Monday, 1 March 2010

2010 pre-season testing shows Ferrari back on the pace but the pecking order still too close to call

Following the end of the testing ban that lasted throughout the 2009 season and into the winter break, the preparations for the 2010 season began with the first of the pre-season test sessions on the 1st of February at the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia, Spain. Only 7 of the 13 teams signed up to race in the 2010 Formula 1 World Championships arrived at Valencia for the inaugural testing session. They were: Ferrari, McLaren, MercedesGP, Williams, Sauber, Renault and Toro Rosso.

After Felipe Massa topped the timesheets for Ferrari on days 1 and 2, Fernando Alonso also came out on top on day 3 proving that the new Ferrari F10 was definitely a fast car. The teams then moved on to Jerez de la Frontera for another 8 days of testing over the following two weeks. At the first Jerez test, the previous 7 teams were also joined by 2009 Runner-up Red Bull Racing, Force-India and the first of the debutant teams Virgin Racing. Another one of the debutants, Lotus Racing, joined the rest of the teams for the second Jerez test. Over the two weeks at Jerez, several teams took turns to top the timesheets on different days including Mercedes, Red Bull, Williams, Sauber, McLaren and even Toro Rosso.

All 11 teams then moved on to the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona for the final 4 days of pre-season testing in the last week of February. Here again, Webber for Red Bull, Hulkenburg for Williams, Rosberg for Mercedes and Hamilton for McLaren all took turns to top the timesheets on separate days. Analysing the lap times from all the testing sessions directly is pretty meaningless because of the uncertainty of the differing amounts of fuel load a car could be carrying at any given time. Due to the mid-race refuelling ban, the cars this year have fuel tanks big enough to carry enough fuel to last an entire race distance. So during a flying lap in testing, a car could have had anything from 10kg of fuel to 160kg or more fuel on board. The difference in that fuel weight could result in more than 5 seconds a lap in pace. Then there is also the question on the type of tyres being used, as fresh super-soft tyres would almost certainly be quicker than used medium or hard tyres. On top of that, the teams continuously brought in aerodynamic updates throughout all 15 days of pre-season testing, and several teams are likely to bring in more updates for their cars before the first race of the season in Bahrain.

So for the first time for many years, we are heading into the start of a season with a pecking order that is genuinely too close to call. Even unlike last year, when BrawnGP clearly had a car that blitzed the rest of the grid, this year there simply is no single team with a huge advantage. In terms of mileage covered in testing, Ferrari is on top as their two drivers Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso have done the most laps combined compared to any other team. The Ferrari certainly looks good in terms of race pace, and the reliability of the F10 looks absolutely rock solid. It's hard to tell how the Italian team is over a single lap, as Ferrari haven't really pushed its car to the max during a qualifying simulation at any of the test sessions. However, it can't be said that Ferrari are clearly on top since Red Bull and McLaren are also looking very strong. Mercedes is probably just a little bit behind than these three, but the mastery of Ross Brawn and the return of Michael Schumacher can never be underestimated.

Apart from these four teams, Force India, Sauber, Williams and Toro Rosso look like they will be providing a very strong competition in the mid-field with occassionally being able to challenge for podium finishes. The Ferrari-engined Sauber team, salvaged from the ashes of BMW Sauber by Peter Sauber, has talented young Japanese Kamui Kobayashi and former McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa as its lead drivers. Force India has still got the bright and young German Adrian Sutil, while Williams has signed up veteran Rubens Barrichello and 2009 GP2 champion Nico Hulkenburg. Toro Rosso is sticking with its 2009 driver pairing of Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastian Buemi.

The debutant teams Virgin and Lotus did not have an entirely smooth start to their testing programmes, with both teams having problems on reliability. That was to be expected however, as both of them are not just starting brand new from scratch but are also working on much smaller budgets compared to the bigger teams. In case of Lotus, they got their entry to the 2010 Championship confirmed very late last summer after the announcement of BMW Sauber's withdrawal. This meant that Lotus had very little time to gather its team of personnel and design a completely new Formula 1 car from scratch. The Malaysian owned team is headed by Malaysian airline AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes, while former Toyota and Renault technical chief Mike Gascoyne is in charge of the technical side. Their fellow debutant team Virgin had more time to design and develop the car, but working on a small budget, they decided to avoid the use of wind-tunnels in designing their car. Formula 1 teams these days normally use Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and wind-tunnel to design and develop the car, but Virgin's design chief Nick Wirth said that they only used CFD since they thought it would be sufficient. It remains to be seen whether that is the case or not.

The two other new teams who are signed up to race in the 2010 Championship is fighting for their survival even before a wheel has turned. Spanish team Campos Meta 1 and American team USF1 are struggling to get proper funding, do not yet have a fully designed and developed car, and it will be a huge miracle if they can take part in even one race this season let alone the full Championship. Meanwhile, since Toyota announced their withdrawal from Formula 1 very late last season, they had their 2010 Championship contender more or less ready at the time of the announcement. Now the car and Toyota's Formula 1 base in Cologne, Germany had been taken over by a new Serbian outfit Stefan GP. Despite having the car ready, Stefan GP do not have an official FIA entry but are pushing hard for a place instead of the stricken USF1 and Campos Meta 1. Only time will tell when and how that story ends.

It is just over 10 days to go until the first race weekend of the 2010 FIA Formula 1 World Championship kicks off in Bahrain. Four teams, that is Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes, will be fighting up front but for now, it is absolutely impossible to predict who has the capability to win the first race. It promises to be a hugely exciting and close season this year. Until Bahrain, drive safely everyone!

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