So what can we learn from the Mugello tests?

Posted on May 8, 2012

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From the winter testing, especially the tests in Barcelona, it was possible to pick out some reasonably decent trends on the relative performance of the cars. We could see that Sauber and Mercedes were reasonably strong, and that Ferrari were weak. We could pick out that Force India and Toro Rosso were not as good as they had hoped, and that Caterham had not joined the midfield. But there were still surprises – Lotus and Williams have exceeded expectations, and (whisper it) McLaren and Red Bull are not that little bit ahead that we expected. All in all, not bad, but especially as the competitive order is very close, it was never going to be perfect.

And so four races in, with (let’s not forget) four different winners and six different teams on the podium, we come to the Mugello test, where we hope to learn how the competitive order will unfold for the European season with the big upgrade packages bolted onto the cars.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably very interested in Formula One, and have most likely read a number of articles on what has been learned from the Mugello tests. And, if you’re like me, you will have noticed that no detail is provided at all. None. Descriptions of upgrades, and what they are trying to achieve, yes, but information on competitiveness? No. And it’s not that much of a suprise when you think about it…

The first major problem is that the test was at Mugello. So no data from previous races – which means that fuel effect has to be provided by the teams (and misinformation is rife – there are a wide range of numbers for fuel effect at most circuits, and most cars fit one number pretty well in my experience once race data is available), we have no baseline laptimes to work from, and we don’t really know what the difference in laptime between a qualifying lap and a first race stint is. This gives us a huge set of unknowns. Add to this that no-one did a race simulation now that they have done four races with these cars, and the most useful source of data (gives a best fix on the fuel loads) is lost.

Worse still, most of the teams were focussed on assessing upgrades, or validiation/verification work. The validation of the CFD simulations and the verification of the track/windtunnel/CFD correlations are of vital importance and they determine whether the teams can continue their ‘virtual testing’, or need to reset some of the numbers. The confidence gained in the tools in this test could be a determining factor in deciding the outcome of the title race, and this is absolutely invisible in any of the laptime data – and even in the behaviour of the cars on the track.

With this background, I looked at the Mugello test laptimes, with admittedly very low expectations. The fastest time of the week was a low 81s lap, and for tracks with similar laptimes (Barcelona!), first stint times were about 8s slower last year. Factoring in that qualifying is relatively slower this year, and no-one will be on empty tanks, and we are looking for about 86-87s laps for our first stints, assuming that we are on a similar tyre compound. On the Wednesday, we have data from Paffett, Massa and Grosjean in this range. Grosjean is a couple of tenths faster than Paffett and Massa – and all three have pretty low tyre degradation. However, small differences in fuel load can easily account for any differences, and tyre compound differences would account for even more. So it still looks close, but that is about all that can be said. On the final day (Thursday), the picture is less clear – only Sauber are in this target laptime range, and they are about 0.5s slower than Paffett. Most of the teams are running in the 84-85s bracket – with possibilities of varying fuel/tyre combinations there is simply nothing that can be said with any justification. Somewhat frustrating really.

So here’s to Friday at Barcelona – cars running in preparation for a race on a track with huge amounts of previous data. Where we should be able to learn quite a lot. And with the possibility of comparing upgrades in comparison with the pre-season tests.

 

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