki Kovalainen, Team Lotus-Renault, 1:21.711, 61
9. Rubens Barrichello, Williams-Cosworth, 1:22.227, 99
10. Paul di Resta, Force India-Mercedes, 1:22.945, 64
11. Jerome D’Ambrosio, Marussia Virgin-Cosworth, 1:25.471, 72

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