Sunday, 9 February 2014

The plot thickens: What we learned in Jerez

We know. We're constantly reminded. But we never learn.

Yes, F1 and pre-season testing. We have no excuse to not be at one with all of the usual disclaimers regarding interpreting it and its lap times. We don't know the respective programmes, fuel loads, state of the tyres and the like, all of which can skew a car's behaviour as well as what the stopwatch shows by several seconds and make who's actually looking good and who's not a particular riddle. And this is at the best of times: add in that in this the 2014 variety there's reason to think that such interpretation is significantly more complex even than is ordinarily so.

The F1 fraternity gathered in Jerez
Photo: Octane Photography
This time there's an added expanse of obfuscation provided by the fact that between seasons we've had perhaps the most significant simultaneous shift of engine and chassis regulations that the sport has ever faced. As a consequence everyone returns to base camp; previous years' pecking orders therefore count for not much. There may also be more scope for variation in the testing programmes as teams explore the new and uncharted landscape. And you can add to the disclaimers of the previous paragraph that now too there's a proscribed 100kg per hour fuel flow limit in the book of regs, a limit which might not necessarily be heeded in testing. This time more than most, you might be better served seeking to predict the world championship outcome by reading tea leaves than by poring over a pre-season test.

But as mentioned it doesn't stop us trying. And even so in the 2014 campaign's opening runout in Jerez an apparently major story line developed, one that has the potential to develop into a major plot arc that stretches all the way to this particular tale's final page.

After an extremely patchy first day, wherein only the works teams of Mercedes and Ferrari looked remotely prepared for testing's start (probably not coincidence that only they build their engines in-house), in the course of day two incrementally people began to notice that the Renault-powered teams had been scarce in their track presence. Murmurings about the power unit's reliability started to solidify; hungry hacks started to gather in greater number at its press calls, which frankly is never a good sign. And even among the Renault runners the one team having the most troubles was, unbelievably, the haughty Red Bull.

Red Bull's smoky struggles was the big story of Jerez
Photo: Octane Photography
The Milton Keynes team's PR output then started to ape the boy in Waiting for Godot: appearing on a day-by-day basis to insist that yes the Red Bull hasn't done much running today but it's sure to tomorrow. But it never happened. Come the final day the team had packed up well ahead of time. Apparently the boss Christian Horner was long since back in at the factory seeking solutions by this point. A mere 21 laps - many of them smoky, all of them tardy - had been completed. Much of the time the RB10 appeared rather like the output of an eccentric inventor operating out his shed: a long time in appearing, but then stopping in a smoldering heap after little distance, before being returned to the shed for another extended spell of poring and head-scratching.

The problem was two-fold: the Renault engine - 'unacceptable' in the company's words - had its control systems not work as planned in the hostile environment of an F1 car and this created a myriad of problems: to the turbo, energy stores and engine controllers. But compounding this was that the Red Bull's packaging was fit to burst, which created massive overheating. It didn't help either that, admitted by Renault's Rob White, that the company 'created some moving targets' in its development of the power units, which set all teams back in their preparations. Horner's already had some rueful words to say on the matter.

So used are we to Red Bull's imperious status that at such moments it feels a lot like we've slipped into a parallel universe, and as such few seem entirely sure on what we should expect next. Most who know about these things reckon that neither the Renault problems nor those peculiar to the RB10 are likely to be quick fixes; perhaps too new recruit Daniel Ricciardo let the cat partially out of the bag with his talk of the team being behind come the opening round in Melbourne. 

Of course it's not the first time that some have saw fit to venture cautiously that this particular team perhaps is on the start of its downward curve, only for the Milton Keynes lot to almost contemptuously dissuade them of the ludicrous notion pronto. Perhaps reflecting this, some have theorised that Red Bull's car troubles are actually part of its deliberate strategy towards the new regs, taking apparent cue from Gilles Villeneuve by deliberately going beyond the limit to find out where the limit is (rather than the usual approach of edging towards the limit). This doesn't seem likely given the finite time and testing mileage available. But as can be inferred from the fact that some are thinking it at all, no one yet is even close to dismissing Red Bull's chances for the season. 

An F1 campaign is a marathon not a sprint as they say, plus Red Bull will now be more glad than most that four in-season tests return this year. Plus perhaps the objections of its lead driver to double points in the final round will become less audible. But it cannot be denied that - on top of its problems to fix having also ceded a third of its pre-season testing allocation effectively - the team starts this particular marathon giving all others a head start. Finally we'll get to see what that collective does when up against it.

