There may not have been a Formula One Grand Prix since October but all of the teams have been working feverishly in preparation for the upcoming season. The first race is only six days away and fans around the world are getting excited as the real 2008 contenders will soon be revealed.
Winter testing may not be ideal for judging a team’s performance although it can provide a few clues as to who will be fighting for podiums once the racing gets underway. Different cars will be running different systems on any given day, but over a period of time certain trends start to emerge.
The teams started testing their new 2008 machinery at Jerez and Valencia in January. The F1 testing circus then moved onto the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona where most of the running was conducted throughout February. Amongst that, Toyota and Ferrari skipped a few sessions to travel to Bahrain as well.
Here is a brief snapshot of what each team has done with their new kit so far this year.
The most impressive team over winter has undoubtedly been Ferrari and they will be lining up in Melbourne as clear favourites. The red cars have been regularly quick and their most impressive feature was the speed they produced during race simulations. McLaren have been faster than Ferrari over a single lap, but fall away from the Scuderia on long distance runs.
The first serious indication that Ferrari is the team to beat emerged during their test at Bahrain. It was here they lapped more than a full second quicker than they managed during qualifying for last year’s Grand Prix. That is a considerable improvement for the team who are already top of the class.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the reigning champions though. There has been some sort mechanical problem for the team at almost every test, so reliability look likes being their Achilles heel.
Kimi Raikkonen has rarely been topping the timesheets and has usually been outpaced by Felipe Massa. Interestingly this was the case last year also, so Raikkonen is unlikely to be worried, especially since Massa has struggled with the new electronics. Felipe’s times have improved throughout the winter break, but there were reportedly some concerns early on that his tyre wear may be rather excessive without traction control.
Ferrari was particularly slow during the final week of testing at Barcelona, which suggests they were focussing on set-ups for races that don’t take place in Spain.
Ron Dennis and his team endured a terrible off-season. Spy-gate continues to linger in the background and there has been endless speculation about a possible change of management. Despite all of the off-track dramas the Woking men appear to have built a very strong car. The MP4-23 has looked consistently fast on the timesheets and was quicker than the new Ferrari over the final two weeks of testing.
There are also signs that Heikki Kovalainen will be a man to watch this year because the young fin has often pulled out better times than Lewis Hamilton. This was compounded when Lewis, quite surprisingly, struggled early on with the new electronics. Both McLaren drivers will benefit from the fact they have been running similar set-ups and have been requesting the same changes be made to the car.
The new Renault looked like a winner when it debuted in January because it was instantly quick and reliable. The team may not have topped the timesheets but they certainly weren’t far off the pace.
However, as January rolled into February, mechanical gremlins crept into the R28 and it also began slipping down the pecking order. Fernando Alonso believes the gap to Ferrari is around eight tenths, but the gap back to Nelson Piquet might be a little bit more. Fernando has comfortably outpaced him all winter and Nelsinho has also been more susceptible to mistakes. He will likely be as close to Alonso as Giancarlo Fisichella used to be , although after the debacle at McLaren last year Renault will probably be quite happy with that.
The German manufacturer has possibly been the most disappointing team over the past few months. Their car has not been quick and it has also been unreliable. They have won F1 Racing magazine’s ‘Most Improved Team of the Year’ award on two consecutive occasions but look fairly certain to lose that status in 2008.
When BMW first introduced their new machine it was actually slower than the 2007 car. Even worse was that the old chassis was being driven by their unexperienced test driver, Marko Asmer.
The BMW had some pace when the teams first arrived in Barcelona, but by the end of February almost everyone had set a time quicker than them, including Force India. It would not be unreasonable to expect that Mario Theissen is currently having a few sleepless nights.
BMW disappeared for a private test around Valencia for three days, during which they ran consistent laptimes without any mechanical troubles. There were no other teams present however, so it will be hard to truly gauge their performance until this Saturday.
The new Williams is significantly different to its predecessor, and the team’s hard development appears to have paid off. As soon as the FW30 rolled out of the garage it was sensationally quick and went third fastest behind Ferrari and McLaren on its first run.
Unlike Renault the cars have remained consistently quick throughout winter and Kazuki Nakajima has been just as handy as Nico Rosberg. Those who thought the untried rookie would be annihilated by the German might be chewing on some humble pie at Albert Park.
Along with setting the fastest time at Barcelona in mid-February, the team also demonstrated some good thinking by flying out their race mechanics to practice pitstops when the weather prevented consistent track time.
