F1 Testing Analysis: Deciphering the story at the front

Posted on March 6, 2012

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I guess that it was a little naive to assume that all the teams would provide us with nice race simulations in order to be able to make a (reasonably) confident assessment of the relative pace of the cars ahead of the first race. Obviously, there are track-to-track variations, and questions of hitting the sweet spot on the race weekend itself, but I guess I expected to have a little more to go on in establishing the relative competitiveness of the leading cars.

In fact, it is those leading cars who have given us the least to go on, perhaps as they are the ones with most to lose (or perhaps to gain). Ferrari have given us a fair amount to go on, probably because the picture does not look so good from their perspective. They seem to be over half a second down on the leaders, and probably more given the games we have seen from the front runners, which look to be Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes. In fact, the team which has been the most mysterious is the Silver Arrows, as we will see.

So, if we do not have good multi-stint race distance runs to go on, what can we do? Well, we have some multi-stint runs from the leading teams, and we can match the pace of different stints, and get an idea of when they refuel. This gives us an indication of which stints run are representative of the opening stint of the race, and what sort of pace the different teams have. As most of the race simulations have started on soft tyres, I have compared soft tyre ‘first’ stints only. Interestingly, there is some very good consistency between these runs on different days – whether this is by design or because the track conditions were fairly consistent I don’t know,

The graphs of the first stints are shown below for the four leading teams – where I have multiple runs (most drivers) I have kept one run only, as the line lie on top of each other well enough not to change the story.

So by fitting the curves, I get that Schumacher is around a second up on Hamilton/Vettel, with Webber about 0.5s further back, with another 0.5s to the Ferrari of Massa. This looks like a consistent and reasonable picture – except for the pace of the Mercedes. Checking against other tyre compounds and stints we see a consistent picture of very close competition between Red Bull and McLaren, with Ferrari behind. The story for Mercedes is much less clear.

Trawling through all the timing data that I have, there are very few ‘slow’ Mercedes stints, and most of these are on the hard tyres. Mercedes ran many stints at the pace shown here and this was the slowest that they ran on the soft tyres. Do I think that they have an advantage of the best part of a second a lap going into Melbourne? I don’t, but the only support I have for this is a comparison of ‘first’ stints on hard tyres done by Button and Schumacher in the first Barcelona test week.

From this it seems that the Mercedes, if anything, is slightly quicker on pace, but is using it’s tyres up a little more quickly. As there have been five full days of testing since this, there may well be some improvements that we have not seen, but this suggests to me that Mercedes are competitive with McLaren and Red Bull. The three leading teams have been careful not to show too much, especially Mercedes. My best guess is that they are running about 20kg light (not quite a stint’s worth) and that their pace is pretty close to that of McLaren and Red Bull – possibly marginally quicker. Mercedes have done a lot of work on degradation – this suggests to me that they are happy enough with the pace and that they are looking at maximising the race.

So I would expect a three-way fight for the Australian Grand Prix victory as long as the amounts of pace each of the three leading teams is ‘hiding’ is roughly equivalent. There is no reason to suppose it is, and there is no reason to suppose that the relative single lap pace is similar either. Which is good, because if I knew now that one of the teams had a second a lap advantage over the rest, I would be a little disappointed.

Can I pick a winner? Yes. Hamilton, or Rosberg, or…

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