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Gray Matter: What’s in the times?

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Gray Matter: What’s in the times?

Fri Feb 05 09:42AM
Ferrari appear to have hit the track running after a high-profile opening pre-season test - but is the Italian team's early performance a real pointer towards the new season?

Every year, pre-season testing offers the first chance to judge the teams' potential for the coming season and with seven new cars making their track debuts at the same time this week, the opening test of 2010 was a real focus of excitement.

Traditionally, testing times are not easily comparable as the teams all work on different programmes - and that has been accentuated this year by the ban on refuelling, which has created increased fuel options and an even greater uncertainty in times because of the different weights different teams could be running.

That said, there have already been some interesting mutterings - and open admissions - from the paddock about who has laid down the benchmark and who is already playing catch-up.

In this age of limited testing, teams must get up to speed quickly and thanks to the simulators used back at base, most arrive at a circuit with the car already well set-up.

New cars, however, still need systems checks to ensure everything has fitted together correctly for real, so the opening Monday was more like a shakedown. Tuesday was the day when teams really started to focus on long runs, while Wednesday was the day for the top times to be set.

This year there has been an added complication and with so many top teams gaining new drivers - Alonso to Ferrari, Button to McLaren, Schumacher in at Mercedes - and they also had to spend time getting their new arrivals settled in before getting down to business.

Button, who only ran on Wednesday, revealed it took him almost half the day to "find his way around the cockpit" in his new McLaren - a job that, no matter what is done in the factory, cannot be fully assessed until the car is in full motion out on track.

Alonso also spent time working on his comfort in the new Ferrari, but in his case he still managed to set the top time of the day.

Surprisingly, there were few dramas up and down the pitlane in terms of reliability. Toro Rosso - who have a new constructor could effectively be classed as a new team - had the most troubles, spending much of the opening day in the pits struggling with gearbox issues.

A couple of teams - Williams and Renault - had cars stop out on track. On the Wednesday McLaren spent significant time in the garage getting Button settled, while Schumacher's run in the Mercedes was curtailed by a hydraulic problem.

Of all the runners, Ferrari managed to put in the most number of laps with 353 over the three days. That was some 73 laps - or 20 per cent - more running than the next closest team Mercedes, with McLaren just four laps further back.

And out of all of those runs came some interesting conclusions.

As said before, it's true the times set mean relatively little, but as Button pointed out, there is no smoke without fire.

"Ferrari was fast," he said. "We don't know how fast, but you can't do that time if you are not competitive."

The new Ferrari, in fact, seems to be fast on the slower runs - those where it was running heavier fuel loads - as well as the much lighter runs when the fastest times of the session were set.

And even more intriguingly, Alonso's fastest time was actually set eight laps BEFORE he finished the run he was on - so his fastest time was set while still carrying a not insignificant amount of fuel.

McLaren generally remained typically quiet about their assessment of their performance but Mercedes were openly admitting they had some issues with handling and balance. Schumacher still admitted after his Wednesday run that he is not expecting to win straight away.

This opening test, however, was run on a track that is different to most circuits the teams are used to, one that requires a very different balance. And with a test so significant, one that so grabbed the media's attention, did the teams all let us see all we wanted to see? Were some sandbagging? Are some playing mind games with the rest of the field?

There is already a new diffuser and front wing in the pipeline for Mercedes and all the teams will be adding development parts to increase their pace as the season draws closer. But for now, at least, Maranello is a happy place to be.
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