With all the focus on engines and gathering data through mileage, we had no clue about the speed of the cars themselves - but all changed at the final Bahrain test!
The final test was pretty epic from Sahara Force India's point of view. The first three days brought no reliability problems and a total of 328 laps which is MEGA! The team did cause one red flag on the last day (day four) when an engine-related component failed. This was not too much of a concern though as the team semi-expected it due to the high mileage already covered by the car. Nevertheless, on balance it was a great test - we covered 12.2% of the total running in the second Bahrain test which was only beaten by Williams who managed 13.2%.
Note: there were rumours that we had a DRS failure, but this was in fact a mis-translation/mis-understanding from "DRS was not functioning" - that means not using it at the time, not a failure.
One of the things about Formula One is that because they are investing upwards of £40M per season, and because such small margins determine the difference between success and failure, it means that everything is done in secrecy. We may well have set the fastest time on those two days, but there are far too many variables to say if we have the quickest car or not - different fuel loads, different set-ups, different engine performance parameters - all these things disguise the performance of the cars. I think I am right in saying that Red Bull have yet to take to track in race legal specification yet, every time I saw them on-track they were missing the FIA camera mounts which demonstrates just how many variables there are!
However, with four days of data in this final test - and with team's beginning to do performance runs, we can start to create a very loose pecking order. I have done so much analysis on everything from the Bahrain tests, particularly the final one where we began to see performance runs. This includes looking at lap times, tyre types, wing angles, distances of runs, breaking distances, grip levels, confidence levels and also just general body language.
I was planning on sharing all this data, and had spent four hours typing it all out. However, in that time I hadn't even completed the analysis of one team - that's how much data I have!! I could write a novel on this if I had the time, but the F1 season starts this weekend so there is no chance of that. Instead, I will outline my idea of what the pecking order will be, and give brief justifications to support this.
1) Mercedes - clearly they have produced the best engine in terms of reliability and speed. In terms of the rest of their car, they have had some reliability problems, more often than many other teams in fact. However, while the frequency of issues has been on the higher side, they can usually manage to complete a race distance with no problems. In terms of speed, all my analysis says they will be the quickest team by a decent margin. In addition to this, one of the people I respect most in the motorsport paddock, Will Buxton (F1 commentator in the US and International commentator for GP2 & GP3), wrote a blog recently saying the following:
"From what I understand from a high level independent source after testing had finished, the reality could be even more astonishing. If the data adds up as he believes and the factory Mercedes team was able to run their cars at 100%, right now they would win every Grand Prix not by a few seconds but by two clear laps.
Read the rest of that article here.
I have some buddies who work for Mercedes and while they haven't confirmed or denied anything, they certainly seem incredibly confident and excited! The fastest time for Mercedes was a 1:33.278 set by Hamilton on the last day. While this was just beaten by Massa's Williams, Hamilton's time was set on a very worn set of soft tyres. Additionally, looking at the footage of that lap - Lewis wasn't even pushing that hard!! There was a lot of time left on the table and that is why I have put Mercedes top of the pile.
Due to all these factors, I agree with Will Buxton. I think Mercedes will completely dominate this Formula One season, and I am making the bold (and perhaps crazy) prediction that they will win every race in 2014, by a massive margin as well. Yep, you read that right - I think they will win every race. Of course, other teams will catch up - but Mercedes are not going to stand still! Plus if the gap Mercedes have is a big as two laps per race, no-one can develop that much during a season!!
2) Williams - not too much to say here. The most reliable team, with the best engine. Their car seemed pretty nippy too! One school of thought suggests that they may have been low fuelling to impress Martini (their new sponsor), but from the action I saw, their drivers consistently seemed able to get on the power much earlier than any other driver. This suggests confidence and a quick car!
3) McLaren - again, Mercedes engine so they're golden on that front. Both drivers have looked strong pace wise, and consistently strong in terms of race pace - this will be critical to success during the 2014 season. Kevin Magnussen appears particularly comfortable in the car despite his lack of experience in Formula One machinery. They do have some car-based reliability concerns, but no-where near as major as some of the teams further down my pecking order.
