F1 finishes Pre-season as we gear up for an interesting 2014

The tyre’s are cooling off in the pits and the lights are being shut-down at the Bahrain International Circuit as F1 finished its last day of pre-season testing before the first Grand Prix in Melbourne in two weeks time. The story hasn’t changed much during this second test in the desert with Mercedes powered teams all looking comfortable with Williams and McLaren both running their test engines past their mileage and into failures (this is useful to do as there are only 5 engines per driver this season so knowledge of how far they can push these new power plants is key). Ferrari look solid but with only 3 teams running the engines this year they are behind on mileage, but Marussia got up and running fairly well and were able to post competitive times alongside a good number of laps.

The real headaches are for the Renault powered teams of Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham – all of whom have suffered awful reliability and a lack of overall power during pre-season. Lotus have had to end every day early and Red Bull failed to complete a lap on Saturday with defending champion Vettel behind the wheel. The big question will be can any of them get their cars to last for 300km at full speed and even if they do these 4 teams are sorely behind on development work on their cars.

But none of the power plants are without their issues as all teams (Williams aside) have had serious failures during this test and the number of cars over the line in Melbourne could make for interesting reading. Historically we remember the season opener of being a low finishing race with a few drivers getting brain fade after the long break combined with cars that aren’t all sorted out. This hasn’t been the case since 2009 with the engine freeze meaning car internals have remained pretty static apart from tiny new gearboxes that were developed to get the rear as small as possible. Additionally Im really excited to see these new cars with the huge amount of torque they produce being raced in anger and the real possibility of drivers getting it wrong. Despite reports to the contrary I believe these cars will need better drivers to pilot them.

As for who is where its so hard to say, I think Mercedes are definitely pre-season favourites but Ferrari and McLaren have been keeping their cards close to their chest. Im pretty sure McLaren have spent most of this test doing simulator correlation work as they are the team that trusts the system the most. Furthermore if Renault sort out their issues I’d expect Red Bull and Lotus to be back up at the sharp end of the grid. Finally it will be interesting to see where Caterham and Marussia end up and whether they’ve managed to move closer to the performance of the established teams. The young teams joined in 2010 a year after the last technical overhaul in 2009 and never looked like catching the field and ended up taking pay drivers, doing battle with themselves and remaining pointless. Personally I would of liked to have seen the FIA tender for teams to join for this season so they don’t lose ground to the current field.

Switching to racing of the two wheel variety Ducati finally confirmed that they will be racing under the open specification for the 2014 season. Moto GP has modified the CRT class to become the main class named “Open” and have dropped the claiming rule. Teams entering bikes in this class will get 24 litres of fuel, 12 engines, 120 tires per rider for unrestricted testing (excluding tracks 15 days prior to their race weekend), softer tyres and no engine homologation but will have to run the spec ECU.

This leaves Yamaha and Honda as the only two marques racing their bikes in the newly christened “Factory Option” specification. This allows them to run their own software on the ECU but they will only get 20 litres of fuel, 5 engines which are now homolgated for the entire season, no testing apart from official in season events and no softer option tyre. Ducati have made the move to allow them to develop their bike throughout the season as they don’t have to freeze their engine for the year now.

However Magneti Marelli who make the new ECU hardware for the entire series previously made Ducati’s unit and there was quite a stir when a huge update arrived in Malaysia during testing. The update was so large and comprehensive that none of the teams ran it as they didnt have to work on their bikes and understand this huge new upgrade. Only thing was, the header to one of the files was labelled “Ducati Motor Company”. There’s nothing in the rules to prevent Ducati letting Magneti Marelli use their software as long as all the open teams get it.

But despite not using the upgrade Aleix Espagaro was consistently at the top end of the time sheets using his new open Yamaha bike. This likely prompted Ducati to make the switch seeing that riders could really be competitive using the open specification. The question now remains will Suzuki who are due to return next year enter in the open class (they delayed their entry this year to work on porting their software to the new spec ECU) or as a full factory entry. If Suzuki do choose to go open it could well be the death knell of the Factory Option as the open specification would have 3 full factory teams in their ranks (Aprilla and Ducati)

Mercedes sort of Punished

The FIA took Mercedes up on their offer and have excluded them from this years young drivers test along with a reprimand (Pirelli also received a reprimand) after they undertook a 3 day tyre test using the 2013 car and current race drivers.

However the tribunal noted that they had been given indication that the test would be legal and acted in “good faith”. So the three day test will replace their young drivers test allocation..with accusation that Ferrari tested in 2012 and 2013 with an almost current car. However this was a car that was 2 years old which while maybe not being the legal definition it had been a gentleman’s agreement that a 2 season old car was not classed as current.

