Testing for the 2014 season got underway this week at the Jerez circuit. Testing is notoriously unpredictable and any attempt to ascertain a pecking order are ultimately futile. However this week was certainly not without it’s surprises. First were the problems encountered by Renault, with the engine manufacturer seemingly behind in it’s efforts to get on top of the new “powertrain” regulations. The Renault powered teams have struggled so far, completing a total of 151 laps compared to Ferrari’s 444 and Mercedes’ even more impressive 875. Numerous reports have flown around the paddock, ranging from energy storage problems to vibration issues, which appears to suggest the Renault engine has a number of problems, ranging in complexity. This is less than ideal, especially considering the complexity of the new engines.
Second was the abject failure of Red Bull, the dominant team of the previous regulations. Whilst they are attempting to put a brave face on their issues, I can’t help but feel that Daniel Ricciardo let more slip than he would have liked, telling the media that if Red Bull’s problems persisted he was confident that they would make up ground throughout the season- hardly bullish aspirations and essentially admitting the team were behind. Of course Adrian Newey rarely designs poor cars, his design record is testament to his brilliance. However Newey’s aggressive hunt for aerodynamic performance may be hurting Red Bull at this early stage of the season; Newey is famed for his attention to aerodynamics, pursuing tight packaging that pushes the limit of cooling. There are reports that the Red Bull is experiencing overheating issues, with rumours of burning components. At this stage of the game surely it would be prudent to take a conservative approach, putting miles on the car, getting a sound understanding of the base chassis before searching for those important performance gains. Mercedes and Ferrari, Red Bull’s principle rivals last year, have been very reliable and it would not be a stretch to say they have a substantial advantage at this moment in time with regards to understanding their package. We of course do not know if the Red Bull is quick yet, no team has any true idea as to the pecking order, but what’s better- to qualify on pole and retire, or be slower yet reliable? As usual, only time will tell and I can’t wait.
F1 is dominated by two stories at the moment, engines and tyres; the engine situation so far is rather clear with Williams moving to a Mercedes supply and Lotus currently deciding between Renault and Mercedes (with Renault apparently edging closer to a new contract). The changes in the engine market have been set in motion by McLaren revisiting their historic partnership with Honda from 2015 and Torro Rosso joining their sister team at Renault from next year.
However the world of F1 tyre supplies and testing is a rather murkier affair. Mercedes appear to find themselves in a bit of a predicament with regards to their recent test in Barcelona on behalf of Pirelli. Both the German marque and Italian supplier feel that the FIA cleared the test, with the authority arguing that they did not adhere to the rules set out in their correspondence.
Red Bull principal Christian Horner regards the test as being “underhand” which may be a rather fitting description. The test appears to have completely bypassed the world of twitter, in many ways the truest modern litmus test of all things news in the modern world. Mercedes director Toto Wolff has argued that they did not hide the fact they were staying in Barcelona after the race but this still does not mask the fact that neither the other teams nor numerous F1 journalists covering the sport on a daily basis seemed to have no clue that a test of any kind was going on. With the criticisms levelled at Pirelli in the weeks preceding the Spanish Grand Prix I cannot help but feel that if anyone had of known of this test it would have been covered in some detail.
Helmut Marko claims that Mercedes could have gained as much as one second per lap as a result of the three day test which remains to be seen (Mercedes were favourite to win in Monaco anyway as a result of their one-lap pace and unique nature of the circuit). However it does raise questions of Pirelli’s continued involvement in the sport; I cannot help but feel that Pirelli have been made to be a scapegoat by some of the bigger teams such as Red Bull and Mercedes. Whilst Ferrari and Lotus have stuck to the task of understanding the deliberately fragile nature of the 2013 tyres, others have repeatedly bemoaned how racing in F1 is now a forgotten concept. Let us not forget that the FIA asked Pirelli to produce such tyres after repeated calls from fans that the Bridgestone tyres were reducing the spectacle of F1. Now I am not saying that I agree with drivers four stopping in races but these tyres seem little different to the last two years of Pirelli construction, with teams struggling at the beginning of the year before getting a handle on them. Why should they be changed just because the bigger boys are having a tantrum?
With the constant criticism being levelled at Pirelli for doing as they were asked, surely it is only a matter of time before they leave the sport? Pirelli are a global brand who will seek to protect their reputation as being competent tyre makers. However as the saying goes-mud sticks, and it is only sensible to assume that the constant attack of their aptitude will filter down to even those uninterested in F1. Coupled with the teams stalling over a new tyre contract, Pirelli might just decide that enough is enough and quit the sport which has turned on it. I can only hope that this is not the case and that the teams simply get on with their job on the track, rather than in the papers.
It has been all change at Mercedes this year with the arrival of Lewis Hamilton, widely regarded to be one of the fastest drivers on the grid. Hamilton has recently sounded a little downbeat on Mercedes performance, telling the circus that he is no aiming for race wins this year and concentrating on getting into Q3 and points scoring finishing. This seems to be in contradiction from his teammate Nico Rosberg’s comments, who appears to feel the car is stronger relatively than the start of the 2012 season where they were actually very quick but suffered from high tyre degradation.
It interests me to see wholly different views being expressed from the two drivers and whilst I could be wrong, seems to amount to gamesmanship from the team. Watching the pre-season test today Martin Brundle and Paul di Resta have both commented how impressive the Mercedes car is. With a strong technical department and two quick drivers, who’s to say Mercedes can’t have a good year? We’ll have to wait and see.