The trackside viewLaurence Edmondson March 5, 2013
The inside of turn nine is not the prettiest part of the Circuit de Catalunya, but it does provide a close-up view of the cars at high-speed. In qualifying trim the corner, also known as Campsa, should be taken in sixth gear, but a downshift on entry is needed on heavier fuel loads. On the final afternoon of pre-season testing the sun was out and in the morning Nico Rosberg had set a new fastest lap of the test in the Mercedes. It was time to take up a spot inside the Campsa catch fencing and have a closer look at how the cars were performing.
At the outset it's worth saying that watching trackside during a pre-season test can be as misleading as taking the headline lap times at face value. Teams go to great lengths to disguise their pace by running heavy fuel loads, so trying to compare like with like is not going to provide any conclusive answers. Watch a fast car with a full tank of fuel and worn tyres and it can look misleadingly average, but standing watching the action live does help to back up the overall picture provided by the timing screens.
Fortunately my arrival at turn nine coincided with defending champion Sebastian Vettel heading out in the Red Bull. At the time the track was populated by the Force India and Sauber completing race simulations and the difference was immediately clear. The RB9's throttle remained at least partially open throughout the corner and the car looked settled as it held on to sixth gear. The extra downforce was visible, although he was helped by fresher tyres and what was most likely a lighter fuel load. After his third flying lap, Vettel's throttle lift became more prevalent, suggesting the tyres had already given their best, but the car was still hugely impressive compared to what had gone before.
Unlike Mercedes, Red Bull didn't draw attention to its potential with a low-fuel lap during the final week of testing, but from the outside it's clear that the car is well sorted. The team has been very secretive during the winter, bringing the car back to the garage behind large screens to guard it from prying camera lenses and running relatively low mileage compared to its rivals at the final test. But the rest of the paddock is not buying into stories that the three-time champions have lost their edge, with Lotus team principal saying: "They always have been hiding very much what they are doing. I really hope they hide too much and they get lost, but it never happens."A number of upgrades were brought to Barcelona last week, and although it's not quite clear how successful those steps were, watching trackside there is no reason to think Red Bull has lost any of its prowess at high-speed.
Unfortunately the Lotus was absent during my 30-minute spell at turn nine, but the signs so far have been that the E21 is competitive and may well challenge the likes of Red Bull. The team lost track time over the winter due to a recurrent gearbox issue, but it is confident it has a quick fix ready for Mebourne. When the car has been on track it has looked quick and asked if he could match Rosberg's benchmark time if he had run less fuel, Kimi Raikkonen said: "For sure at least we would have made it close." But it's the long run pace that looks likely to be a strength of the Lotus, with some decent length runs yielding competitive times despite the unavoidable degradation of the Pirelli tyres. The team has been careful not to show excessive levels confidence, but the early signs are that it will carry its strong form from the end of 2012 into the first race of 2013.
Back on track and the man of the moment, Nico Rosberg, joined the fun. It would have been a treat to witness his 1:20.130 earlier in the day, but he was on medium tyres and working a heavier fuel load through turn nine in the early afternoon. There was a clear lift of the throttle before the apex, but he was back on it soon after and without the need for a downshift. There's little doubt that this car is quick around the Circuit de Catalunya, but the optimism going forward is tempered by Mercedes' failure to deliver on pre-season promise in the past. The big weakness in 2012 was rear tyre degradation, but the long runs over the past week suggest that will be less of an issue with both drivers able to maintain relatively stable lap times despite the inevitable degradation caused by the cool conditions. What's more, the fact the team was second in the mileage charts at the final test also suggests the early teething issues with reliability are no longer a concern.
McLaren has been harder to read this pre-season, with a strong start in Jerez but a less convincing performance in Barcelona. Unfortunately there were no answers to be gained when Jenson Button joined the track as he was quite clearly on a different programme to the Red Bull and Mercedes. He had the hard tyres bolted on and needed a downshift on entry to muscle his heavy fuel load through the corner. The positive to be drawn is that he was incredibly consistent and the car looked nicely planted at high speed. In press briefings Button talked about how set-up changes had taken longer than expected on the new car and that that had left the team a little behind schedule by the final test. The MP4-28 is a big departure from the MP4-27 and it appears as though the new car is more fiddly when making adjustments despite being quick. As a result it could take a few races before Button and Sergio Perez really find the car's sweet spot, especially with the current lack of understanding of the tyres.
Last but by no means least, Fernando Alonso joined the track in the Ferrari F138. On his first attempt at turn nine he seemed as committed as Vettel, but the Ferrari was not as flat and comfortable in the corner as the Red Bull. The team has been playing down its progress in recent weeks, but Alonso's time of 1:20.494 on Sunday morning suggests the F138 is there or thereabouts. The updates brought to the final test were delivered at the last minute, but the good news is that when they did arrive they lived up to the expectations of technical director Pat Fry. There's no doubt the team is not in the mess it was 12 months ago, but the general feeling is that it might be lacking the outright pace of some of its rivals. Unfortunately a second look at Alonso through turn nine never came as he soon got bottled up behind Rosberg, who by that time was towards the end of his run and struggling with degradation.
There's little doubt that it's close at the top as the team's head to Australia this week, but just how close will only become clear after Q3. There are strong arguments for any one of the top five teams to be on top of the podium in Mebourne, but much will depend on how the teams manage the tyres when they use them in the warmer conditions they were designed for. It should be fascinating.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1