Mercedes perhaps had the most
reason to be cheerful at Jerez
Photo: Octane Photography
One thing that did align with expectations - on the evidence of Jerez in any case - is that among the engine (check that, 'power unit') suppliers the Three-Pointed-Star is the star. The Mercedes unit functioned like a watch in the four-day test, and clocked up total mileage just shy of 3,800km, with Ferrari next up with a mere 1,966 (though slightly tempered by Ferrari supplying three teams to Merc's four). And while the lap times as we know don't mean a great deal, it cannot possibly be a bad thing for Stuttgart that the Mercedes-powered machines clustered at the top of the timing screens habitually.

And just as with Renault the works team at Merc appeared an outlier, but in this case it was in a good way, the silver cars looking the most convincing of all both in terms of on-track handling and, especially, distance covered, Rosberg indulging in a race simulation run long before any other. It even made an impact on those most reliable guides of winners and losers in the bookmakers: Nico Rosberg's odds on being this year's world champion dropped from 20/1 to 10/1 in the course of proceedings (apparently the team's successful Silverstone 'filming day' shakedown started the fall). 

So, what does this all tell us? It reflects well both on the engine supplier and the Mercedes team in particular that they are so well-prepared. And one could argue that it's plausible that being this well-prepared in terms of mileage also makes it more likely that it's well-prepared in terms of competitiveness too.

But there's a solitary fly in the ointment. Reportedly all teams in Jerez were running well shy of the 15,000 rpm limit for the power units, as well as with their energy recovery systems at around half of their full potency. For this reason and others, there was little chasing of stellar lap times; little leaning on cars was in evidence. The consensus is that around three seconds per lap was left unexplored. So with this the one question left unanswered about the Mercedes is the most important one by far: is it quick?

And a conspicuously bum note was struck by Merc's Paddy Lowe, who admitted in the course of the Jerez test that the team would be concentrating on a weight loss programme for the car between now and the season start proper. While the weight limit under the new rules is tight both Ferrari and McLaren insist that they do not face a similar concern. It gives rise to the possibility that the W05 currently is overweight.

McLaren's 'blockers' were the most noteworthy
technical innovation on show
Photo: Octane Photography
McLaren is another team with cause for increased optimism from its activities in southern Spain, and as things stand the team appears well-poised to bounce back from its annus horribilis of 2013. The MP4-29 looked good to observers with its aerodynamic detail as well as appeared to behave well out on track. Kevin Magnussen has also impressed those within and without the team with his flair and confidence, his sensitive throttle applications as well as his cerebral approach (and as a bonus he ended the week with the fastest time to his name too). 

McLaren too can claim the most interesting innovation so far, with 'blockers' mounted to the rear suspension, in an attempt to energise the diffuser as well as, quite ingeniously, create more downforce at low speed as well as through the suspension deflection cause less drag at higher speed. And its rivals have given it F1's time-honoured sincerest forms of flattery: simultaneously muttering about illegality as well as that it 'isn't within the spirit of the regulations' (which as we know doesn't actually mean anything) while all the while working frantically on creating their own version. Gary Anderson for one reckons though that it won't be an easy copy.

Just about all hearts were cheered by an encouraging debut for the Williams - a new member of the Merc crowd. Force India who complete the quartet meanwhile had a more quiet time of it.

Among those not powered by a Merc almost alone it was Ferrari that left Andalusia with a feeling of reasonable contentment. Indeed, the top times from the week demonstrated as much, that only the two Scuderia cars stopped Mercedes-powered machines filling the top nine places. The car and its power unit was about as trouble free as the Merc (indeed only the Brackley cars covered more kilometres), and all in the team - including new Technical Director James Allison - radiated satisfaction. Word even emerged that the team's bugbear of the last three seasons of wind tunnel correlation was now showing signs of being sorted

Ferrari too has cause for optimism
Photo: Octane Photography
Better for Ferrari, the cooling package looks among the most miserly out there, reflecting well both on the reliability of the power unit as well as the resulting benefits for aerodynamics (as Adrian Newey would tell you: air used for cooling not only creates drag, it also can't be used for downforce). The F14-T's smooth-as-silk downshift at Jerez has also won admirers - redolent of F1 past wherein Ferrari's gearbox would be a work of wonder compared to the Hewlands used by the rest of the field.

It too was all rather at a variance at the conventional wisdom of the winter that Ferrari - and in particular Ferrari engines - were to be the stragglers. I did wonder quite how anyone could have known this, and the evidence of Jerez suggested that they didn't.

