That’s it; winter testing is finished. The next time a V8 Formula One engine fires up in anger, the teams will be nestled inside Melbourne’s Albert Park, waiting for the serious business to begin.
It’s been difficult to judge the relative performance of the cars during the tests because they’ve been running different programs, but what we can say after 12 days of running is that they are reliable. Combined, they’ve completed nearly 50,000 kilometres and they’ve regularly knocked up 130 laps – the equivalent of two race distances – in a day. That means the season-opener in Melbourne will be decided by performance and not breakages, as has sometimes been the case in the past.
The focus of this final test session, which ended in Barcelona on Sunday, was Melbourne. Aerodynamic packages specific to the Albert Park track were tried out and a lot of emphasis was placed on tyre wear. Tyres might be black and round, but they’re not boring in F1. They are a car’s only contact patch with the ground and it’s vital that their performance is maximised.
Pirelli took all four of their dry tyre compounds to the test, but the teams did the bulk of their testing on the soft and medium compounds – the tyres that will be used during the Australian Grand Prix. They even had the chance to try the intermediate tyres when rain fell on Saturday afternoon.
But the four-day session began on Thursday and it was Mark Webber who kicked things off for Red Bull Racing, with Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne driving the Toro Rosso. Webber had a busy day, completing 102 laps, and he reported no major issues with the RB8. Track conditions deteriorated during the afternoon as the temperatures increased and Mark was one of only two drivers to improve his time after lunch, ending the day fourth fastest.
Vergne focused on longer runs throughout the day and he ended up sixth fastest, one second shy of Romain Grosjean, who topped the times for Lotus.
It was world champion Sebastian Vettel’s chance to get behind the wheel on Friday, again under glorious blue skies. Like Webber the previous day, he set his best lap in the afternoon, when track conditions were far from perfect and he completed a race simulation, which gave the pit crew a chance to hone their wheel-changing.
The same cannot be said of Vergne, who was having his final day in Toro Rosso’s STR7 before handing over to Daniel Ricciardo. The Frenchman completed 31 laps during the morning, but had to sit out the bulk of the afternoon session after an engine problem and subsequent fire caused a lot of damage. The car remained in the garage for repairs until just 30 minutes of the day remained, so any hope of a race simulation was knocked on the head.
“Everyone seemed interested in the new package,” said Webber afterwards. “But it didn’t seem like a new package to me. It was just some minor aerodynamic improvements and we now have to analyse them.”
Such was the extent of Red Bull Racing’s analysis that Webber completed just one run of more than five laps all day and he set the eighth fastest lap. The mid-afternoon rain limited mileage as well.
The opposite was true down at Toro Rosso, where Ricciardo completed 131 laps, which was more than any other driver. His fastest lap placed him third and he was less than 0.1s off Sergio Perez’s fastest time of the day.
When Ricciardo completed a further 100 laps on Sunday, he declared himself happy with progress. “We had an ambitious programme for this test,” said Daniel, “and to get through it all is very satisfying. I’m learning, but I’m learning fast and that’s good. We’re getting a good understanding of the car.”
Vettel was back in Red Bull Racing’s RB8 for the final day of the test and he endured a frustrating time, completing just 23 laps. A small off-track excursion during the morning session broke the RB8’s front wing and subsequent gearbox problems stopped him getting out until right at the end of the day. His fastest lap was slowest of the cars present, but no-one genuinely expects that to be the case when the action kicks off in Melbourne. Red Bull gives you wings, right?
"The next stop now is Melbourne and I’m looking forward to that; it’s always good to drive out of the pitlane there. Racing’s what we’re all here for and while testing is good, it’s nice to be on track all at the same time, all with the same window of opportunity to deliver – that’s what we love doing. I’m looking forward to that weekend unfolding, and the rest of the races. It’ll be good to get the season going.”
The thing that everyone’s asking about is the changes we made to the car, but I have to say the car was not massively different to the one I drove on Thursday. We went through our normal programme, nothing drastic happened, and we just keep working away. The next stop now is Melbourne and I’m looking forward to that; it’s always good to drive out of the pitlane there. Racing’s what we’re all here for and while testing is good, it’s nice to be on track all at the same time, all with the same window of opportunity to deliver – that’s what we love doing. I’m looking forward to that weekend unfolding, and the rest of the races. It’ll be good to get the season going.”
“It wouldn’t be fair to judge the updates we have, as I didn’t get many laps today. I think yesterday was quite a decent step and it was a good day for Mark, so we’ll take what we can from that. Summing up, I think that with testing you always have something you’d run differently, but you have to accept what you get. There aren’t many years you can give yourself a 10 out of 10, because it’s likely that things break or you stop for precautionary reasons. Overall, though, I think we can be quite happy with how we’ve done this time.”
“I have done more running this week than at the previous two tests and we have learned a lot about our new car, enough to have a basis for the start of the season. Personally, I found it very useful and I’ve got a clear understanding of the changes we have made these past few weeks and how the car reacts. Now I’m just looking forward to Melbourne – can’t wait.”