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How Should We Interpret the Valencia Test Results?

Fernando Alonso in the F10 - quickest at Valencia

What should we read into the times of the last week’s Valencia test?  Some of the test times were predicable, others surprising.  As for drawing conclusions, however, as many of the drivers and team principals were quick to point out, there are many variables to consider, so some of the times might not be truly indicative of the cars’ relative pace.

For example, fuel loads, which can only be deduced by the length of individual runs, could have varied from 10kg to 160kg, which would produce as much as a four second variance in lap times.  Also, some of the cars weren’t fitted with all of their 2010 components.  Presumably, these will be introduced in the coming test sessions.

As for results, Ferrari was the quickest on all three days of the test.  They also recorded their quickest laps on relatively short runs, and even then towards the end of the runs when the car would have been lightest.  So while it’s unlikely that they would have been going for low-fuel glory laps, it’s entirely possible that they were running less fuel than either McLaren or Mercedes.

That said, there has also been talk that Ferrari are already planning to introduce a B-spec car, that could make its debut as early as this week at the test in Jerez. Normally, B-spec cars are introduced at some point during the season when the A-spec car has proven to be uncompetitive.

Last year, for example, when the FIA ruled that double diffusers were legal, several teams scrambled to retool their cars to accommodate a hastily reworked diffuser design.  In the case of Red Bull, this required serious remodification of the car’s rear end around the gear box, to the extent that the car certainly could have been designated a B-spec chassis.

But with Ferrari, this isn’t the case.  Apparently, the B-spec car has been in the works since last December, long before they had any actual track time with the car.  The reason: they acquired a new chief aerodynamicist from the defunct Toyota team, who brought with him a design for a radical new diffuser, which should give the Ferrari a downforce edge.  Obviously, if the Ferrari is as quick as it seems, and the new diffuser delivers on its promise, Ferrari’s rivals have some cause for concern.

The surprise of the Valencia session was Sauber, who came in second quickest on each of the three days.  Here, it’s entirely possible that the team was running on a low fuel program.  Unlike the larger teams, Peter Sauber cobbled together his acquisition of his old team rather hastily, and is still in the hunt for long term funding, which is evident from the car’s complete lack of sponsorship branding. A traditional method of attracting commercial partners at this phase in the season is to retort to a few well-publicized glory laps, which the team principal can later say “met expectations.”  Peter Sauber has, in fact, made comments to that effect this week.

The surprise sensation of last year’s early tests, Mercedes (nee Brawn), was this year in the middle of the pack.  Ross Brawn, whose public remarks always lean towards the conservative end of the spectrum, has said that the car is “off the pace,” and also indicated that there were some mechanical issues that needed to be sorted out.

As quoted on ESPNF1, Brawn said, “We are cracking exhausts and are having to change those every 150-200km. It’s a problem we can fix but here it’s difficult. We’ve got a handling imbalance because we are all learning about these tyres here and we’ve seen straight away some things we want done on the tyres which we’ll have done by Jerez.”

Mercedes had their cars on relatively long runs, which would indicate a heavy fuel load most of the time, so the car might be quicker than it appears.  It’s also true that the car has yet to be fitted with its 2010 front wing and diffuser.  These will make their debut at Jerez, which could make a significant improvement on lap times.

Another wild card in the pack is McLaren.  Like Mercedes, their times were mostly in the middle of the pack.  McLaren, however, are traditionally hard to read at this point in the season.  They’re never in a hurry to show their best times, and over the years have developed a reputation for sandbagging during early testing.

That said, Lewis Hamilton seemed enormously pleased with the outcome of the test.  Certainly, the disastrous early performance of last year’s car must be still fresh in his mind.  Whether or not this car is a race-winner straight out of the box is unknown.  What is known is that, unlike like last year’s car, this one has the potential to run at the front without serious retooling.

McLaren developed some serious upgrades last year at the mid-season point to address their grip and balance issues, such that the car they ran  from Silverstone onward might have been called a B-spec version of the 2009 car.  Clearly, they’re of the opinion that they won’t have to run to such extremes in 2010.

As for the other teams present at Valencia, Williams, Renault and Toro Rosso, they filled the bottom half of the time sheets for the most part.  Last year, Williams was one of three teams that began the season with double diffusers, so they appeared to have an early edge.  This year, however, they appear to be consistently behind the leaders, and while technical director has spoken optimistically of a completely new design for the car, they might end up chasing “best of the rest” honors behind the Big Four (Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren).

As for the others, Renault enjoyed a few quick runs, but for the most the part neither they nor Toro Rosso were any quicker than anyone expected.  It will be interesting to watch how they fare as the season progresses.  Renault is quickly morphing into a privateer team, with perhaps 80% equity in the team belonging to the Luxembourg based venture capital firm, Genii.  This might raise funding issues later on.  And this is the first season that Toro Rosso will be responsible for developing its own chassis, rather than sharing most of its components with the Red Bull mother ship.  How will this affect their capacity to make upgrades during the season?

It’s also interesting to note how some of the new driver pairings compared.  Schumacher, after a three year lay off, was quicker than his young Meredes team mate, Nico Rosberg.  While some were impressed with Schumacher’s performance after such a protracted lay off, Brawn said that Schuamcher was performing more or less as expected, and that, in fact, he expected him to improve with more track time.

One of the intra-team contests that will be watched with anticipation is at Ferrari.  Felipe Massa outperformed former team mate Kimi Raikkonen, on balance, during their three year partnership.  While many say that Massa is under-rated, it’s also true that he’s matured as a driver over time, and clearly benefitted from partnering Schumacher at Ferrari.  Many onlookers have eagerly anticipated his pairing with new team mate Alonso.

What can be said about Alonso is that he’s adapted to the Ferrari very quickly.  While he and Massa didn’t test on the same days at Valencia, Alonso set the quickest times of the entire three-day session.  Ferrari is expecting him to fill the kind of development role that was one of Schumacher’s strengths at that team, and that clearly they’ve been lacking, both with Raikkonen and Massa.  Early results look promising.

The other match up that the paddock has been awaiting with interest is the Hamilton-Button pairing.  In this case, Button seemed to have difficulty wringing speed from the new McLaren, at least compared to his team mate.  Granted it’s a new team for Button, and apparently there were issues with the seat fitting (he’s seven inches taller than Hamilton), but even so, compared to Alonso, who is also new to his respective team, Button seems to be facing a steeper learning curve.

That said, all the results are highly preliminary.  Testing will resume this Wednesday, in a four-day session at Jerez.  This should give us a better indication of the relative pace of the teams – although the forecast is for rain, which would render the results meaningless in relation to performance under dry conditions.

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