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Rosberg Quickest, Senna Slowest in Bahrain’s Second Free Practice

Bruno Senna in the HRT-Cosworth - 11.5 seconds behind the leader

The 2010 Formula 1 season began in earnest today, as the first free practice sessions were run in preparation for Sunday’s Grand Prix of Bahrain.  While practice is only practice, as one is constantly reminded, some of the times set were interesting none the less.  It should be remembered that while the teams had four sanctioned sessions of pre-season testing in Spain during February, nearly half of those sessions were run in the wet, which means that all of the teams are still short on data collected in dry conditions.  They’re playing catch-up now in the dry and dusty conditions of Bahrain.

While it should be remembered that practice is only practice, some of the times set today were interesting none the less.  Shown on the table below are the times from the second practice session, which was run in the afternoon, after the track had rubbered in a bit.

Nico Rosberg, who won twice in GP2 contests here, showed that he knows his way around the track, even though an extra half mile has been added to the track layout, by way of new kinks and bends, in order to add potential overtaking zones.  Rosberg outpaced runner-up Lewis Hamilton by nearly a half second.

Michael Schumacher completed the practice podium, trailing Hamilton by less than 5/100ths of a second.  The German ace seemed to struggle for time today, and admitted that he was a bit “rusty” when it came to setting single-lap times in qualifying trim.  He said he felt comfortable in longer runs, however, and one of the German’s great strengths has always been lap-after-lap consistency during race conditions.

Rust aside, it’s also true that this year’s F1 cars, with (theoretically) reduced downforce, narrowed front tires (by 25mm) and much heavier fuel loads (160kg when full) are more prone to understeer than the cars of the recent past. Schumacher, who likes his cars to handle like karts, prefers a car that runs from neutral to oversteer.

Many drivers find this type of setup too “nervous,” but Schumacher’s driving style involves making frequent, minute corrections, in order to stay close to the very limit of tire adhesion, so he prefers the car to be sensitive to small amounts of input.  This is the antithesis of the style of someone like Jenson Button, whose style is ultra-smooth.  If you watch Button’s in-car shots, you’ll notice hardly any wheel input at all.

No doubt, Schumacher, and maestro Ross Brawn, will be working steadily over the coming practice sessions, at this venue and beyond, to get the car dialed in to his liking.

Jenson Button set fourth quickest time, lapping 0.667 behind the leader, which made the first four slots a McLaren/Mercedes double pair.  All four cars are powered by Mercedes engines, of course, which is perhaps no coincidence.  The Mercedes powerplant was widely rated as the class of the field last year.

Sebastian Vettel did reasonably well in fifth slot, at just about a second off the pace.  Both Red Bull drivers were complaining about lack of testing time.  Red Bull elected to miss the first pre-season test sessions, so that technical head Adrian Newey could spend more time in the wind tunnel, refining their aerodynamic package.

This srategy might work well on the aero side, but it’s not much of a help for testing the internal components of the car, which need real track time for proper testing.  Mark Webber was sidelined after only 12 laps in the second session today, which is perhaps a manifestation of the short testing time.

Newbie Nico Hulkenberg set a respectable time in the Williams, in sixth slot.  He was a about a second quicker than his well-seasoned team mate, Rubens Barrichello.  Hulkenberg shares a manager, Willi Weber, with Michael Schumacher, and Weber has compared the young German to his older and much-laureled compatriot.  Time will tell.

Another surprise time cam from Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov, who was more than a second quicker than his highly-regarded Renault team mate, Robert Kubica.  Petrov is a pay-to-play driver.  His family borrowed 15 million euros to pour into the Renault budget to secure his seat on the team.  One assumes they consider it an investment (if a costly one) in his future.  If he performs well, he could earn back that salary in a few years – although perhaps not at Renault.

The French branded team is no longer truly a manufacturer team.  The Luxembourg venture capital group Genii owns an 80% stake in the team, and apparently it was only due to the urging of Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone that they retained the Renault brand. Clearly, Bernie wants to protect the Formula 1 brand as much as he can.  The recent exodus of major manufacturers his dimmed the F1 luster a bit in the eyes of some observers.

