Marussia sporting director Graeme Lowdon believes that the level of competition in this year's F1 world championship may not be truly known until after the opening round in Australia next month.
Although there are still two four-day tests remaining in the pre-season build-up to Melbourne, Lowdon reacted to the difficulties experienced by Marussia's rival at Jerez by admitting that the situation could remain in flux for some time as teams try to find a fix for their individual problems. Notably, world champion Red Bull Racing cut short its test after completing only 21 laps in four days, and each of the Renault-powered team appeared to suffer more than most.
With his own team turning up on day three of the test, after experiencing technical problems with the MR03 before leaving its Banbury base, but running reliably when it was on track, Lowdon was in good spirits, but acknowledged that there was still plenty of time for the situation to change.
“Competitiveness is quite unclear and I would argue that it could remain unclear until the chequered flag in Melbourne - maybe not even qualifying will show it,” he told Crash.net,/i>, “Qualifying will show who's good in qualifying, but the championship is all about the race. There's been a big spread of lap times over the days [in Jerez] so I don't think anything can be read into them at all.
“It's quite intriguing stuff, [but] I'm pretty sure all the teams will have ironed out the niggly problems by the [first Bahrain test], and I wouldn't be surprised if everyone was adding laps at quite a rate.”
Running reliably for the two days it was in action was a boost for Marussia after taking the decision to skip the opening sessions and Lowdon is confident that that gives the team a solid platform to build on in Bahrain.
“We made the decision to fix [the problem] at the factory where we had more resources and I think that was the right thing to do rather than come down here and sit in a garage,” he explained, “It's frustrating, but it is what it is.
“Every team obviously leaves the final assembly of the car to the last minute because it maximises design time, so all the right things were done, the car was complete on time - we just had to iron out some of these system problems more than anything else. Here, mechanically, we pretty much worked through the programme, and there haven't been any big surprises. [The test] has been about configuring systems, getting all the bits and bobs on the car to talk to each other, so we're really happy with the progress, both in terms of what we've learned on the track and off the track.
“You never know what you're going to come up against in testing, but I think we can be reasonably happy. We viewed it as our second day of testing rather than the fourth day, and we've learned a lot, which is what testing is all about. I think we've got enough good data now to put together a good programme ahead of Bahrain. All in all, we can be happy with the progress over the last two days and, by Bahrain, we will have caught up quite a lot.
“Obviously, we've not been able to get through four days of testing in two days – there's no way we could shoehorn that in - but we've progressed a lot, learned a lot, got a lot of data, and we should, touch wood, be in a good position for the start of the Bahrain test and be able to plan those days to get through the volume of work that we want to get through.”
With Red Bull's struggles the major talking point of what happened on track – 2014 car design being the other point of interest off it – Lowdon was naturally pleased to see Marussia enjoy a relatively trouble-free couple of days, particularly with new engine partner Ferrari.
“I can't see any showstoppers (problems) at the moment, which is good,” he confirmed, “That's a positive thing, but I'm sure the next test will bring its own challenges. If you look at some of the runners, you think 'well, that's a lot of mileage', but it's nowhere near what people were doing last year in the equivalent test, so people are still coming across problems, especially when they turn up the pace a bit more, but we're confident from what we've seen so far that there aren't any showstoppers.
“If anything, starting a couple of days late took the media pressure off us - and meant that we weren't trying to launch our car within three minutes of everybody else! I must say that working with Scuderia Ferrari has been incredibly positive - they have been really, really good to work with and I'm sure it's a relationship that will build and build.”
Reliability was a watchword for Marussia in 2013, with Max Chilton's 100 per cent finishing record playing its own part in backing up Jules Bianchi's 13th place in Malaysia and helping the team secure tenth overall in the constructors' championship. With so many issues up and down the pit-lane at Jerez, Lowdon is hoping for more of the same this season as Marussia tries to capitalise with points from the early rounds.
“We targeted the first few races last year and it worked quite well for us,” he confirmed, “We have worked hard on reliability - we're a small team and, when we're reliable, there's a direct plus point for the people in the team. The challenge from a management point of view is to retain that reliability with all these [technical] changes, especially as we don't have the resources of the other teams. We can't just throw a resource at [a problem], so we have to carry on the processes that we've worked on.
“The thing we're most happy about at this test is that, while we didn't do a large number of laps, we didn't cause any red flags - every time we sent the car out, it came back under its own steam and you're looking for that from the very start. If we can carry that reliability through, then there's always a chance [of points]. We don't know where everyone's at on raw pace, so we'll certainly try and focus on [reliability] as, no matter what happens, it looks like it will be important at the first race.”
Refusing to enjoy Red Bull's problems, Lowdon used the giant's struggles to emphasise the point that a shift in regulation has the power to humble anyone – although he has no doubt that RBR has the ability to bounce back.
“[Betting a] boost [from seeing RBR struggling] is the wrong word,” he insisted, “In 2010, we had a massive challenge to build an F1 team from a screwdriver into being on the grid in Bahrain - it was a really, really massive task and I guess that what this test has shown is that, when faced with a massive task, for all the teams - no matter what their resources, and it's very well documented that Red Bull's resources are significantly bigger than ours - this is a really, really challenging sport.
“It's the pinnacle and it's meant to be difficult, and I think that the problems everyone is seeing just shows how tough this sport can be. You never wish problems on anyone because you know there could be a problem lurking around the corner - we know that from our reasonably short history. We've had experience of having to deal with some major challenges, and the challenge of bringing these new regulations onto the track is just one in a series that we've been through. But I think that the team has dealt with it quite well.”