Meanwhile Bernie 'double points' Ecclestone decided to call something else absurd: namely the impact of the new rules from his point of view evidenced in the test (Bernie wasn't present in Jerez - not that I draw any conclusions from that), apparently in regard to the cars' speed, reliability and noise. Bernie as we know hasn't been a fan of the new rules since their very inception; quite why this is isn't clear though, particularly given his expressed justification of concern about the experience of fans in attendance at races seems something of a Damascene conversion. Perhaps it's merely part of his power politics with the FIA's Jean Todt. Perhaps as Joe Saward suggested is down to that the new engine rules have been largely at the behest of manufacturers, who tend to irk Bernie by asking for a larger slice of the pie. Perhaps Bernie's seeking to deflect attention from, um, something else that's going on in his life right now... 

Whatever was the motivation, Bernie's gripes upon close inspection appear rather porous. Yes the lack of preparedness of most teams for day one of testing didn't seem befitting of the sport's pinnacle, yet as Adrian Newey pointed out to Gary Anderson, a new hybrid car on the road will have five years' testing and development behind it, and the F1 equivalent is 20 times more complicated than even the most complicated road hybrid. Peter Windsor noted that on these new spec F1 cars even the start procedure is literally ten times more complex than what we had before. Perhaps with this we can forgive the teething troubles that all have had to no choice but to expose to the harsh media glare. Further, the reliability question will surely sort itself in time, and it wouldn't at all surprise me indeed if come Melbourne there are far fewer conk-outs than anticipated, given the close to superhuman ability of F1 engineers to get on top of problems.

Bernie Ecclestone once again had things to say
Photo: Octane Photography
On pace, while Bernie was buttressed by similar comments from Jenson Button and Adrian Sutil on the cars seeming slow by comparison to what was available before, as well as that the best lap time of this test was about 5.5 seconds over the best from Jerez last year (though it was in itself similar to the F1 pace of the early 2000s), as mentioned the cars weren't at full pelt, and most reckon once they are the gap to 12 months ago will be more in the region of two seconds per tour. Add in how rapid technical development is in this sport and before we know it the pace will be roughly the same. 

More broadly those who stand in opposition this year's regulation changes have long since been whistling into a hurricane. F1 had to change, and for a couple of reasons. For one thing, change was required to maintain the sport's road relevance (as Ross Brawn has commented, no engine manufacturer is interested in V8s these days), and improving the breed has always been a key part of F1. On a more practical level of this, without change there was a genuine possibility that Ferrari would have been left as the only engine supplier, given it was pretty much an open secret that Renault would have been off had the V8s been retained as well as was plausible that Merc would have been too.

And while many in F1 (and some watching on) like to proceed as if the sport is an island entirely of itself, and scoff at the idea that F1 should pay heed to what wider society expects, acceptability and consent of the world around it remains important; perhaps essential. As Pat Symonds noted recently in regard to this very matter, you wouldn't walk down Regent Street wearing a fur coat these days, would you? The world has changed, and F1 had to change with it. It, like everything, can only proceed with the permission of the society around it; its ticket sales, support, investment, sponsorship and regulatory framework in which it can operate all come from therein. Quite how these would have reacted to the sport continuing to conspicuously and willfully defy what wider society expects perhaps doesn't bear thinking about. This way too, the sport should have a positive story to tell.

As for the noise, it's a concern for many but I've been more relaxed about it than most. History suggests it won't be a problem: after all I'm not aware of too many who when F1's first turbo era is talked about spontaneously say 'didn't the cars sound rubbish?' To take an up-to-date example, I'm also not aware of many after a Le Mans visit saying the same of the LMP1 cars. The consensus too from Jerez was that while the cars certainly are now quieter than last year's (many commented that they didn't need their earplugs anymore) they remain representative. With all of this, I wouldn't be at all surprised if come six weeks' time no one other than the odd obsessive is talking about the engine noise.

Caterham's interpretation of the revised nose
regulations is especially hideous
Photo: Octane Photography
And then there's the most visual distinction of F1 2014-style: the interesting/ugly/obscene (delete as appropriate) new noses, reflective of the latest botched job made of trying to outlaw the high nose. I wrote on the subject at length in an F1 Times article recently (that can be read here), and I don't wish to re-tread old ground. Beyond reiterating that I think they're hideous. One can only hope that some of the more, shall we say, extreme interpretations don't turn out to be the most effective and therefore get copied throughout the field.

Such matters all lay ahead of us however. Like all good stories, a F1 season tends not to reveal its plot with any certainty in the opening paragraphs. Red herrings are just as likely as signposting at this stage. And as outlined, this year's opening lines are particularly impenetrable. But even with this it seems hard to deny that in Jerez, for more than one reason, the F1 2014 plot thickened.

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