PARIS — The 2013 Formula One season has not really begun. The first race takes place March 17 in Melbourne. But with the launches of the new cars and the first four days of test sessions ending Friday, the seeds have been planted. What kind of plant will grow is not easy to figure out.
I have been observing from the sidelines for a couple of weeks, watching the fanfare of the car launches — or rather, the lack of fanfare — and watching the lap-by-lap action on the track in Jerez, Spain. Every day I’ve asked myself, what is really new this year? The cars, most of them, are merely the technical evolutions of last year’s cars.
They all look fairly similar — although some, thank goodness, have smoothed out that ugly nose problem of last season. There is good reason for the familiarity; the technical regulations haven’t changed much since last season. The big changes will all occur next year, especially with the change in the engine specifications.
It is common knowledge within Formula One and to most fans that the first winter test sessions of the new cars reveal and mean very little. The engineers are not forced into running their cars to racing specifications, and they can test parts that would be deemed illegal in a race. They can run on low fuel to get great results to attract sponsors, or they can sandbag — run heavy with lots of fuel and ballast — to hide how fast their cars are to the competition.
That said, the tests often do give an idea of who is strong, and who is not. Last year, Ferrari was clearly off the pace — by 1.6 seconds, no less — and that weighed on the Italian team for the whole season. The Lotus was fast, though, and that showed early in the season too. So what about the last four days?
None of it seemed to make sense: Jenson Button started the first session as the…