The Ferraris, and the teams powered by Ferrari engines, were clustered mid-field for the most part today.  Felipe Massa was the quickest, in seventh, and Fernando Alonso was ninth.  Massa will be very keen not to be shown up by his twice-titled new team mate.  Likewise, Alonso will be anxious to prove that he can be Ferrari’s new number one.  It should be an interesting season-long competition.

A total of 11.559 seconds covered the entire field in today’s second session.  The slowest car belonged to Bruno Senna, nephew of Brazilian great Aytron Senna.  Bruno’s 17 laps in the rebranded HRT-Cosworth (fomerly Campos) were essentially installation runs, as the car hadn’t even been tested before today.  The chassis design was outsourced to Dallara, and they have extensive design experience in a variety of formulas, so one expects that they’ll be able to close at least half of that 11 second gap.

But the other new teams, Lotus and Virgin, were off the pace by five seconds, and more than six and a half seconds, respectively. Virgin outsourced their chassis design to Nick Wirth’s design group, and Wirth has been a great proponent of echewing wind tunnels in favor of all-virtual design methods, primarily computational fluid dynamics (CFD), but if their early pace is any indication, perhaps they should have tried to work some wind tunnel time into the budget.  If things don’t improve, Sir Richard Branson might regret this venture.

In general, there has been some concern over the laggard pace of the new teams’ cars.  If they’re, on average, six seconds off the pace, they’re essentially running on par with GP2 cars.  More than just diminishing the show of F1, it could create a real safety hazard in race conditions.  Unless they can pick up the pace, what we’ll see, in effect, is a second class of entries, somewhat analagous to different prototyype and GT classes in the LeMans series.  While the prototype drivers are well-accustomed to dodging much slower GT cars in traffic, this will be a new experience for most of the F1 crowd.

New FIA boss Jean Todt now publicly supports a return to the 107% rule which was employed some years ago.  According to that rule, any car which failed to set a qualifying lap within 107% of the pole sitter’s time would not be allowed to compete on race day.  With new entries on the horizon for the 2011 season, it seems very likely that this rule will be resurrected in order to set a benchmark for fledgling teams.  In fact, it seems likely that we’ll see a return to the 107% standard before the European leg of the season commences this year.

All in all, while today’s sessions were interesting, we should assume that many of the teams are still holding time in hand.  Fuel load differences can cause variations in lap times by as much as four seconds, and most of the teams today were concentrating on long runs, so it’s still difficult to assess what Sunday’s grid will look like.  During tomorrow’s free practice in the morning, we can expect the teams to reveal more of what they have in terms of absolute speed. And of course, in the afternoon, during qualifying, the cat will finally be out of the bag.

Image by f1photos.org, licensed through Creative Commons.

Pos. Driver Team Time Laps
1 Rosberg Mercedes 1:55.409 23
2 Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:55.854 + 0.445 22
3 Schumacher Mercedes 1:55.903 + 0.494 23
4 Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:56.076 + 0.667 28
5 Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:56.459 + 1.050 18
6 Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:56.501 + 1.092 26
7 Massa Ferrari 1:56.555 + 1.146 30
8 Petrov Renault 1:56.750 + 1.341 26
9 Alonso Ferrari 1:57.140 + 1.731 25
10 de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:57.255 + 1.846 24
11 Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:57.352 + 1.943 27
12 Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:57.361 + 1.952 29
13 Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:57.452 + 2.043 21
14 Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:57.833 + 2.424 29
15 Kubica Renault 1:58.155 + 2.746 29
16 Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:59.799 + 4.390 31
17 Webber Red Bull-Renault 2:00.444 + 5.035 12
18 Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 2:00.873 + 5.464 23
19 Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 2:00.990 + 5.581 14
20 Glock Virgin-Cosworth 2:02.037 + 6.628 3
21 di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 2:02.188 + 6.779 21
22 Senna HRT-Cosworth 2:06.968 + 11.559 17
23 Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 0:00.00 1
24 Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 0:00.00 0
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