It takes only a brief look at the results of the first two Formula One tests to gain an impression of the pecking order as we head towards the first race of the season in Melbourne in less than three week’s times.  The teams have faced a highly compressed pre-season schedule made all the more demanding by the step-change in technology brought about by the introduction of the hybrid petrol-electric power units, so it’s worth assessing the results of testing starting with this aspect alone.

Mercedes Benz GP is in good shape, and few would bet against Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton being the men to beat in Australia.  Indeed all the Mercedes-powered teams are benefitting from the achievements of Mercedes Benz High Performance Engines in Northampton, UK, it’s units appearing to have succeeded in unlocking that all-important combination of performance and reliability at an early stage.

Not all is as rosy at it seems, however, since not even a Mercedes-powered team has completed sufficient mileage to confirm the durability required under the 2014 F1 regulations.  For Ferrari and Renault, the deficit is even greater.

Last year, when F1 was running its well-proven 2.4 litre V8’s, each driver had the opportunity to use 8 engines across the season, which meant that each unit had to last for around 2200kms.  This year each driver has only 5 units across the season, meaning that the 1600cc V6 Turbocharged engines together with their Energy Recovery Systems will have to last for around 3500kms.  A 2014 F1 power unit comprises 6 major systems, and each of these is subject to the 5-unit rule, otherwise penalties will be applied, so proving that the entire system can survive the necessary mileage is rather important.

No single team has yet achieved such a mileage after 8 days of pre-season testing, with Mercedes Benz GP alone in having covered just over 3000kms.

When I ran the F1 business at Cosworth, our standard durability test for a V8 was 3000kms; this gave us 800kms more than was absolutely required by our teams, and so provided a high level of assurance.  Under the new regulations the plan would have been a durability test of, say, 4500kms;  a mileage not yet reached by all of the Renault-powered teams combined.  On cumulative mileage only Mercedes can afford to relax, with over 10,000kms under their team’s collective belts, while Ferrari cannot be entirely satisfied with half that distance covered.

Much has been made of the problems that have beset Red Bull Racing, and not with a degree of schadenfreude on the part of some observers.  It is certainly a difficult moment for a team which has all but dominated the sport since the latter stages of the 2009 season.  With only 720kms of testing completed, around a quarter of that managed by Mercedes Benz GP, how much of a blow is that in reality?

Physical testing of an F1 car and its team is enormously valuable, and any time lost can be crippling.  This is why so many people were astounded when Lotus opted to skip the first of the three tests entirely.  It is not something you would choose to do.

In an era where vehicle systems are created first in a virtual environment, subject to a wide range of computer modelling and ultimately driven by drivers who spend a significant amount of time in a simulator, product testing on a race track has never been more important.  It enables the team, and its key technical partners, to check that the real world experience matches the virtual world planning; that the technical fidelity of the car is what they hoped for.  Many will remember what happened last year when McLaren’s 2013 challenger failed to meet expectations, and the team admitted that the problem lay in the difference between what they were seeing at the factory and realising at the race track.

Next to hard cash, data is the most important currency in F1, and the number of kms completed in testing equates to incremental data which helps develop a fuller picture of what is going on.  This applies to all the vehicle systems, their reliability and outright performance.  It also helps to monitor and develop the performance of the drivers.  For a young rookie like Russia’s Daniil Kvyat, the current lack of mileage at Toro Rosso will be exasperating for both him and his performance engineer.

The human aspect extends beyond the driver, of course, because a smooth-running test with lots of kms covered enables the entire team to gel, a critical factor if you want to be able to cope with the heat of battle mid-season.  Drivers often have to get to know unfamiliar race engineers, settle into an unfamiliar environment and get used to the systems and processes that may vary in detail from team to team.  Even for an experienced hand like Felipe Massa pre-season testing with Williams is vitally important as he tries to cast off the ways of Ferrari, adapting to and adopting the culture of a very British racing organisation.

With one four-day test remaining the teams have remained in-situ in Bahrain, supplied in the field with updates from their European bases.  This has added yet another layer of complexity to the demands of 2014.  You would almost be forgiven for thinking that someone didn’t particularly want the adoption of the new power units to go that smoothly come Melbourne.

This last test will be more frenetic than usual, I suspect, with a huge amount of work still to be achieved by the majority of teams.  For those that are already in good shape we will see performance escalate, while for those who continue to struggle the next fews days in Bahrain will be the harbinger of some very tough times once the season starts.

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