Williams had quite a scare early on in testing when a mechanical failure put Kazuki Nakajima into the wall at high speed. Nakajima suffered a front wing failure at the end of the long main straight at Barcelona, and flew across the new tarmac run off into the barrier. The team stopped testing and flew out some more parts to cure the problem, but when these arrived Williams decided to abandon their plans and return to base. The public failure was not welcome, and neither was the loss of track time.
Last year the Red Bull RB3 was a very quick machine but was also particularly fragile. This would seem to be the case again in 2008. The new car broke down after 50 laps on its debut, and it also proved troublesome at the next test in Valencia. On that occasion Red Bull ended up covering fewer miles than all of the other teams present.
Thankfully the latest Adrian Newey design is quick, and Mark Webber went fastest of everyone during one of the early testing days at Jerez. Even though he was on light tanks, it was still a decent effort.
The reliability has improved since the initial bothersome runs, and hopefully it will improve even more once the racing gets underway.
Red Bull also pioneered one of the most unusual new developments of the year when they produced an engine cover that looks like a shark fin. The large appendage that extends back towards the rear wing is supposed to make the car more stable under braking, but it also makes it the most distinctive car on the grid.
The Japanese car maker had a poor season in 2007 which is why their new car bares little resemblance to anything they have built before. The TF108 has been very quick in qualifying trim, but has not been so fast over long distances. This characteristic will surely be amplified by Jarno Trulli’s driving style. In fact, the one-lap pace of the new car allied to Trulli’s skill landed Toyota the second fastest Barcelona lap of the whole winter break.
This was not a one-off because Timo Glock went quickest against Ferrari and McLaren when all three teams launched their new cars in January.
Toyota was the only team to join Ferrari at Bahrain and their pace improved dramatically over the week they spent there. After the first few days of Toyota was a staggering two seconds off the pace, but cut that gap in half by the end of the test. If Ferrari have improved by over a second from last year, it suggests some good pace from the Toyota. It remains to be seen if its speed will last a full race though.
Most teams have been able to set quick laps during testing, even if they have to run low fuel and fresh tyres to do so. However, Honda have not had any pace up their sleeve whatsoever. The team has been languishing on the timesheets at every test session they visited. Over the last two weeks of February at Barcelona they were outpaced by everybody, including Toro Rosso who are running their 2007 car. It looks like it is going to be another tough year for the team.
Honda cannot rely on poor reliability from other teams to score points either, as they have experienced a handful of their own technical problems.
It is common knowledge that you can’t tell much from testing, and Jenson Button will be hoping that rings true this year because it looks like being another dismal season for him otherwise.
The latest team to join the grid spent most of winter testing their 2007 car, and when the new machine arrived it wasn’t especially quick. However, Fisichella did set a 1.22.233 lap time around Barcelona which would have comfortably put the team into the second round of qualifying last year. It was also a quicker lap than Michael Schumacher could manage in the Ferrari (albeit on a different day) which marks a significant improvement for the team. They look like being able to race at the back of the midfield.
Due to the late Force India the team have not had the time to test everything and will have more improvements available before Melbourne. They might just have enough firepower to beat Honda early on in the season.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
The junior Red Bull team are starting 2008 with the same car they used last year, so are unlikely to have the outright pace of the others. Part of the reason for this is to take advantage of the reliability problems that will strike the new machines down early on in the season. Sadly this strategy might not work out because the car has not been bullet proof itself.
The Toro Rosso’s have usually been around the middle of the pack in testing and have not been too far away from the leaders. Sebastien Vettel went fastest of all at the first Barcelona test and Champ Car recruit Sebastian Bourdais was not far behind him.
For many years Minardi were the perennial underdogs of Formula One. That place has now been firmly taken by Super Aguri who have not done any real testing at all in 2008.
At the first test of the year the team did not have enough spare parts to take part. They arranged to fly more in from England, but their plane had technical issues and had to be diverted. When the team went to greet the cargo they found the motorway leading them to the airport was closed.
The team left the circuit after three days, having only completed ten laps.
If they didn’t have bad luck they’d have no luck at all.
The only other winter appearance from Super Aguri was almost a month later at Jerez. They spent that test getting used to the electronics, something many of the teams had done in December. Takuma Sato was slow, and completed very few miles.
If Super Aguri do end up with a new spec Honda partway through the season it still might not be enough to help them. Here’s hoping they can find a backer with some serious cash sooner rather than later.
In the end, speculation over winter testing comes to nothing once the cars line up on the grid in Melbourne. The talking stops when the pedal drops, so here’s hoping for a great start to the season!