New season, new pecking order…
From the outside observer’s perspective, testing has been nearly impossible to call. The removal of refuelling in races has increased the amount fuel loads have varied in testing this year, so if you don’t know how much fuel each car is carrying, it’s incredibly difficult to work out who is quick and who isn’t. But fortunately for us, there are some who do know how much fuel each car is carrying, and that has allowed rough guestimations to be made as to what the pecking order currently looks like.
It seems that the big 4 teams, the 2 that dominated last year and the 2 that dominated the year before, will be the leading contenders, perhaps with a slight edge on the rest of the field. This is similar to the situation we were in at the beginning of 2006, when it was considered that the top 4 teams were Ferrari, Renault, McLaren and Honda. Swap Renault for Renault-powered Red Bull and we have an identical situation – those 4 teams with a fighting chance of fighting for the big scores, with Ferrari and Red Bull perhaps having an edge over the other 2 as Ferrari and Renault had 4 years ago.
However, it does seem incredibly close and there is no guarantee the pecking order at the end of testing will be the same as it will be in Bahrain. The teams will be taking more new parts to the first race, particularly Mercedes who are bringing a new diffuser that may give them a few extra tenths. The comments from the likes of Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn have been intriguing – it seems that even there, there is an air of uncertainty. Ditto at McLaren, where whilst Lewis has been doing the positive PR spin, Jenson has seemed cautious whilst speaking to the media. However, Ferrari and Red Bull seem confident, although question marks remain over the reliability of the RB6.
Behind the big 4, there is an equally close and fascinating midfield scrap. I have been continually impressed by the Sauber this winter, being on the pace straight away in Valencia and producing some good times during Kobayashi’s race simulation this week. It is no surprise if they have built a quick car, given that the development of the C29 was funded by BMW. They may have had one bad year but I doubt they’ve forgotten how to build a quick racing car – 2008 isn’t that long ago. Along with them, Force India must be considered dark horses. They have continued the momentum they picked up at the end of last year and have built another quick car – I’d be surprised if they are over half a second off the leading pace.
I keep reading conflicting reports about Williams. I read one quote suggesting they were on the same pace as McLaren fuel-corrected, but Nico Hulkenberg suggested they were a bit off the pace. I think they will once again be solid midfielders. As for Renault, despite the odd flash of optimism of Autosport’s recent tip of them as “dark horses”, I forecast another gloomy mid-season mired in the midfield, probably now behind the 3 teams I have listed above. Maybe even Toro Rosso can overhaul them – despite the initial doubts of the capability of a car designed and constructed entirely by Faenza staff, they have been quick at times and seem better prepared than last year, when the STR4 was a late introduction to testing.
At the back, the speed of the newcomes has been positive. Although they may be off the back by a couple of seconds, they are not going to be incredibly slow. We have a potentially great little scrap between the quick but fragile Virgin, which will have more updates for Bahrain, and the slower but more reliable Lotus. Unfortunately the sheer unreliability of the Virgin may mar this – despite doing an extra week of testing, the VR-01 did less miles than the T127 overall. But this is not something you can blame on CFD – all signs are that they have not lost anything by going down this route and may have the faster of the new teams’ cars.
So, all in all, very positive – it looks like being another thrilling season. There is no runaway leader at this stage – even the big 4 teams don’t have that big a gap to the rest of the field. I hope we see a close, fair fight, some good racing, not too much off-track controversy, a few upsets, some new and popular winners, and 19 safe races.