Last week's four-day test in Barcelona presented us with more questions than answers, as the start of the 2009 Formula One season draws ever nearer. With just two weeks to go, the respective performances of McLaren-Mercedes and Brawn GP have thrown betting odds into disarray, as Formula One pundits strain to understand the contrasting pace of the two sides.
Beginning with McLaren, the team had a torrid time last week in Barcelona, with Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton spending much of the test at the bottom of the timesheets. Although the problems were only beginning to show at the Jerez test a fortnight ago, the continuing improvements of the teams around them highlighted their shortcomings in Barcelona. With all ten teams present, McLaren had to wait until the final day of the test before World Champion Lewis Hamilton was able to lift them from being the slowest team, to eighth-fastest, ahead of Toro Rosso and Force India, both teams having only debuted their cars recently.
The MP4-24's problem has been with rear grip, highlighted by their extensive use of a 2008-spec rear wing until recently, and although the team now understands its issues it remains to be seen whether or not the car can be fixed successfully in time for Melbourne. Following the Barcelona test, McLaren chiefs were quick to acknowledge that they were facing a difficult period, blowing the theory of sandbagging out the window. Nevertheless, cruising seconds off the pace at one of the year's final pre-season tests would have been an extremely risky strategy, not truly knowing the full potential of their machine. Lewis Hamilton's crash at turn 3 on Wednesday proved that he was indeed pushing and struggling, having also crashed in Jerez.
Meanwhile over at Brawn GP, 2009 has presented a all-new set of circumstances for the newly-acquired team of Ross Brawn. Having written off the 2008 car before it had even hit the race track, Honda pumped as much resources as possible into their 2009 car, and to great effect. The BGP001, or the RA109 as it was known before Honda's pull-out, was reliable out-of-the-box and instantly on the pace, having led the morning times on day 1. Last week in Barcelona, the car completed over 2000 km, the most any 2009 car has completed on its debut test, but most interestingly, the car comfortably clocked the week's quickest times, a 1m18.926s (Barrichello, Thursday) and a 1m19.127s (Button, Wednesday).
Similar to McLaren's sudden dip in form, questions have been asked in unison about Brawn's worthiness as pacesetters, with many suggesting that the BGP001 is being run under the 605 kg minimum weight in order to attract sponsors, a ploy infamously exploited by Prost in 2001 to good effect. However, in Brawn's defence, speed trap measurements from Barcelona showed the BGP001 between 5 and 10 km/h slower than the Ferrari F60, a difference attributable to the F60 running KERS and the BGP001 not. Given the competitiveness of the Mercedes V8, running under the minimum weight to put the BGP001 a second faster than the rest of the field would unlikely result in the car running that much slower in a straight line, especially on a track with more than one long straight.
Although test times are rarely a truly accurate indicator of outright performance, it's quite likely that this time around the times tell the full picture in terms of McLaren and Brawn's relative positions. Both teams have one final test coming up in Jerez starting tomorrow (Sunday) and unless McLaren can make serious ground over the four days, they could find themselves fighting hard to emerge from Q1 in Australia and avoid the embarrassment of being the slowest Mercedes-powered team. For Brawn though, points, podiums and even victories are beginning to become a realistic target.