Sauber technical director James Key says that his team are ‘reasonably well prepared’ for the coming F1 season, although he will not be drawn into speculating on the relative performance of the new C30.
Looking back over the pre-season testing period, which saw the team cover 5,841 kilometres over their allocated 15 days of track time, Key notes that reliability has been generally ‘okay’ and looks ahead to the challenges that the new regulations will pose when racing begins.
“I think we are reasonably well prepared because we were able to cover quite a lot of work over the four tests,” he said. “There has been a lot to learn with the new tyres and also with things like the KERS, the rear wing and the aero on the car, which we finished in Barcelona last week.
“The team and the drivers have done a good job in learning and understanding the way the tyres and the car are behaving with the drivers contributing a lot to the team's understanding and directions that we need to go in.”
Reliability problems plagued the team in the early part of 2010, but Key doesn’t anticipate similar problems this year: “We have only had one repetitive problem and other minor issues, which occasionally pop up in testing anyway, as well as certain things that can be easily dealt with. Fundamentally the car has been reliable and there hasn't been any great need for major re-designs or re-thinks in certain areas.”
Sergio Perez topped the timesheets in Barcelona last Thursday, albeit on a low-fuel lap with the super-soft Pirelli tyres. On the question of performance though, Key will not be drawn on any predictions.
“Performance is very difficult to judge because performance ultimately is relative to the competition,” he said. “I think we have been quite honest with the way we have been testing, and ran lower fuel levels only on the last two days in Barcelona, which gave us a little bit more of an idea of where the car is. It looks quite tight but it is really difficult to judge.
“I think we are satisfied we have made the sort of progress we wanted to make over last year's car in some specific areas. The good news is the fairly big update we took to the second Barcelona test for the start of the season seems to have worked the way we hoped it would.
“The important thing now is we continue to push and bring further updates as soon as we can. We have some big updates planned and will bring several new parts to the second race.”
There has been a lot written during testing about the new Pirelli tyres, their different design, and the perceived lack in durability. Key notes that this will provide teams with challenges:
“The characteristics are quite different to what we have been used to from the previous supplier, but I think this was by design. The tyres certainly need managing on longer runs, and I think in race conditions this is going to be crucial. There are various ways of dealing with them and we need to see how the strategy tends to emerge in the first few races to optimise that.
“The rear tyres are a little bit stronger than we first thought they would be. This is quite a positive thing because initially from the data they looked quite weak. In many ways the characteristics we expected from the tyres are there, so the balance of the car is close to what we expected.
“The tyres are quite peaky. The grip on the first lap is generally quite good, but then it needs managing. A good thing about them is there is a very clear difference between the two compounds, and that is something we have not seen in recent years.”
The new tyres will put extra pressure on the Sauber pit crew (and others up and down the paddock). “We will see more complicated and detailed strategies now,” said Key. “There will be more pit stops and the pit crew will be under more pressure, not just to ensure every pit stop is as quick as it can be, but also to react very quickly should the need or opportunity to change tyres comes up in a race as a much more critical part than it was before.
“Also for the engineers on the pit wall strategic decisions are far less predictable than before. I'm sure we will learn a lot more about how to handle it in the first few races.”
This testing period has also been an opportunity for new driver Sergio Perez to get used to life in Formula 1 before beginning his debut season, whilst his team-mate Kamui Kobayashi had to get used to being the most experienced driver in the line-up.
“Sergio has developed very well over the past four tests,” said Key. “Looking at where he started at the Valencia test in early February and where we are now after only six weeks, he has made enormous progress. He has learned an awful lot, his feedback has improved on a test by test basis, and his confidence in the car has also improved a great deal.
“He made a good effort when we did our race and qualifying runs with him at the last Barcelona test. He drove the car for the first time on low fuel and new tyres, and he really made good use of it by going quicker and quicker. However, it will be a very different kind of pressure at the start of the season, but so far it has worked well and now he is looking forward to the race.”
And Kobayashi? “He is dealing with it very well and very professionally,” added Key. “He is playing a very proactive role in helping in the direction the car is developing and giving a very good driver's perspective of where we are.
“He's got a bit of work to do in adapting to the tyres, because he is used to the tyres of the previous supplier, while Sergio isn't, so it is a little bit more difficult to adapt for a driver who was in F1 last year. But Kamui is doing a good job on that and, as we know from last year, we can rely on him in both testing and racing and it is a pleasure to work with him.”