FEBRUARY 24, 1997
What does it all mean?
A week of frantic record-breaking around the European racing circuits has left the Formula 1 circus with very little idea about which cars are really the most competitive - and we are unlikely to discover the actual pecking order until qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix begins in Melbourne on March 8.
There is considerable speculation in F1 circles that Williams has been quietly sandbagging, misleading the opposition by not going for lap times and that the Williams-Renault FW19 is actually a great deal faster than the testing performances suggest. This would not be unusual behavior for Williams. The team did much the same last year with the FW18, running all its tests with large amounts of fuel on board and doing any qualifying runs using a timing point different to the start-finish line. All the lap times produced did not, therefore, give a true representation of what the car was capable of doing and thus the team was able to surprise the opposition with its pace in Melbourne. The intention of this course of action is to lull the opposition into a false sense of security for the early races. As there is very little chance to do much development as the cars are being flown from Australia to Brazil and then to Argentina, rivals cannot do much before the F1 circus returns to Europe in mid-April.
Williams is not denying that it might be sandbagging, while other teams are busy claiming that they do not bother running with low fuel loads to set headline-grabbing fast laps because it is not relevant to the performance of a car in races and is, therefore, a waste of time.
It is worth noting that McLaren has something of a track record for producing fast testing times which are not repeated at race meetings. In 1994 the McLaren-Peugeot MP4/9 was more than a second faster than its opposition in a pre-season test at Barcelona - but failed to win a single race and last year the MP4/11 was fastest in pre-season testing at Estoril but was a big disappointment for the rest of the year.
Hakkinen's startling lap time in Barcelona may not be very significant, particularly when one considers that the best lap achieved by a Williams-Renault FW19 in Barcelona this winter has been a 1m18.86s.
Inside sources at Williams say that they reckon that the FW19 is capable of lapping Barcelona in the 1m16s...