4) Force India - yep, got us 4th in the pecking order. It is no co-incidence that the four Mercedes powered teams are the top four in my post-test rankings. The aim is top five in the constructors championship, but I think we could exceed that in all honesty. Our pace is quite strong relative to those around us, and we have better reliability than the majority of the grid!
Some people will say that as we are a "small team" we will be caught by the other teams with more resources, but I have never bought into that argument. We have demonstrated pretty much every season that our development rate can be just as high, or at least similar to the more affluent teams.
While I do place us 4th, I am expecting an extremely close battle with McLaren and Ferrari. By my analysis, we are slightly slower than McLaren based on both qualifying and race pace. In comparison to Ferrari, they have quite good qualifying pace and could well be right up the sharp end. However on race pace we are equals. Given that our reliability has been much better than theirs, I put us ahead because that will be a crucial factor over the course of the season, particularly in the first half of the season. Additionally, the Mercedes-powered cars seem to be able to do a race distance with no problem at all in terms of fuel consumption, but the Ferrari engine is quiet thirsty and fuel saving means less pace essentially!
5) Ferrari - best of the rest behind the Mercedes-powered teams. Their car is quick, and they have two great drivers. However I do not think the speed or experience of Fernando Alonso or Kimi Raikkonen can make up for the deficit the Ferrari engine has to the Mercedes one! The engines are homologated now and so we will not see too much change in terms of engine performance during the season.
6) Sauber - showed glimpses of speed during testing, but it was very sporadic. Additionally, the footage I have seen of the team appears to suggest that the car is hard to drive - both Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutiérrez were struggling to consistently hit the apex of a corner and that will show during a race distance.
7) Toro Rosso - I expect a bit of a split Formula this season with the top six teams fighting each other and then a big gap to the Renault-powered teams and Marussia. I have put Toro Rosso ahead of the others in this group purely because the others seem a little hopeless and lost in all honesty!
8) Red Bull - back to 2008 where Toro Rosso are the primary Dietrich Mateschitz owned team. Although, as the season develops I would expect Red Bull to leapfrog Toro Rosso - not because Toro Rosso have less resources, but because Red Bull are four-time World Champions and they clearly have a strong engineering team. Can they develop to the point where they can penetrate the top six? I don't think so! I think the gulf to the Ferrari engine is too great. Their main issue this season will be getting to the end of a race ..
9) Marussia - everything about testing suggests they are considerably better than their fierce rivals Caterham. In my opinion this is more than likely due to engine selection (Ferrari over Renault). Having said that, they do appear to have made steps forward this season aerodynamically - it is pretty clear to see just from looking at the car. For some reason I have a strong feeling they will get both cars in the points in Australia.
10) Lotus - the worst engine, and an extremely unreliable car. They will do well to get through the practice sessions, qualifying and formation lap without breaking down, let alone the race. I have place them above Caterham though because their car can be quick and sooner or later they will pick up some points.
11) Caterham - the start of the season represents their best chance to pick up points as everyone else is unreliable and their car has looked fairly stable. Speed wise though they are extremely poor and I am not yet convinced they will be able to qualify within the 107% rule to be honest.
So that is my pecking order, here it is once again (dashes represent big distances in terms of results)
4) Force India
7) Toro Rosso
8) Red Bull
Please note that this is only my early season prediction. Things will inevitably change mid-way through the season. However I do not think anyone will get out of their "tier" (referring to the dashes again). My predictions have been extremely bold - Mercedes to win every race, Red Bull to finish no higher than 7th in the championship .. and I may well be completely wrong, but this is my take based on how testing has gone. That is the beauty of pre-season, no-body knows what will happen really - it makes things incredibly exciting.
I am looking forward to the Australian GP as much as anybody - however I was a little disappointed when I heard that it is looking quite possible there could be a monumental downpour of rain on race day. Don't get me wrong, I love wet races - but the one time in a season I want a dry weather is the opening race, it allows us to see the true performance of the cars. The wet weather will mask things! Having said that, wet weather might well gift Force India a win, so bring it on!!
Thanks for reading,