Kimi Raikkonen was to the point, as ever.
As pre-season testing wound to a close at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya, the man who returns to Formula 1 this season after two years in rallying was asked how he felt the teams compared.
“In two weeks we know,” the Lotus driver said. “There is no point to guess here. I don’t know who’s going to be fastest. Nobody knows.”
Up and down the pit lane, drivers from other teams were expressing more or less the same view.
“McLaren look very strong,” said Red Bull’s Mark Webber. “And some of the other times done by other teams were pretty handy, too.”
Jenson Button, meanwhile, managed to cover all bases in three sentences.
“There’s a lot of work needs to be done before we’re properly competitive,” the McLaren driver said. “I’m reasonably happy with what we have. I don’t know where we are but the feeling is good.”
That summed up the situation pretty well at the end of three pre-season tests.
The lap times have been particularly difficult to read this year but it seems some patterns have emerged.
Up and down the pit lane, the general view is that the field is a lot closer than in recent years. Red Bull are again very strong, McLaren look like running them close and Mercedes appear to have made a step forward. Lotus, Sauber and Force India have also looked pretty handy.
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn says he is “expecting the tightest start to a season we’ve seen for a number of years“.
People don’t just invent these views – they are formed by looking through the mountains of data that each day of testing throws up.
Kimi Raikonnen returns to Formula 1 after a three year absence.
Analysing the lap times also produces some interesting numbers.
While it is not possible to know the programmes each team is running at any time, it is a reasonable assumption that over the course of winter testing all the teams will get through pretty much the same sort of work.
So, logically, an average of every lap time a driver has done over the three tests should give some indication of where each team is.
On average, over the whole of winter testing, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was the fastest of the drivers from last year’s top two teams, by 0.3secs from Button, with Hamilton a similar margin further back and just in front of Webber.
The specific average times look like this:
Vettel one minute, 25.340 seconds
It’s also worth pointing out that the pattern of the last two or three years has been for Red Bull’s true pace to be disguised in both winter testing and in free practice at the grands prix.
Whether they are running more fuel than their rivals, or a weaker engine map, Red Bull always seem to find more time when it matters than the others do.
Mercedes have clearly been doing a different programme from the other teams – with a far greater concentration of longer runs – so comparing their times is potentially less instructive.
But when you see that Nico Rosberg did a 1:22.932 at the start of a 13-lap run on the penultimate day of testing, you know they have a pretty decent car.
“It’s still going to be the teams from last year that we need to beat,” Rosberg said, sounding confident. “But I think we have a good chance to annoy them a few times early in the season.”
And then there is Ferrari. Unless there is some Oscar-worthy acting going on, they are in trouble.
Ferrari have been open about the fact that they are struggling to understand the behaviour of their radical new car. Insiders tell BBC Sport that sometimes it behaves well and predictably, and sometimes it does not, and the team have no idea why.
The sense of crisis was heightened by Ferrari’s decision to cancel their driver media briefings over the final weekend of testing, saying they wanted them to concentrate solely on their job.
But Fernando Alonso did speak on television at the Barcelona-Sporting football match on Saturday night, saying: “In the first races we will suffer because we are not 100%.”
Ferrari put up technical director Pat Fry instead of Alonso on Sunday, and he admitted that he thought it unlikely the team would be able to finish on the podium in Melbourne.
One can only imagine the pressure Fry must be feeling right now.
A diffident man who is uncomfortable with the media, Fry is in his first year in the job following the dismissal of predecessor Aldo Costa. And he has overseen a design office that was told to take risks this season in an attempt to close the gap to Red Bull after a poor 2011.
They’ve taken those risks – but it does not look for now as if they have made wise choices.
And yet, and yet. If you average out Alonso’s lap times over the whole of winter testing, guess what? He is the fastest of all – by 0.3secs. No wonder Webber says: “The mystery is the Ferrari.”
So what’s going on? The new F2012 looks like it can do a decent lap time, so it is conceivable that it will qualify pretty well in Melbourne the weekend after next.
But according to BBC F1 technical analyst Gary Anderson, who spent some time watching trackside in Barcelona, it seems to quickly drop in performance, initially losing grip on turn-in, and later on corner exits too.
It seems to use its tyres particularly aggressively. Ferrari have been afflicted these last few years by a car that raced better than it qualified because it used its tyres too gently. In seeking to fix this trait, have they now gone too far the other way?
It’s not as if they can blame the drivers either. In Alonso, they have an all-time great, a gold standard who will push the car to its absolute limit on every single lap of every single race. Many consider his season in 2011 to have been better than his title-winning years with Renault in 2005-06, considering the equipment at his disposal.
This, team boss Stefano Domenicali has admitted to BBC Sport, was the point of signing the Spaniard on a lucrative contract that commits him to the team until the end of 2016. It puts pressure on the team to deliver.
Of course, all this may turn out to be an illusion. Perhaps Alonso will be a contender for victory in Melbourne, and throughout the year. But let’s assume for a moment he isn’t.
Back in 2007, when his relationship with McLaren was in tatters, Alonso had talks with Red Bull to discuss moving there.
Red Bull were keen but in the end Alonso opted for a move back to Renault, knowing a Ferrari seat was waiting for him a couple of years down the line.
At the time, with Ferrari contending for the title for the 10th time in 11 years and Red Bull still in the midfield, you could hardly fault the logic.
But now, in his quiet moments, or when he’s watching Vettel celebrate yet another win, or looking at the beautifully intricate detail at the back of the Red Bull, or when he’s wrestling his uncooperative mount into a corner, does Alonso wish he could turn back the clock?
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