Maria de Villota Seriously Injured Testing at Duxford

As you all may of read Maria de Villota was injured during a straight line test for Marussia at Duxford (which is a WWII airfield now used as a museam for planes and used by a lot of the F1 teams for straight line testing). From reports thus far she is conscious and stable but her injuries were “life-threating” and very serious. Id like to wish her a speedy recovery from what appears to be a freak accident.

While many have questioned her abilites in a F1 car (her best entry on her CV being a 4th place in a Superleague Formula race) she had already tested a Renault F1 car at Paul Ricard and this was only a straight line test, while she may have suffered from inexperience I dont think she was unqualified to step into a F1 car. This was her first outing as a Marussia Test Driver and hasn’t quite had the PR effect Marussia had been previously created with their female 3rd driver.

She obviously has no superlicense which is why she couldn’t replace Timo Glock last time out at Valencia, this further set back will really raise questions about Marussia’s choice of reserve driver.

Just as I’ve said that

In the few hours that have passed since my previous post HRT and Ferrari have outlined their plans for next weeks 3 day test at the Mugello circuit and they fit in perfectly with the stereotypes associated with the teams.

Ferrari will run Fernando Alonso for 2 days leaving the struggling Massa a single day in the middle.

HRT will skip the test completly as they will not have any new parts until the Spanish Grand Prix and are concentrating on moving their headquaters to Madrid. It is baffeling how the team would have any upgrades as the car was designed by the previous design team that were based in Germany. The team for the 3rd year in a row missed pre-season testing all together and highlights a lack of finance more than anything as it would be useful seat time for 3rd driver Luizzi to give feedback on the car alongside Pedro De La Rosa.

Return of the 3rd driver

For the first time since the 2008 season will a large majority of 3rd/test/reserve drivers get some mileage in real machinery this year. Since Jenson Buttons winning year F1 has introduced an in-season testing ban with pre-season testing limited to only the scheduled tests for all teams. However this year the teams elected to move one of the pre-season tests to Mugello next week after the first 4 fly-away rounds and before the meat of the season in Europe (+ Canada) gets underway. We assume that Ferrari has really pushed for more in-season testing and I’d expect to see some more test sessions brought in (personally i’d like to see all at non-F1 venues) in the coming years.

In the years since the testing ban Force India have ran 3rd drivers on Friday (Paul Di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg and Jules Bianchi) in preparation for them graduating to F1. This is a sensible option for the team although it means some drivers miss out on valuable track time. Williams (Valterri Bottas), Caterham (Chandok),  Marussia (Pic), HRT and Toro Rosso (both current drivers) have all followed suit in the following years with running drivers at a few selected events

However as this upcoming test is only 3 days many teams have opted to run a 3rd driver for at least one of those days:

  • McLaren will run Gary Paffett & Oliver Turvey over all 3 days although Lewis Hamilton has commented he may want some track time
  • Jerome D’Ambrosio will get a day behind the wheel of the Lotus
  • Rodolfo Gonzalez will get one day with the Caterham team

We’d also assume we might see some of the Friday drivers get a hop into the car for a day and as soon as the lineup is finalised I’ll hopefully get some comment up on the blog.

The only other testing that has been on the calendar has been the young drivers test which is a test for drivers that have 2 grand prix or less experience which has lead to some permenant 3rd drivers taking this role. The only option for those who have been ousted from a seat is trying to land the Pirelli tyre testing roles which is what Toro Rosso refugee Jaime Alguersuari has done. I’d like to see a few tests mid-season for the teams with only non-race drivers allowed to participate in them (or limit a race drivers total number of testing days) to allow the teams to evaluate other drivers.

Lotus Suffer, Sauber Suceed

Lotus were forced to abandon the second test of the 2012 season in Barcelona after only 7 laps. The former Renault team identified that there was a problem with the chassis and will lose a lot of running at the valuable Circuit de Catalyuna. They will however get one day back by running all 5 days at the final test.

At the other end of the spectrum Mercedes seem reliable out of the box and Kobayashi set the fastest lap of the test doing a quali run.

HRT on the move while Ferrari Struggle?

HRT have confirmed they are moving not to Valencia but to Madrid and will be moving operations there before the start of the European season. It is another odd choice for HRT that are currently having their cars designed and built in Germany to move to Spain where there is very little infastructure for motorsport there. Most of the teams are based in “Motor Sport Valley” in the South East of England (M4 Corridoor) or in Northern Italy/Switzerland around Ferrari and Sauber.

Felipe Massa has made noises that the Scuderia are struggling out of the box this year with their ugly duckling of a car. The car is a radical departure from last years car and of course it could all be smoke and mirrors. But we haven’t seen the usual glut of laps of Ferrari so far, last year they covered more mileage then an entire season in the tests (although there were 4 pre-season tests rather than the 3 pre-season and 1 mid-season test this year)