Who's hot, Who's not?

By on Monday, February 21, 2011

With the Australian Grand Prix now set to open the season on March 27th, that leaves 5 weeks until the start of racing in 2011. Whilst there is still one more test to come - in Barcelona from March 8th to 11th - there's the start of some sort of order coming to F1 2011.

Remember, despite what is said below, it is of course still relatively unknown. The weather, time of day, fuel loads and tyres all make the data skewed. We can get a general idea, but not what the exact order is. That of course won’t become apparent until the first race of the season.

Red Bull appears to be picking up where they left off. The RB7 is neatly packaged and seems to be a step up on the RB6. Trackside spectators said that the car looked as if it was on rails and through Turn 4 at Jerez – a high speed left sweeper- it was the fastest car. At Barcelona the team focused on long runs and they were undertaken largely without reliability issues and at a good, consistent speed. The only unknown is KERS, which main rivals McLaren and Ferrari already has a good awareness of. The reckoning is that the RB7 is the car to beat.

McLaren on the other hand appear to be struggling slightly. A team insider reportedly said that they need to find a second to beat Red Bull and whilst they are still running an interim front wing, this doesn’t send positive vibes. Hamilton was consistently locking his tyres at Turn 10 and the car looked like it was understeering on the fast corners. Furthermore, whereas Webber was fast and smooth out of the final corner, Hamilton was often ragged. There’s also been a lot said about the tyres and neither driver appears particularly satisfied with them. Reliability – which has been a McLaren strongpoint over the past few years – has also been worse than expected.

Ferrari took a conservative approach to the F150th Italia – ludicrous, but a new legal name – and it appears to be working. The long runs have been decent but Alonso still reckons the team are behind Red Bull. A few spins by Massa on Sunday suggests that the car might not be too driveable in the wet, but that might be the driver rather than the machine.

The team in real trouble though seems to be Mercedes. The W02 may be a pretty looking machine, but the omens are not good. Norbert Haug has said the team would not be in the top 10 were a race to be held now, whilst Rosberg has also expressed negativity, pinning hopes on an upgrade intended for the first race. Trackside observers have said that the car looks difficult to drive and not a good machine. It may be a season in the midfield for Mercedes and the car looks to be worse than the W01. It’s thought the deficit to Red Bull is ‘at least 1.5s a lap’, whilst the car has been slow on race simulations and not overly reliable either. At the moment, the atmosphere seems to suggest that staying the 4th best team would be a good result.

Renault is the team looking to make an impact. Despite the loss of Kubica for an unknown period, they have a safe pair of hands in Nick Heidfeld and hope that Petrov can step up. The R31 looks fast and Heidfeld has been positive about it. The car is quick in fast corners and was only behind Red Bull at Turn 4 in Jerez. However, reliability has not been the best but it hasn’t been anywhere near awful. Renault may well be challenging for wins this season.

The supposed midfield is where judging pace is getting tricky. It may well be varied, because the teams that finished 6th, 7th and 8th in the 2010 championship all have rookies on their team. So there may well be a group of Barrichello, Kobayashi and Sutil running ahead of Maldonado, Perez and di Resta. However, we’re here to judge the cars and the one that has caught the eye has not been what you’d expect. It’s the STR6.

Before you say ‘It’s a Red Bull with different colours on it, well it isn’t. The new STR is a car designed completely without the help of Red Bull Racing. The car has looked good on race stints and has caught the eye on the timesheets, mixing it with the frontrunners on occasion. Whilst it’s unlikely that STR can challenge the top teams, there’s certainly a strong chance they could be the 5th best team at the first race. When Alguersuari set a fast time on Saturday, it wasn’t done on low fuel. Daniel Ricciardo told Autosport that a podium is achievable. STR could be in for a good season.

Sauber, Williams and Force India seem to have fairly decent packages. Williams are taking a different approach on the KERS and they have had a few issues with it. Some time has also been lost by Maldonado straying into various gravel traps and tyre barriers. A fast time by Barrichello in Jerez caught the eye, but paddock insiders reckon the team ran underweight to achieve it.

Lotus seems to be making a stride forward although time has been lost through various reliability issues. Despite this, the lap times have been good and there’s no reason to suspect they can’t challenge for points this year. Virgin is still slightly behind them but is taking steps forward. If they can get out of Q1 on a regular basis, that’d be a positive step. As for HRT, we’ll just have to wait and see. Anything but 12th would be a success for them.

You would, though, expect Mercedes’ drivers to be able to pull the car higher than the drivers of other teams might be able to. For example, if it’s the 8th best car, Rosberg and Schumacher should be able to drag it to being 5th best, like they did on occasions in 2010. And of course, they say for now it is not the final version of the W02. Then again, other teams will also not have their complete car running in testing. Here's what seems to be the current order after Barcelona test:

  • 1. Red Bull
  • 2. Ferrari
  • 3. Renault
  • 4. McLaren
  • 5. STR
  • 6. Williams
  • 7. Sauber
  • 8. Mercedes
  • 9. Force India
  • 10. Lotus
  • 11. Virgin
  • 12. HRT

I fully expect McLaren and Mercedes to make gains, especially with the extra time they have, but whatever happens, we're in for a cracking season.


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