A fundamental rule of thumb in Formula One is that you can’t never really know just how good your car is until the first qualifying session of the opening race. Of course, engineers will go through kilometers of data, analyze every simple bit of information a thousand times, the team will run various programs during winter tests, on different fuel levels etc… BUT… the first real test comes when the checkered flag drops at the end of Q3 on the opening race weekend’s Saturday.
Until that point, teams can be confident of their pace, but the talking stops when this pace is put to the challenge with 22 other cars on track fighting for the highest spot possible on the grid.
“It would be unwise to make any judgment at this stage… it will be close”
Towards the end of our winter testing programme, Ross and Norbert commented many times on how unwise it would be to make any comment or judgment solely based on testing results. No points are given during the winter, and you don’t get extra if your predictions turn out to be true.
The only thing most people tend to agree on was that the field looked pretty close, closer that it has been for many years. The weekend in Melbourne started where we left things at the last winter test of the pre-season, with the team testing the car under different circumstances. Melbourne is a bit of an odd track – a street track only used once a year – and the weather being what it was on Friday (overnight rain, damp track for the first session, further heavy shower before the start of the second session) meant that the teams had less time to work on a dry setup over the two practice sessions.
The team still managed to gather data and despite the patchy day, achieved a reasonable amount of work on varying fuel levels. However, as usual the overall picture remained unclear until the qualifying sessions the following day.
Both Michael and Nico progressed easily through the first two sessions, with Nico completing only one run on the prime tyres in Q1. After their first run was aborted due to a red flag, the pair finished in first and third position in Q2, using option tyres. The guys headed with reasonable confidence into Q3, and a great job by Michael saw him secure the fourth spot on the grid, 0.4s shy of Hamilton’s pole position time.
Sadly for Nico, a small mistake in turn three meant that he only secured the seventh time on the grid. But being disappointed with the 7th spot just shows how things evolved in 12 months… At last year’s season opener, we were 1.5 seconds off pole – and, in fact, Michael’s lap ensured that we were one of only three teams to actually qualify faster than we did in 2011 (along with Williams and Caterham). If anything goes to show the progress that is being made, that does.
“Melbourne is not really representative of the true competitive picture”
As for Sunday, Michael and Nico pretty much picked things were they left them last year with yet another brilliant start for the pair – Michael gaining one position after his move on Grosjean while Nico managed to gain three by the first corner. From there, sadly, things didn’t go the way we had expected from our running in practice. Michael ran consistently, if some way off the pace of the McLarens, until a gearbox problem forced him off the road at turn one on lap 11 – and ultimately into retirement. As for Nico, he struggled with his car balance and therefore tyre degradation, which forced him to put earlier than the cars in front of him – and put him back into the clutches of a very tight, and competitive, midfield pack.
He ran a tyre strategy of medium/soft/soft, and was still headed for sixth place before last-lap contact with Perez punctured a rear tyre and put him down to 12th at the chequered flag.
So what happened? That’s what we’re hard at work finding out right now. Ross analysed the situation after the race as follows, explaining that, as the circuit and track temperatures evolved on Sunday, “we fell out of the working window (with the tyres), and struggled with degradation.”
Now, any statistician will tell you that you can’t deduce a trend from a sample of one, and the only way to approach any unexpected results is to analyse them calmly, find the causes and work on them.
We know Melbourne is an unusual circuit – and we know that the cooler evening conditions in which the race is run can sometimes pose problems with tyre temperatures. But we will be working hard to extract the car’s full speed over the race distance beginning this weekend in Sepang. Unexpected developments – be they set-backs or nice surprises – are all part of what makes our sport so fascinating; and the mark of a strong team is an ability to treat both just the same.
So it was a disappointing end to the weekend for the team, but there’s more than a few positive facts to take from the race in Melbourne. The team made a step in the good direction, and the mission will now be to understand the car fully and to use its potential.
The fight back actually starts this week – the beauty of back to back races! – at the first of our home races this year in Malaysia. Not long to wait now...