What we learnt from Barcelona
All this happiness can't last forever, though...
By Pete Gill, Mike Wise and James Galloway. Last Updated: 25/02/13 1:12pm
Trying to achieve clarity after a compelling four days at the Circuit de Catalunya.
It's looking close at the front - and everyone's happy so far
To quote the pithy midweek observation of Martin Brundle on Twitter as the Sky Sports F1 pundit reflected on the noise emanating from the winter tests, 'F1 driver customer satisfaction survey would be at all time high right now'.
'Gridwalks will be easy, they'll all be on pole. Podiums busy too', added Martin. And he's right - the striking thing about this winter is that, unlike 12 months ago when it was immediately apparent that Ferrari were deep in the mire, February has been a month of universal happiness in F1.
The problem is, something has to give. In the dog-eat-dog world that is F1, universal happiness isn't sustainable. Only one driver can be on pole, and only one team can be ahead at the front. And they all know it.
So although it might currently be looking good for Red Bull, Lotus and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Ferrari and McLaren, the final test of the winter - which starts next Thursday and will be covered live by Sky Sports F1 - will be run with far greater intensity than we've seen in the eight days of testing to date. Expect updates galore next week - and then new updates on the updates.
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At the moment, the exact pecking order at the front is anyone's guess. Red Bull continue to look very strong, McLaren have been remarkably quick on occasion, while both Lotus - who believe that they would finish on the podium were a race to be run next week - and Mercedes have moved forward. But beyond that, we're still in the dark - hence the ubiquitous happiness.
Yet it can't last, and probably won't last beyond next week's test when the men will start to be separated from the boys.
Fernando is a helluva poker player
Fernando Alonso is not in the habit of giving much away in public. Never has, never will be. And that natural reticent that has to be remembered in any reflection of his conspicuously-lukewarm reaction to the F138.
Nonetheless, Fernando's relative lack of enthusiasm towards the new Ferrari was glaring when he spoke to the press on Tuesday night. It wasn't that he was unhappy, it's just that he didn't seem particularly happy. It all felt a little bit underwhelming - as if he had hoped for far more but had suddenly received a sharp rebuke that any success in 2013 will have to be earned the hard way. Again.
Still, as stated, it's tough to guess - let alone judge - exactly where Ferrari stand in the current pecking order. The F138 is in far better shape than the F2012 was a year ago and Fernando's table-topping pace on the softs on Day Three was nearly identical to the fastest lap on Tuesday set by Sergio Perez in the McLaren. Felipe Massa also revealed on his return to the car on Day Four that the first raft of updates pre-Melbourne hadn't yet been bolted on the car. So it's not as if Ferrari are struggling.
Yet the nagging suspicion remains that Ferrari are still adrift of Red Bull and may have been leapfrogged by Lotus, which completed a promising full race distance with Romain Grosjean on Thursday - something the Scuderia are yet to do. The only certainty is that they've plenty of work ahead of them.
McLaren are still on a learning curve
Although it made for a good headline on Thursday night, Jenson Button's admission that McLaren are still striving to understand their new car really wasn't all that surprising when you stopped to consider the team's current plight.
After all, from the moment the MP24-28 was unveiled with a radically-different design concept at rear and front, the widespread expectation was that the team would have a lot of learning to do in a very short period of time.
As we ourselves concluded in our review of the 2013 car launches after applauding the team's bravery: 'Although it is reasonable to expect a relatively slow start from McLaren as they get to grips with their new design concept'.
And that's what McLaren are experiencing at present. The car is fast - and has been very fast on occasion on all types of tyre. The problem is that, at other times, it has been surprisingly slow, and McLaren don't know precisely why.
"It's been very tricky to understand where the car is: at times the car feels good, at other times it doesn't," said Jenson. "And a lot of that is basically understanding the car that we have and making sure it's working as we expect it to be working."
At this stage, McLaren are probably only third or fourth favourites for Melbourne. All they can do is commit to as much lap time as possible next week and hold their nerve. They've taken their new car in a new direction because the MP4-27 had reached the ceiling of its design potential. Now's not the time for turning; now's the time for learning in the expectation of substantial dividends in the future.
We're going to see a lot of pit-stops in 2013
After the fun of Jerez, tyres were the story of Barcelona, with the 2013 Pirellis regularly suffering sharp drop-off in performance after just a couple of laps. "These tyres are easy to understand, they just grain!" quipped Jenson.
To a large extent, this week's unexpectedly-sharp decline was a result of the unexpectedly cool conditions and Pirelli themselves expressed confidence that "once we get to Melbourne the tyres should be much more within their intended working range, which will eliminate the unusual amount of degradation".
However, there's also no doubt that this year's tyres will have a shorter shelf-life than their 2012 predecessors, which is why we saw so many practice pit-stops at Barcelona this week, with Red Bull (who are finally following their principal rivals in using a 'traffic light' system) devoting almost half a day to trials runs in the pits on Wednesday and Williams following suit on Friday afternoon.
At least at the start of the season, when we could see three-or-four-stop races rather than one or two, a team's speed in the pits could prove decisive in determining the race winner. It's a sobering and not altogether welcome prospect.
Speaking on Thursday after grappling with the new rubber, Mark Webber raised the bar even higher. "If you have a one-stop race, the result might be a little bit more fixed," he said. "But in a five-stop grand prix, things move around a little bit.
"In general, I still think the quick guys will be strong at the end of the race. But I hope we don't have five-stop races because it's not really Formula 1."
Marussia's momentum continues
With the grid's top nine teams from last season all appearing to have made steps forward - and by similar increments - over the winter, there's been little evidence so far to suggest that the beginning of year four of the 'new teams' project is likely to bring any immediate breakthrough for either Caterham or Marussia. However, there is some developing intrigue in their back-of-the-grid duel in that for the second successive test Marussia finished with a fractionally faster time than Caterham on the combined week's timesheet.
John Booth's team certainly ended last year with some decent momentum, even if they ultimately had tenth place snatched away from them at the death in Brazil, and the Yorkshireman did admit this week "we are pleased with our position relative to Caterham". Their rivals on the other hand have talked about needing to improve the CT03's rear stability ahead of Melbourne as Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde continue their adaptation to the shiny green Renault-powered machine.
The week's fastest times, per team
1) 1:21.848 - McLaren, Sergio Perez, soft tyres.
2) 1:21.875 - Ferrari, Fernando Alonso, soft tyres.
3) 1:22.160 - Sauber, Nico Hulkenberg, soft tyres.
4) 1:22.188 - Lotus, Romain Grosjean, soft tyres.
5) 1:22.197 - Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel, soft tyres.
6) 1:22.616 - Mercedes, Nico Rosberg, medium tyres.
7) 1:22.675 - Williams, Pastor Maldonado, soft tyres.
8) 1:22.877 - Force India, Adrian Sutil, compound unknown.
9) 1:23.366 - Toro Rosso, Jean-Eric Vergne, medium tyres.
10) 1:25.115 - Marussia, Max Chilton, compound unknown.
11) 1:26.177 - Caterham, Gideo van der Garde, compound unknown.