Friday, 16 March 2012

More questions than answers? Conclusions from Free Practice at Albert Park

For anyone expecting the season’s first F1 practice session to leave us much the wiser of the current form book, they were sorely disappointed. 

Melbourne’s typical bright autumnal sunshine was replaced by a selection of cloud and intermittent rain, hardly optimum conditions for F1 cars to stretch their legs and push the limits of performance.

None of the teams showed its real hand today. 

Mercedes and Michael Schumacher topped the timesheets, with the German 7-time world champion proclaiming himself happy with his runs. 

Red Bull looked muted – from the onboard footage Vettel was clearly leaving performance to spare. 

From its body language the car was not squirming around on the limit of adhesion even on the low grip of a moist track. Through the final turn, the fast right-hander where drivers deftly
feed in the power as the corner opens out, there was no hint of him ‘chasing’ the throttle or correcting rear-end slide.

Why should he? It wasn’t worth the risk. The cost of slamming the car into the wall, as Karun Chandhok did last year, would have far outweighed any benefit the team could have gained – the use of any data collected from running on a damp track is dubious at best.

Many other teams followed a similarly low-risk procedure. McLaren looked strong and clearly had performance to spare, whilst Force India underlined their solid testing pace with confident-looking laps from both di Resta and Hulkenberg. 

Their car looked planted and the drivers seemed comfortable from the off, a positive sign for Sunday, where in a race which so often produces surprise results predictability is valuable.

Ferrari's radical pull-rod derived F12 looked a handful in the hands of both Alonso and Massa, the Spaniard suffering several mid-corner wobbles whilst the Brazilian ham-fistedly beaching the car into the gravel after a careless spin at turn 9. 

The car looked visibly less planted than the McLaren or Red Bull, or even the Mercedes. 

Much paddock talk has been devoted to the Mercedes' new wing-stalling DRS enhancer but until its effectiveness can be measured more empirically it's difficult to quantify how valuable it is in reducing lap time.

HRT and its principal Luis Perez Sala looked sheepish after sessions to forget. Not only was the car slow, but unreliable – Narain Karthikeyan stopped on track in free practice 1 and De La Rosa completed a single installation lap. Karthikeyan eventually lapped 13 seconds slower than Schumacher. 

There should be more to come from the team – one hopes Karthikeyan was erring on the side of caution – but for many paddock insiders it will be a long shot if the team even qualifies. Apparently more personnel from Sky are present at Albert Park than from the entire HRT team, which says something about priorities. 

It's premature to ring a team's death knell after two inconclusive sessions but HRT could become a Mastercard-Lola type fracas (the short-lived 1997 team that arrived in Australia 13 seconds off the pace). But with the experience of Pedro de la Rosa the team should begin to make strides. They will certainly need to.

Lotus and 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen were also muted, the Finn complaining of a lack of power steering feel similar to the one that blighted his testing at Jerez.

The problem seems to have been partially resolved as Raikkonen set competitive laptimes, finishing in ninth ahead of teammate Grosjean, but whether Lotus can completely quell these gremlins before qualifying remains to be seen. 

Actions speak louder than words if the famously reticent 'iceman' Raikkonen drove himself straight back to the sharp end after a two year absence, he would generate serious column inches.  

All in all, it was a frustrating session that produced little to upset the general hierarchy generated by testing. The old guard of Red Bull and McLaren seem well-placed and Mercedes appear to be in the hunt. But there remains little to suggest that one team is significantly ahead of any others. 

If dry, qualifying tomorrow will shine a revealing light on the true pecking order for the first time. Until then it's anyone's guess. 

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