F1 Testing Analysis: How Fast could they go?

Posted on March 8, 2012


As the dust settles on the winter testing, and all eyes move to Australia, there is still frantic head-scratching amongst fans: is Ferrari really slow? is Mercedes really quick? Who showed what in one-lap pace? In order to get an idea of how fast the cars can really go, and to try to consolidate the pace order of the teams, I have had a go at matching the heavy fuel pace with the fastest recorded times using the 2011 Spanish Grand Prix data as a guide.

The nice thing about this data is that there is a quite friendly consistency between the qualifying times and the pace in the opening laps of the race. A little modelling has been done to gain the initial ‘free air’ pace of Vettel (as he was stuck behind Alonso in the early laps), but this also gives reasonably consistent answers.

The pace difference between qualifying and the early race laps is of the order of 8-8.5s, and this is pretty consistent amongst those who started on the soft tyres. There are differences depending on whether the tyres were old or used at the start, but 0.5s seems to cover most of it. Therefore, taking the best guess at the ‘first stint’ equivalent pace from previous posts, we can have a guess at how fast the cars should be able to go. Obviously this is based on a few assumptions:

– the cars have an underlying pace which translates from full to empty tanks with similar engine map and DRS effects (not perfect, but the 2011 data suggests that this is not bad)

– the engine map restrictions for 2012 do not make too much difference. As the data supports about 8.5s better than 8s, I will use this value.

So what does this give us?

Car                               Full (my curve fit)                        Qualifying (my guess)                      Fastest Test Lap

Red Bull                           89.5s                                            81.0s                                             82.6s

McLaren                           89.5s                                            81.0s                                             82.1s

Ferrari                              90.4s                                            81.9s                                             82.2s

Mercedes                         89.4s (least certain)                       80.9s                                             82.9s

Lotus                               90.4s (maybe a few tenths faster)    81.9s                                             82.0s

Force India                       90.8s                                             82.3s                                            82.3s

Sauber                             90.6s (slowest in probable range)     82.1s                                             82.0s

Toro Rosso                       91.1s                                            82.6s                                             82.1s

Williams                           91.5s                                            83.0s                                             82.3s

Caterham                          91.5s                                            83.0s                                            82.6s

So what does this show us? At first glance it suggests that the slow cars are going too fast, and that the fast cars are going too slow in the qualifying runs. In reality, I would guess that there are a number of things happening.

Firstly, I think that the slower cars have run more fuel in their heavy stint simulations than they would run at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix, and that the qualifying simulations are most likely to be quite representative. There is about 1s worth of time between full and Spanish Grand Prix start fuel level. So Williams, Toro Rosso and Caterham are probably doing better in comparison with the midfield than it looks from the long runs, but worse from the qualifying standpoint. I think this suggests that Williams and Toro Rosso are closer into the Force India/Sauber battle than I had thought – Caterham may still be a few tenths behind. Where the times are consistent (Force India, Sauber, Lotus, Ferrari) one of two things is happening – either they are running full fuel in the heavy stints and ~20kg in the qualifying simulations, or they are showing real pace. I guess that it is somwhere between the two (probably different for different teams). Ferrari look to be running lightly more conservatively than the others – perhaps they have a little more to come.

For the fast teams, it seems that they are running at least 30kg of fuel in the low fuel runs – and if they are running more than a normal Barcelona fuel load in their heavy runs, then there is even more pace to come, and I would guess that they have also done their low fuel runs using conservative engine modes. The real dark horse is again Mercedes – they have chosen to be the least representative in their testing, both on low fuel and high fuel.

So, this suggests a few tweaks to the pecking order which is gradually being developed on this blog. My best guess is that things look something like this:

Group 1: Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes – they have hidden too much for us to be sure of anything

Group 2: Ferrari, Lotus, possibly Sauber – they look to be of the order of 1s behind. I anticipate a bit of a gap after the first three, maybe Lotus would sit in the gap.

Group 3: Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso, possibly Sauber – these cars are a few tenths further back

Caterham still look to be a few tenths shy of joining the pack, which I find a little disappointing. I’d like to see ten teams in a real chase for points – I think it would be good for Formula One.

Who knows what we will really see when practice starts a week on Friday. I’m ready for some surprises, but I’m most ready for them from Mercedes and Sauber…