Saturday, 5 February 2011

Testing times: what we learned in Valencia

The 2011 F1 season kicked off in earnest this week with the first test session of the year taking place at the Ricardo Tormo circuit near Valencia. All teams were represented (eventually, in Lotus's case), and eight out of the twelve teams piloted their 2011 cars.
 
It is a truth held to be self-evident that little can be read into testing times, but that we'll nevertheless do our best to decipher clues from them on who's hot and who's not approaching the new season.



Above film of Valencia Testing 2011 courtesy of Sutton Images

So, what can be read into the three days' testing at Valencia? First, the usual disclaimers. There are many variables which make reading much into the fastest times from testing hazardous in terms of predicting who'll be on top in qualifying in Bahrian in March. Fuel loads, and therefore weight penalties, vary, possibly to the tune of several seconds per lap, as do programmes in terms of number of laps run in a stint, whether or not KERS is being used etc. Track conditions also vary throughout each day and between days. Then there's the fact that the intense rate of development will ensure that cars now will be virtually unrecognisable come the first race meeting.

Additionally, the Valencia circuit isn't considered the best for testing. It does provide reasonably warm track temperatures, but is rather tight and twisty, and Pedro de la Rosa commented on the most recent of the excellent The Flying Lap vodcasts (see below) that it used mainly to be used specifically for preparation for Monaco. The upcoming tests at Jerez and Barcelona may therefore be more representative.


The Flying Lap with Peter Windsor - Episode 5 - F1 Testing from Smibs TV on Vimeo.

Still, there was clear mood music emerging from the Valencia test. The Red Bull and Ferrari appear to still be up there, with Vettel and Alonso respectively topping the times on the first two days, as well as both teams setting good long-run pace.

There is also some evidence that Renault have made a step forward. Their car certainly has got some intriguing looks from competitor teams, making good on technical director James Allison's promise that the new design would be 'really on the brave end of brave'. They've gone out on a limb with forward facing exhausts, which exit at the front of the sidepods. It's a development of the exhaust-blown diffusers, seen first on the Red Bull last year, with the positioning of exhaust exits seeking to direct that air flow underneath the car from there, and thus to increase the airflow under the car and therefore the downforce (I'll lets Scarbs F1 explain the concept with a lot more authority than me!). The car ran impressively free of obvious heating problems in Valencia, and Robert Kubica topped the times on the final day with the fastest time of the week. As former Jordan, Stewart and Jaguar designer Gary Anderson said: 'Renault has done exactly what it wanted - done the fastest lap with its new concept, confused the living daylights out of the rest, and sent them off for a week of head scratching.'

Indeed, it seems that seeking to maximise the downforce from the rear of the car and the now-single diffuser is the key design theme of this winter, particularly minimising the car's rear area so to minimise the aerodynamic blockage though the diffuser and lower plane of the rear wing.  As well as Renault's exhausts, the Toro Rosso's severely undercut side pods and double-floor (reminiscent of the double-floor of the Ferrari F92 - though perhaps no one would welcome such a comparison!) and the tiny gearbox of the Williams are among the more obvious moves in this direction.

Then there's McLaren, who did not fully show their hand in Valencia, running with the 2010 car, and instead launching their 2011 contender in Berlin on Friday last week. Like the Renault, it has turned a large number of heads, in this case mainly because of the distinctive L-shaped sidepods (though the team are calling them 'U-shaped' taking the two together!) and compact rear, again designed to promote airflow to the rear end. Again, I'll let Scarbs F1 take up the story. To a certain extent the pressure is on McLaren, it's been a number of years since they had clearly the best car on the grid aerodynamically, and you could argue that last year's car was flattered a little by its F-duct. This year's machine has the look of a car that could go either way - it'll be fascinating to see how it goes at Jerez. The team certainly sound bullish and are confident they've modelled the new tyres very effectively.

Mercedes, having debuted their new car at Valencia, may be struggling however. Their best time of the three days was 1.4 seconds slower than Kubica's at the top of the timesheets, and this gap equates to 60kg of fuel. It seems unlikely that any team would consistently be running its car with that much of a difference, as Gary Anderson pointed out. Indeed, Ross Brawn has admitted that Mercedes are 'not right at the sharp end', and James Allen has noted that the car looks more tail-happy than the Ferrari and Red Bull (whisper it, are they trying to adapt the car's handling to Schumi's preferred driving style?). Whatever the case, they appear to have some catching up to do.

A major taking point from Valencia was the performance of the Pirelli tyres, which are now the sole supplier to F1 following the exit of Bridgestone. The clear consensus is that their performance drops off much more quickly than the Bridgestones did, especially with the rears and especially with the supersofts. Even Adrian Newey commented that adapting to the Pirellis will be 'difficult'. To a certain extent this is deliberate on Pirelli's part, given that their brief was to make their tyres less durable than the Bridgestones and thus create more multi-stop and variable races. And Pirelli do not show any signs of changing approach, their motorsport director Paul Hembery insisting that 'there will be no developments (to tyres) made following this test. The teams now have to work out how to get the best out of the tyres'. Pedro de la Rosa, Pirelli's tyre tester, reckons that two stops for each car per race is 'the minimum we will be seeing' and that 'between two and three stops will be the norm'. 

This should create a bit more fun in the races, particularly as those who qualify in the top ten may have to make an early stop and end up in traffic, as seen in Canada last year. It may also serve drivers who are considerate with their tyres well, such as Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg. The Ferrari also tended to be kinder on it tyres than most of its rivals were last season, and the evidence of Valencia was that this is continuing. Fernando Alonso sounded positive that he's found a good solution via set up and adapting his driving style.

Then there's KERS, which wasn't really spoken of much during the three days' testing at Valencia, but could nevertheless be crucial this year. It looks like all of the front runners will be running KERS this year, so not to lose vital places off the starting grid if nothing else, and Ferrari, McLaren and Renault have a year's experience of packaging KERS into their design from 2009. As for the adjustable rear wing, designed to promote overtaking, it is still a bit of an unknown. Sauber nevertheless produced a launch film showing it operating on their new C30 (towards the end of the film below). Initial reports are that the adjustable rear wing didn't give as much of a straight line speed boost as expected, less than 10km/h in Valencia according to James Allen. It stills seems a lot of the details on this are to be finalised.



Meanwhile, some drivers are complaining that the KERS and rear wing operation from their steering wheels has given them too much to do, Rubens Barrichello going so far as to say he has to take his eyes from the road when operating them. I suspect that this is the usual adjustment process we get from F1 drivers after such changes, and that the whole thing will settle down in time. Surely it cannot be worse than the days of gear sticks and manual gearchanges, when drivers would spend a high proportion of their time driving with one hand on the steering wheel? 

The next lot of testing starts on Thursday, in Jerez.

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