Winter testing has left us with more questions than answers. Mercedes were strong during the final test in Barcelona, but the team maintain that they are not favorites for the opening round in Melbourne. Closest challengers Ferrari have set their sights on a podium, as have Red Bull despite the latter failing to repeat their championship winning form during the pre-season, whilst McLaren have said they merely want points. Jenson Button believes that by sacrificing the first few races to focus on car development, the team will be stronger come the end of the season. This yields the question: is there are ‘right way’ to go about car development?
The ideal path is to prepare, be quick initially, and to sustain this pace throughout the season, although this is nigh-on impossible to achieve. Red Bull came close in 2011 as Vettel coasted to a second title, but they did struggle mid way through the season as Ferrari and McLaren caught up. It was already too late though, and Button’s 2009 championship victory was a similar story. He won six of the first seven races after Brawn’s preparation (two years in the making) paid off, and although he failed to win after the Turkish GP, it proved to be enough.
Mercedes (who emerged from Brawn GP) appear to be taking this route for 2013. Their late-2012 form suggests that the 2013 car has been their primary focus for a while now, and if the Silver Arrows can get the jump on their rivals in the early rounds, it could be a fruitful season for the team.
However, Red Bull’s 2012 success also shows how the “slow and steady” approach can work. It wasn’t until the end of the European season that Vettel really found championship winning form, but by having the quickest car, he always had the upper hand over Fernando Alonso. McLaren appear to be taking this route in 2013, and it could work in their favor should Mercedes’ pace not continue.
With the new Pirelli tires providing a fresh challenge for the teams, the ‘long term’ approach could be the better option. The opening few races always throw up surprises, and McLaren could use this to their advantage by snatching a win or two even with a ‘slower’ car. There is also a large amount of risk behind this method though, and they could find their championship hopes in tatters by the beginning of the European season in Spain. Whichever approach the teams choose to take, it does add a fascinating dynamic to the 2013 season.