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Ten lessons from F1's first test

  1. One year ago this Wednesday (5th February) Jenson Button’s then brand new McLaren MP4-28 topped the timing sheets at the end of the first day of testing for the 2013 season.

    We all know what happened to his MP4-28 during 2013 - or, rather, didn’t happen, week after week - so it’s worth retaining some scepticism when assessing F1’s awfully new and complex cars after just four days worth of testing last week at Spain.

    Still, the disparity between those who had a good test (Mercedes, 850 miles under its belt) and those who had a bad test (Red Bull, 57 miles) is so huge that can learn something about the early races at least, the first of which is now just 40 days away.

  2. Right now, you can get better odds on Lewis Hamilton for this year’s championship than on Nico Rosberg. Remarkable when you consider Lewis not blowing Nico away was one of the stories of last year. Hamilton sounds pumped, looks fitter than ever and recorded a significantly quicker time than Rosberg last week - but only by virtue of having a run on the Thursday when the three quickest times of the week were set.

    We already know this year’s cars are more oversteery, which will suit Lewis, but it’s also unlikely their new brake-by-wire electronics will. Remember, lack of brake feel was Lewis’ Achilles heel (and toe) last year. Expect fireworks.

  3. Given how damnably difficult the new V6 hybrids were to even get started (McLaren, Williams and Lotus, hardly new kids on the block, didn’t manage it on day one of the test), it was maybe a smart move for Fernando Alonso to allow Kimi Raikkonen first dibs at the Ferrari F14-T. The first play in the cold war between the canny Spaniard and the care-less Finn?

    If so, it backfired, Alonso may have got more laps in (178 vs 73) but Kimi got more speed out of the F14, which considering the Thursday/Friday car must surely have been better sorted, was a surprise. Alonso was only fourth quickest in a car that currently appears third best. The two red cars will be fighting as hard as the two silver cars.

  4. The story of the week was surely Kevin Magnussen’s Thursday afternoon lap. With no running on day one, McLaren gave Button and Magnussen a day and a half each, with the swap taking place on Thursday lunchtime. Magnussen’s best-lap-of-the test came then on only his second ever day in an F1 car. The last, also in a McLaren, was two years ago in the Young Driver’s Test and that car had a totally different engine and significantly different aerodynamics. It’s Sunday Afternoon Club Lore that the real greats take little or no time to make their mark. We’re thinking Senna at Monaco in ‘84, Vettel at Monza in ‘08. Is Magnussen that good?

  5. With so much of last week spent standing around waiting for the car to get fixed, some of the best insights into the new Formula came from time-filling conversations. The new regulations - 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 hybrids recovering energy not only from the brakes but the heat of the turbo too - have to run around 30 per cent more efficiently than last year’s unblown 2.4-litre V8s. They have to, as they only have two-thirds of the fuel to burn - 100kg as opposed to 150kg last year - and can only burn it at 100kg/hour.

    In other words the cars won’t make it to the flag unless the KERS (brakes) and ERS (technically the brakes and the turbo heat but we’ll use it to mean only the latter here) are working. So the races will be economy runs, right? Apparently not. Those low on fuel consumption like Monaco will be full on, 800bhp blasts from the lights.

  6. 800bhp is just a guess. We know that regenerated energy from the brakes and turbo is doubled from last year’s 80bhp to 161bhp, and also that while the FIA maintains that the turbo V6s produce 600bhp (some 150bhp less than the V8s), the teams, especially those smug enough to have a Mercedes engine, are already suggesting it is substantially more.

    Teams have also let on that the engines have an incredibly steep torque curve that plateaus long before the new 15,000rpm rev limit. It’s how they’ve been able to meet the requirement to specify one set of gear ratios for the whole season, from Monaco to Monza. That big dump of torque, combined with the downforce reduction that comes with no exhaust blowing or secondary ‘beam’ wing, means the new cars are lairy as hell.

  7. One factor hardly mentioned yet is the fans bête noire of the last few seasons - the tyres. While some teams - Toro Rosso, Marussia, Red Bull - barely managed enough consecutive laps to wipe the shine off the rubber, others like Mercedes who managed a race distance, and McLaren and Ferrari who were interrupted trying to do so, did so on special winter compounds that won’t be seen again this season. It’s one of the reasons why the second and third new car tests will be in Bahrain this year - it’s just warmer.

    The fast Thursday times were all set on a faster medium compound, but we still have no real idea of how this year’s cars compare to last on speed. Fastest lap in Jerez last year was 1:17.879 (Felipe Massa in the Ferrari). Magnussen’s fast lap this year in the McLaren was 1:23.276. That gap won’t close completely come Bahrain, but let’s hope it closes a little…

  8. The F1 teams are using a different language for the energy recovery systems this year, so we better get used to it. The KERS is now the MGU-K (Motor Generator Unit, Kinetic) and it drives through the MGU-H (for Heat) which is a clever little thing which converts the heat from the turbo and ‘compounds’ it back in to the system, with the excess going into the battery along with the juice from the brakes.

    Cars can harvest two megajoules a lap and can use four megajoules, ten times last year’s limit. What’s more, they have 33.3secs each lap in which to use the harvested energy, not the piddling 6.7secs they had before. Learning then how much to keep in reserve with a potential lap time benefit of two seconds is going to require the drivers to take a big dose of the smarts.

  9. The reason this year’s cars (the Mercedes, possibly the Ferrari and the McLaren excepted) looked so darn ugly is safety, yes? The FIA doesn’t want one car nudging another up and into the air, or T-boning another above the sidepod. Fair enough, but we are pretty certain the rules didn’t need to prescribe the probosci blighting this year’s cars.

    Now we hear the FIA is uncertain the things even do the job they were designed for, with letters going out to all the teams asking to see the data on the integrity of the nose sections. Noses don’t get crash tested, remember, only the monocoque, and the fear is that while the nose extensions meet the dimensional regulations, they lack any strength. Race stewards can exclude any car they consider unsafe, no matter what it says in the rulebook.

  10. The second best story of the week? By the time we next see the Williams, we’re told, it will be in the colours of Martini. Yes! Like Porsche, like Lancia, like Brabam and like Colin McRae’s WRC Focus - indeed like all the best racing cars ever. Furthermore, the smart new Williams logo on the car and on the team’s trucks suggests Williams now have a proper graphics company working for them, and no longer rely on Susan from Accounts to do the colouring.

    All this, and the fact the team, once it got the new Mercedes-engined car started, was never far off the pace - whether Felipe Massa (second fastest overall) or Valtteri Bottas (sixth) was driving - suggests Williams might become the cool team of 2014. Who’d have thought?

  11. Don’t write them off. They will be back. They’re last here because by the time the team gave up on Friday lunchtime they had done fewer laps and gone less fast than anyone, Marussia and Caterham included. Renault clearly has problems with its complete power unit (engine, MGU-K, MGU-H) which appears to deliver less power and an awful lot more heat than the Mercedes and the Ferrari.

    Compounded by Adrian Newey’s irresistible urge to package everything up just as small as he possibly can, the RB10 is right now F1’s biggest potential failure. But there’s a reason why the bookmakers still have Vettel as favourite for this year’s title. Don’t think there’s not some magic going on in Milton Keynes right now.

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