Formula One winter testing is always full of intrigue but the 2010 preseason has been especially captivating. This year a small fleet of new teams will appear on the grid and they will be joined by equally fresh drivers. There are significant changes to the regulations, some explosive new driver pairings, and the return of someone called Mike, or Mickey, or something like that.
Testing in Spain (at Valencia, Jerez and Barcelona) has raised more questions than answers since all of the established teams are remarkably close. There appear to be eight drivers in contention for the World Championship this year, and they’re arguably the eight best drivers in the world so the start of the season will be the most exciting in years.
Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren all have the pace to win races early in 2010. Williams, Force India and Sauber are right behind them, with Renault and Scuderia Toro Rosso just a few tenths further back.
The new teams of Lotus, Virgin, and Hispania are a decent few seconds off the pace and will end up having their own battle at the back of the grid.
Although the fight for victory will be likely played out between the big four teams, all of the experienced outfits are very close. No-one has a clear advantage at this stage, although the pre-season running has offered a few ideas about how the 2010 grid will be formed.
Here then is a summary of each team’s progress through testing in the build up to Bahrain.
The McLaren MP4-25 will carry the number one on its nose courtesy of Jenson Button, and is a contender to hold onto that number going into next year (albeit with another driver perhaps). The car is very quick over one lap and features a radical new rear wing design that reduces drag at high speed. The team has already made significant changes to the car and has improved its raw pace during testing which bodes well for the season ahead given how strongly McLaren developed their 2009 machine.
Button and Hamilton have been evenly matched to date but Lewis took the fastest time of all on the last day of testing. The car isn’t the most consistent over long runs but the speed is there so it might be quicker in qualifying than the race.
A lot has changed over the last twelve months for Brawn/Mercedes. The team has a new name, a new management structure, and two new drivers. Another change is that last year Brawn had a significant advantage heading into the first Grand Prix of the season, something that Mercedes does not enjoy in 2010.
Mercedes GP will have a heavily updated car in Bahrain, different to the one they used in testing, and rumours suggest that Ross Brawn held back his new machine to hide a revolutionary diffuser. Either way the final version of the car should be quick enough to fight for victory.
Schumacher’s long run lap times have been incredibly consistent in the Mercedes which suggests the car will be quicker in the race than in qualifying. Rosberg has also been very close to his famous team leader, and actually set the faster time in Barcelona, so will be in a good position to score the first win of his career.
Red Bull finished the 2009 season with the fastest car of all and the other teams have since copied their proven design. Mark Webber therefore believes that Red Bull’s rivals have taken a bigger step forward over the winter, but is still confident that his machine can stay ahead of the field.
Adrian Newey’s RB6 was very quick during its first test and is using the fuel efficient Renault engine. The car is an evolution of last year’s winner, but the biggest improvement has come from the fully integrated rear diffuser. Reliability is a slight concern for the team but they are contenders for outright victory against Ferrari and McLaren.
If you had to pick a favourite for the 2010 season you would pick Ferrari. Alonso and Massa have lapped as quickly as anyone else, but most importantly they have been especially fast and consistent over some very long runs. The team has regularly pushed the car and tyres for more than 50 laps at a time and the pace has been solid. Ferrari should be championship contenders this year with a strong knowledge of Bridgestone’s tyre behaviour.
Apparently the Ferrari is quick on fresh rubber but the grip drops away quickly. The pace then evens out again as the fuel load wears off, so the drivers might suffer a brief rough patch ten laps into a race. It is a little reminiscent of the old Michelin tyres that used to go through a difficult ‘graining’ phase partway through a Grand Prix.
Ferrari have covered more kilometres in testing than any other team have been very reliable, so the only technical disadvantage for the car is its thirsty engine. The extra fuel could be worth as much as 15kg but the car looks good enough to overcome any weight handicap.
Williams’ winter testing pace has been very impressive, but the same has been true for the last four years. In reality the car should be quick but not quite as fast as the ‘big four’, leaving Williams to fight with Force India and Sauber to head the midfield.
