3 March 2014
The next F1 test is for the sport itself
After the conclusion of testing in Bahrain, the complexity of the new regulations could see fans subjected to some unusual racing at the opening rounds
As the chequered flag signified the end of pre-season testing in Bahrain and the teams continued to pack up equipment to ship to Melbourne, a sense of trepidation remained.
True pace from the likes of Red Bull and Lotus remained unclear, while there appeared to be a number of competitive teams over a race distance. Jenson Button named five at the end of his penultimate day in the car, but admitted the situation kept changing throughout the final test.
“It's hard to tell at the moment as you don't know what people have added in terms of upgrades but Mercedes are quick, Williams are strong and Force India look competitive – as do Red Bull and Ferrari,” he said.
Talk of aerodynamic upgrades is one thing, but it's clear that a pre-2014 prediction has come true: F1 has become much more of an engine formula, taking a big aspect of competitiveness out of the teams' hands and leading to the aforementioned concern.
Obvious to everyone who has followed running in Jerez and Bahrain is the difference in reliability, with Renault clearly struggling throughout all three tests and therefore hampering the ability of any of its four teams – Red Bull, Lotus, Toro Rosso and Caterham – to learn about their respective new cars.
Perhaps less obvious to the casual fan is just how central to the operation and performance of the car each engine manufacturer has become. Engineers from Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault have grown in number with each team, and their workload dramatically increased compared to previous seasons.
Lotus technical director Nick Chester admits that there are now more roles on the engine side which dictate how the car is run.
“There is a bigger team,” Chester said. “Renault Sport supplies an extra engineer to every team to help with the mapping of the energy recovery system and there's a lot more to cover. You run in such a different mode when you're trying to run a qualifying lap to a race lap, the mapping is very different, how the driver drives it is different and even how you set it up is different. So there's a lot to cover between ourselves and Renault Sport.”
Speaking to numerous team members up and down the pit lane, one theme is the same: These cars are temperamental, and fixing them takes a long, long time. Worst of all is an engine change, as one team member put it: “If it goes bang in FP1, you'll miss FP2. If it goes in FP3, then you're out of qualifying…”
And such problems could be damaging for the sport at the start of the season. Viewers tuning in to see what the new regulations bring in terms of racing are set to find teams struggling to overcome problems and potentially missing sessions. On top of that, when it comes to the Sunday afternoon in Melbourne there are likely to be more occasions where drivers with fuel and tyre saving in mind are asking 'Are we racing him?' as another car looms in their mirrors.
So could F1 in 2014 be too complex to allow for the exciting racing many fans crave?
“It's hard,” Romain Grosjean says. “It's a big change of regulation and it's quite extreme. The cars; everyone says they look strange but we'll somehow get used to them. Right now as long as there is competition and competitors to drive the cars then people will be happy.
“We love the sport, we are passionate about Formula One but the main thing is that there's a good show behind and that people are passionate about racing.”
However, Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali says the key is that the sport has to help itself if the situation arises. He's confident that the new regulations can deliver close racing quickly, but admits it may have to weather an early storm before things improve.
“I think that we have to start from the approach that we have something to promote. So maybe here the people who are saying 'Oh, Formula One is a disaster' in a couple of races will be the ones who are first to say 'See, I've always said Formula One is fantastic!' So we need to be balanced.
“For sure, the change that was done this year in terms of regulations is incredible. It is a change that was not possible to do little step by little step because we know how the nature of Formula One is and we need to adjust everything on our side. But that is the line and we need to make sure that at all levels we invest in order to promote and make sure that this racing is really exciting. Let's wait and see at the end of the year how the situation will be.”
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