After one of the most unpredictable pre-seasons in recent F1 history, all eyes are now turning the opening race in Australia on March 16.
And following 12 days banging hammers, turning screwdrivers and setting the computers a pecking order, of sorts, has emerged ahead of that first round in Mebourne.
It all began in Jerez at the end of January when Kimi Raikkonen went fastest for Ferrari on the opening day and it became clear some concerns surrounding Red Bull and Renault were indeed well-founded.
By the end of the test it was McLaren who impressed with their clever rear suspension and newbie Kevin Magnussen revealing himself as perhaps the real deal those educated pundits had claimed he was.
The big story though was Mercedes power as the four teams who use it completed good mileage and showed much better reliability than expected.
Those same themes would ring true throughout the remainder of testing as eight days in the sun-kissed desert of Bahrain commenced in mid-February.
Mercedes & McLaren still looked the teams to beat as Red Bull still looked like they had forgotten how to build a car that works, however, by the close of play under the floodlights on Sunday not everything was quite as it seems.
There is no doubt the Mercedes works team are the likely team to beat in Melbourne’s Albert Park a week on Sunday, yet their reliability, particularly as the week progressed, was far from perfect.
Instead, by the end of the week, it was Williams who had emerged as shock chart-toppers as Felipe Massa pipped both Merc’s by less than two hundredths of a second.
The Grove based team also had the best reliability of anybody during testing only failing out on track once. Yet that ‘failure’ came as the Mercedes unit they had been using died of old age.
Therefore heading to Melbourne I am going to place Williams as my favourites to win because next weekend will be all about reliability and the FW36 has that and it has good raw speed.
Mercedes will be installed as second favourites because I do believe that they have the best car on the grid, but they could be undone by technical problems.
Those two are fairly simple to put at the top as they led the lap tally and time charts for the whole of preseason testing but the real guessing game goes on behind.
The big improvers in Bahrain’s second week were undoubtedly Force India, after two tests dogged by reliability woes they got their act together in the final week coming second in the distance totals and easily being in the top 10 of fastest lap times.
I think there could be more to come from Vijay Mallya’s squad so they are third on my list. They have the Mercedes power which is crucial and the basics of the car do seem pretty good too, I wouldn’t quite have them on the same level as Williams and Mercedes but I think they are good bets for a podium.
Ferrari were certainly the poker players throughout preseason keeping their powder drier than the Arabian sands, they pounded round setting good mileages and finally on the final day Fernando Alonso gave us a sneak peek of what the F14-T can do setting the fifth best time of the week.
I am really not surprised to see the Prancing Horse smack bang in the middle of pretty much everything, middle engine supplier and I think one of the current middle of the road teams.
Much of this is due to the power unit which is a little down on Mercedes and some is the car which again I think isn’t quite as advanced as the others.
Reliability was never absolutely perfect but I do see completing a full race distance as very manageable, therefore I am placing them fourth in my pecking order and set for a good haul of points in Melbourne.
McLaren finally emerge down here in fifth. I’m not completely convinced by the MP4-29, sure it looked good early on and Magnussen did impress me too, but I have McLaren as the worst of the German-powered teams because when others picked up their pace a little they went backwards.
Here comes perhaps an even bigger shock in my pecking order, Red Bull, in theory, just outside the points with the 11th and 12th fastest cars.
This is based on a few things, of course the car has been pretty hopeless in terms of running time and they are quite some way off their expected championship rivals but I do think the RB10 could offer some good pace if the reliability is sorted.
The team managed 182 laps practically over three days as Saturday they failed to manage one complete tour of the Sakhir track, that is an average of 60 per day which is more than a race distance.
Of course making it work non-stop over a race distance is the biggest hurdle but, as Daniel Ricciardo proved posting the tenth best time of last week, the car does have some raw pace. So get it working and I do think Red Bull could still steal some points.
Next come Sauber and this is simple, the car has a Ferrari engine so it is less likely to break down. The car is pretty poor but it did do over 170 laps on a single day on Sunday therefore they are certain midfield runners.
Lotus follow much the same theory as Red Bull, get the car to work and it has some decent speed, however with a much reduced amount of running after three poor tests getting the most from the E22 will take some time.
For Toro Rosso too it is all about reliability the car has had spells of completing good mileage but I don’t think the team will quite have the car, performance-wise, that Red Bull and Lotus do.
Then that brings me onto Marussia, the new car does seem a good step forward from its predecessor, indeed of all the teams themselves and Caterham will be looking to beat their 2013 cars more often than not.
The Ferrari engine gives a solid base mechanically but reliability and a computer virus in the first week did hamper track time, despite that the MR03 did complete more laps than Red Bull and Lotus in the final week, so making the finish will be the aim – which for Max Chilton should be a doddle – and see what happens ahead.
Then at the back is Caterham, this is actually happened quite by accident as the big green machine has completed by far the most mileage of the Renault-powered teams, yet the lap times suggest only Lotus are worse.
With Lotus, I believe, improving a bit in time for the opening race – that leaves Tony Fernandes’ crew battling on the back row… and by quite some margin.
Certainly decent reliability will mean a tortoise and hare type scenario and I doubt they will finish last in most races but as the reliability of other teams improves, the idea of turning the engine down to finish the race will not always work.
One thing is for sure however, it is shaping up to be a truly unpredictable start to the season, one question I get asked is ‘How many cars, I think, will finish in Australia?’.
Well looking at it in greater detail I think around 14 cars will finish the opening race, if attrition plays a role early on some will turn the engines down just to finish the race, if by three-quarters distance we see a figure in the higher teens still racing, some may turn up the wick to try to make progress and that is when the retirement rate could rise.
Tipping Felipe Massa for the win is something few would have thought possible just six months ago, but the thought of a Brazilian winning for Williams would be so very appropriate as the 20th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna approaches.
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