The car is very reliable and that’s a positive because the team spent the early test sessions trying to break the new Cosworth engine. The fact it survived Patrick Head’s severe punishment is a very encouraging sign. When the team started focussing on pure speed instead of durability they topped the timesheets on two different days with Nico Hulkenberg. The young German has been quick and could be a man to watch this year.
Robert Kubica may have been better off staying at BMW/Sauber since the new Renault does not appear to be the competitive machine he was hoping for. The disruptions of 2009 have hurt the team and it shows on the timesheets. The car is off the pace, and whilst it will still be in the midfield, it isn’t a race winner. There have been a few flashes of speed but these have likely been the result of favourable fuel loads.
Kubica says that he can push the big four teams this year but will have trouble against Williams, Force India and Sauber. The Renault engine is very efficient so that could be the teams saving grace, and they have a significant upgrade for Bahrain that apparently looked promising in the wind tunnel.
The Force India team has improved each year since starting in F1 and look to have done so again in 2010. Last year the car was very slippery in a straight line it almost won the Belgian Grand Prix as a result. The team have said this year’s car is an evolution of that design and will lose none of its low drag prowess, but will gain extra grip. The car set some very quick times but all of them came on short runs so their pace over long distances is unknown.
SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO
A heated argument over the use of Customer Cars was resolved two years ago when Scuderia Toro Rosso and Super Aguri agreed to build their own chassis from the 2010 season onwards. Super Aguri has since left Grand Prix Racing but Toro Rosso remains on the F1 grid which means the team can no longer rely on a handout from Red Bull.
The first car built by the team since it was called Minardi was surprisingly quick in early testing, but other teams appear to have beaten Toro Rosso in the development race. STR will be comfortably faster than the new teams and might be able to score the occasional point, but will otherwise be lodged deep in the midfield.
The new Lotus has experienced a few reliability problems but that’s to be expected considering the team is brand new. Mike Gascoyne says there is a lot of room for improvement, especially in the area of weight, so the performance should improve a lot in the early part of the year. Lotus have had less time than all of the other teams to prepare for 2010 so, in theory, they should improve more during the season as they catch up to the others. If Lotus aren’t quickest of the new teams they will be fighting whoever is, but the car lacks the refinement of its more established rivals.
HISPANIA RACING TEAM
The Hispania F1 car has been built by Italian manufacturer Dallara who also build the current GP2 chassis. They claim to know how fast their challenger is in relation to the GP2 machine, and therefore where it stands in the F1 pecking order. Hispania have stated they expect to be two seconds per lap quicker than Lotus and Virgin, which is brash to say the least, and incredibly bold given the car has not even turned a wheel yet. Even if they are as quick as Dallara have claimed, the drivers will struggle to reach the finish line in Bahrain. Bolting an F1 car together is not the work of a minute, which is what Hispania is effectively doing, so it will be a very fragile machine if not woefully behind the rest.
The Sauber C29 was designed and developed last year by BMW before they withdrew from F1, and the car was very impressive once it started testing. Sauber is slightly off the leaders pace but has a few key advantages over the other teams. The car is very kind on its tyres, a point made by Bridgestone who believe Sauber’s advantage is so strong they will be able to adopt the most aggressive race strategies.
The car also adjusts very well to changes. Pedro De La Rosa and his engineers have said the car’s behaviour is very predictable and that will make it easy to optimise the set up. As such, Sauber could be a surprise packet on tracks where tyre degradation is a critical factor.
The debut Virgin F1 car seems reasonably quick compared to the new Lotus, but unfortunately it’s horrendously unreliable. The team has also been hampered by a lack of spare parts. The front wing failed due to a ‘design failure’ early in testing, and once that was fixed the hydraulics failed. And then they failed again. Each fix took a long time to implement and the drivers covered just 1772 kilometres of testing (in comparison to Ferrari’s 7344).
Whilst the car might be able to mix it with the Lotus drivers, the team probably haven’t had a chance to learn its nuances yet and will simply be hoping it holds together.
Regardless, 2010 is going to be a fantastic season.