F1 2011 Preview

Each year I attend the pre-season Formula One test at Barcelona, and this always prompts the following question from friends: What is going to happen this season? The following are my own thoughts and observations based on what I saw.

The first thing that struck me was the number of mechanical failures and problems. There were not too many stoppages on track but there were noticeable long gaps between runs by certain teams, and insights from Twitter suggested hydraulics failures here, KERS problems there, etc.

After the general bullet-proof reliability of the cars during the 2010 season, I suspect the re-introduction of KERS, as well as general pushing the cars to the limits after more regulation changes, will mean we go back to the days where a third of the field retires by the end of the race, especially in the early part of the season.

But who was fast? The McLaren was clearly the fastest in a straight line. I actually couldn’t keep the car in frame on the straight. It was interesting to see Lewis Hamilton not driving the car on the limit for once, and in fact it was Jenson Button who was locking brakes and running on the edge of the kerbs.

The Red Bull was noticeably fast around corners. Mark Webber put the car into turn three quicker than anyone else, and the car turned in and out of turn six as if it was glued to the track like a Scalectrix toy. There was something about the back of the car that made the car able to turn in later and faster, and straighten back up quicker, than the others.

Ferrari didn’t give too much away at this test. They did single lap run after single lap run, with the occasional longer run in-between. The car looked fast and solid, although Felipe Massa did suffer a couple of spins in the damp conditions.

Renault were on track infrequently, often coming out late into a session and staying out for some of it. Vitaly Petrov seemed to do the bulk of the teams’s running during his two days on track, with Heidfeld matching him for pace. No doubt purists will love to see a black and gold Lotus-themed car on the grid, although this looked nothing like the original, and the black was extremely difficult to photograph.

The front of this year’s Mercedes looks a bit like the front of last year’s McLaren, with a hint of duckbill platypus, but the front looks totally out of place with the rest of the car, and the car just didn’t quite have outright pace. Both drivers looked solid and reliable, but watching the car climb uphill it was clear that there was just that touch of extra speed missing.

Force India were running a very unusual airbox for this test – it was so radical that even I noticed. The car looked like it was running with a bit in reserve, and the drivers were driving well within themselves, as there was no twitching, locking up, running wide or anything.

Toro Rosso looked very similar in shape and behaviour to the Red Bull, as one would expect, but the car was noticeably twitching, especially during the last corner and several times the driver was lucky to correct it each time.

Lotus looked consistent. The car didn’t particularly stand out as fast or slow but blended in with the general flow of things. Jarno Trulli suffered the only accident of the test session on the final morning which damaged the car sufficiently to curtail the session for the team.

Williams seemed to spend a huge amount of time in the garage and, like Renault, made the occasional appearances late on in sessions. The car looked okay although, again like Renault, is extremely dark and difficult to photograph.

Sauber ran frequently throughout the test with Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Pérez sharing the driving duties. The car looked reasonably quick, although Pérez clearly has yet to explore the limits of the car, and Kobayashi is both highly entertaining and insane with the crazy lines he was taking through corners.

Virgin did look quite slow. Testing is notoriously difficult to read but, especially when the car was heading uphill between turns eight and nine, it looked a real effort for the car to get where the driver wanted it to go.

Hispania made a surprise appearance at this test session and actually looked quite respectable. The team were running last year’s car but were able to run long stints and didn’t suffer any noticeable problems.

In conclusion, I think this is going to be another Red Bull year. The car was dancing around corners in ways with which other cars could not compete. I watched it enter and exit turn six and could not understand how it was doing what I was seeing.

Ferrari and McLaren will put up a good fight. If McLaren can get in front in qualifying sessions or during starts then their straight-line speed will make them very difficult to pass, and Ferrari have something in reserve that they didn’t demonstrate during this test. Sauber and Force India will do well as those around them may suffer mechanical problems, and their youthful and eccentric line-ups will bring a breath of fresh air to Formula One.

And for the long-shot outside bet? I was actually very impressed with HRT. They pounded away doing lap after lap, far from being the car held together with sticky tape after the impression we were given this time last year. They are unlikely to regularly score points, or even beat Lotus, but in a season where there is likely to be a higher attrition rate than usual, a car consistently finishing at the back may pick up the occasional point.