The Formula One Young Driver Test has always provided teams with the opportunity to try out new upgrades. But with teams this year opting to take part in one of three different tests, have those testing this week at Magny-Cours taken the initiative at a crucial stage of the season?
This year, there has been much dispute between Formula One teams on when and where the now traditional "Young Driver Test"—where inexperienced young drivers get a rare chance to try out an F1 car—would take place.
We've already seen Williams and Marussia take part in a damp July test at Silverstone in England, and this week Ferrari, Mercedes and Force India took to the track at the former site of the French Grand Prix, the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours.
While the pretense of the test is that it provides much-needed track time to drivers who otherwise would not get the chance due to the ban on testing, because of this ban, teams are always likely to use any opportunity to run new parts before the upcoming races.
All of which raises the question—is there an advantage to running now, as opposed to earlier/later?
The test at Silverstone was severely hampered by the typically changeable British summer weather—a big reason why the big teams avoided it—so while Williams tested a lot of parts, the usefulness of the data is questionable.
And, while it will undoubtedly be useful for McLaren and Red Bull to test ahead of the two, possibly crucial, final races of the season, is there more value to running now, with more races left to use the information gleaned?
This is, of course, debatable. However it is certainly fair to say that the Mercedes team had some development catching up to do compared with the other top five teams, so the timing was perfect for them...
...And boy, did they use the opportunity!
As is illustrated in the above right photo, there were three dramatic updates introduced in France by Mercedes: a McLaren-type "coanda" exhaust; a Lotus-type Double DRS device; and a "shark fin" engine cover.
These were all very visual updates but also logical considering the Mercedes car's deficiencies.
The "coanda" exhaust (bottom left of the image)—so called because it makes use of the downwash of air as it becomes attracted to the surface of the bodywork, i.e. the "coanda effect"—is addressing what many see as a lack of rear downforce for Mercedes. In recent races. the team have even removed downforce-creating elements from their front wing in order to better balance the car.
In following the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and Sauber with this type of exhaust, the aim is obviously to create greater rear downforce in a similar, but lesser, way to the "Exhaust Blown Diffusers" of 2011. However, in doing so Mercedes will not only receive the inherent benefits of downforce at the rear but can also re-balance the car by reinstating the removed front downforce.
Additionally, it may be that increased rear downforce will also help reduce degradation of the rear tires—a problem which has been the German manufacturer's Achilles-heel this season.
Then comes the fascinating ducts of the "DDRS" device (bottom right) pioneered by Lotus. I discussed the Lotus system here, but since that article was published it has emerged that the device functions a little differently than previously thought.
Rather than being linked to the usage of the DRS like Mercedes' existing tube-driven system, the Lotus DDRS is entirely passive, coming into effect when the air pressure reaches a certain point depending on speed.
This means the system requires tuning for the track in question, but could conceivably be used with the existing Mercedes system as a form of "Triple DRS". This could be a significant top speed boost for Mercedes around the fast corners of Suzuka, for example, in two races time.
And finally, there is the "shark fin" (main pic). This extension to the engine cover was prevalent in the 2010 season when teams attached it directly to the rear wing in conjunction with the "F-ducts" of that year. There is now an exclusion zone which forbids the two to link, but Mercedes are pushing the length of the fin to its maximum allowable size in order to drive air more cleanly to their two new systems.
All in all, a comprehensive set of updates for Mercedes which could see them make the kind of performance step for the next race that would put them right back in contention.
Ferrari's testing was more subtle than Mercedes' at Magny-Cours. Fernando Alonso had spoken about a big update package for the next race in Singapore during the press-conference at the Italian GP, so many presumed that this test would be a good chance for them to thoroughly put that package through its paces.
Rather, the Scuderia decided to focus on aerodynamic measurement and set-up evaluation; amassing a large amount of mileage while running all manner of air measurement devices. Jules Bianchi sandwiched a day as Force India's test driver with two days in the Ferrari and managed to finish each day on top of he timesheets, regardless of the car.
Times in these sessions are fairly irrelevant, of course, and of greater interest was what new pieces could be spotted on the Ferrari.
In the picture I have marked three circled areas A, B and C.
Circle A shows the stepped nose of the Ferrari which was greeted with so much disdain at the beginning of the season.
From the photographic evidence available, it is unclear if there have indeed been any changes in this area, but this particular photo seems to indicate a small modification. The F2012's step was previously among the most severe in the field but here appears to be less steep with a slight curve in the centre, somewhat similar to the Lotus E20.
Circe B shows a change to the front wing pylons. Ferrari had been running extremely wide pylons since the launch of the F2012 but have now taken a semi-circular scoop out of the back. This will be in order to modify how the air is channeled under the nose and to the sidepods, and will likely increase airflow to this area.
Circle C shows just one of the many front wing variations run by Ferrari at the test, all of which were without the cascades run prior to Spa. While Spa and Monza required low downforce configurations, it appears Ferrari are continuing with this philosophy for the upcoming races which require a more conventional downforce level.
These aerodynamic updates will all be dependent on how they work in conjunction with each other and the rest of the car, so only Ferrari will know effective they have been. Nevertheless, they all seem to follow a slight change toward a somewhat cleaner aerodynamic philosophy.
As ever, it remains to be seen how all this ends up at the track
By way of a disclaimer, it's worth adding at this point that this article deals with the "leading" Formula One teams and is attempting to make a comparison between Ferrari and Mercedes testing this week, as opposed to Red Bull, Lotus and McLaren testing at Abu Dhabi. This means that I have not covered any updates run by Force India in Magny-Cours this week.
While Ferrari's update is clearly less dramatic than Mercedes', it should also be noted that Ferrari have been reasonably competitive since the Mugello test in May and are therefore in less need of large scale changes.
Mercedes, on the other hand, have been on a backward slope since their first win of their F1 return in China. With that in mind, they have brought upgrades that they hope will see them make a significant jump towards the front of the grid for the next race in Singapore. Presuming they all work as expected, this does not seem beyond the realms of possibility.
Obviously, much depends on what has been learned by both teams during this test, but presuming they have been successful in their work, they may both see a relative increase in performance compared to their rivals all the way until the final Young Driver Test in November.
While this balance will then be redressed, the others will have only two remaining races to reap the benefits of their upgrades, and this could be too little, too late.
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