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The unanswered question of F1 testing
Now Mercedes has shown a glimpse of its true potential, there is one team yet to give anything away in F1 testing. MATT BEER reveals what Williams has been up to
For the first seven and three quarter days of 2015 Formula 1 winter testing, the team everyone has been striving to catch was refusing to let anyone see where it was putting the goalposts.
While some others were throwing softs, super-softs and qualifying fuel loads at their cars in bids for reassurance, Mercedes pounded round on hards, winter hards and mediums, racking up ominously high lap tallies.
The silver team's swaggering confidence was demonstrated not by blitzing everyone with dominant glory runs, but in feeling comfortable enough to rehearse pitstops while others were still hoping their cars stuck together for a lap. Unusual diversions such as trapped nerves (Nico Rosberg), high fevers (Lewis Hamilton) and spins on cold tyres (Rosberg again) were quickly shrugged off.
Williams is unlikely to be at Mercedes' level, but how close can it get? XPB
And with 45 minutes of Sunday afternoon remaining, the champion team answered the 'how cool is Mercedes playing it?' question. Rosberg popped out for a couple of quick runs on mediums and got within 0.2 seconds of the pace Romain Grosjean set on super-softs during what appeared to be full-bore qualifying simulations.
As Pirelli estimates mediums are 1.5-2.0s slower than super-softs, that 0.2s gap generated some pretty depressing mathematics for the Silver Arrows' opposition. And it wasn't as if Lotus was a false benchmark, with every indication that the now Mercedes-powered team had put last year's misery far behind it already. The E23 seems a quick car. The W06 effectively blitzed the best it could offer.
At least it was another question answered and something closer to a certainty from testing. We now know Mercedes is very fast, that several teams have made clear improvements (Ferrari, Lotus, Sauber, probably Toro Rosso), that others haven't made all the winter gains they prayed for (Red Bull) and that some are very much a long-term work in progress (McLaren).
That leaves one big question mark lingering: what's going on with the team that came closest to beating Mercedes on merit in 2014? Is Williams's absence from the top of the timesheets because it's the darkest horse in the pitlane or because it's failed to push on from last year's renaissance and is poised to be swallowed up again?
Well, would a team panicking about its performance feel comfortable dedicating a whole day to pitstop practice, as Williams did on Saturday? A dicey weather forecast played a part in that decision, but many others switched plans once the rain swiftly dispersed.
Not Williams, it was happy for Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas - who confirmed with a deadpan smile that the FW37 handled well in the pitlane entry - to rack up 40 pitstops between them, with Bottas only doing one late batch of proper flying laps.
A brief performance run was tried on Sunday, but otherwise the focus was race simulations. And the first test at Jerez was all about reliability. An upgrade package that chief test engineer Rod Nelson coyly described as "a reasonable step" is being saved for the final test. This is a team playing its cards so close to its chest, that they're currently zipped in an inside pocket. And every variation of the 'so when are you going to show your hand?' question was met with a grin and a new way of circumnavigating the answer.
Bottas has mastered the art of giving nothing away during pre-season LAT
Though Bottas admitted that next week's new package "is going to change the car behaviour", he clarified that the change is something that would affect the "fine details of car balance", not some drastic surgery required to rescue an off-course design.
"We know there's nothing major wrong with the car that we can't fix by adjusting the set-up," he added, and both drivers underlined that so far the FW37 basically feels familiar, with a few FW36 weaknesses, such as traction, seeming better.
As Williams reacclimatised to being a frontrunner last year, leading lights such as Massa, Rob Smedley and Pat Symonds kept emphasising the key thing it still lacked was the procedural sharpness and detail attention that teams more accustomed to winning had.
It didn't need to rethink its car design philosophy this winter. It knew its engine would be spot on, and it's happy the new Mercedes power unit is a clear step forward over 2014's. It just needed to stop letting things slip through its fingers. Being competitive wasn't a problem for Williams in 2014. Being close enough to perfection was.
Hence pitstop after pitstop this weekend, simulating adverse events such as steering wheel changes and cars arriving in the wrong order, making sure every procedural nuance and unusual eventuality was rehearsed.
"I think last year we learned a lot because the competition is so much tighter at the front and every single little mistake we made or I made, or if we did some things with the strategy, always costs more when you are at the front," says Bottas, as he reflects on how different this winter feels to last year's.
"Any mistake we've done has been more visible to us and to everyone. In 2013 if we had a bad race strategy or if a driver made a mistake it made a bit less of an impact.
"I think if we can start the season at the same level that we finished last year - as a team and how we operate - we are a team that can win races if we have a quick enough car. We are more ready to maximise the potential of the car [than 12 months ago]."
One area where Williams has offered clear evidence of strength is tyre preservation. Multiple red flags prevented a head-to-head full-distance comparison, but when Bottas and Grosjean set off on simultaneous soft-tyre runs at the start of planned race simulations on Sunday, the Williams's times only dropped off drastically after 14 laps compared to seven for the Lotus. On the hards, consistency was strong on this tyre-hungry track, and a 27-lap stint was reeled off.
"We quite enjoy the challenge of going for a compound that's a little bit on the edge - we like to think we could do something about making it live," said Nelson, when the Mercedes drivers' tyre complaints were relayed to him.
"Sometimes that doesn't quite work out for you - Bahrain last year is a case in point. But like all these things, you have a problem and it makes you work in that area and you begin to understand it."
Much of what hampered Williams in 2014 didn't require analysis or improvement, it just needed the natural calming of nerves that comes with more experience of being in the thick of things.
When a day of pitstop practice is a choice, it's usually a good sign LAT
Asked if he'd give the Melbourne wall more space this year after squandering a potentially brilliant first grand prix of 2014 with a mistake, Bottas joked that it would only be "one centimetre", emphasising that it wasn't a matter of being more cautious, just less panicked and over-excitable; now confident enough in the long game not to let desperation spoil the first opportunity: "If we have a good car in Melbourne, it's not going to be a new situation for me."
It's that calm, but miles from complacent, attitude that pervades Williams's winter. It's not about to spring Mercedes-beating pace out of the bag, but it feels very strongly that it's doing the right things to move it closer to where it wants to be. And it doesn't need to reel off a 1m24s around Barcelona on super-softs to achieve that.
In a paddock full of people trying to pretend they're either not looking at rivals' pace or can't properly judge it yet, Nelson has no qualms about admitting Williams is doing its best to do both. When Daniil Kvyat's Red Bull parked in the pitlane, a Williams man was straight up to its diffuser, camera in hand.
"Whenever you're at the track you're trying to work out how competitive you are relative to other people, as that allows you to work out what sort of risk level you're prepared to accept," he says.
"We're always looking at other people, what they're doing, guesstimating their fuel loads and looking back at what they did at these events last year relative to the start of the season.
"I think it's reasonable to say that Mercedes have got the legs on everyone at the moment.
"We're reasonably... not satisfied, that's the wrong word... but we know where we are, we know where there are performance deficits and where we need to do work.
"We'll be a little bit slower than Mercedes and I hope we'll be a little bit quicker than Red Bull."
Which puts Williams right between the teams that have won the last five championships (six if you include Mercedes predecessor Brawn GP). And everything about the determined, disciplined and meticulous approach it's taking to this winter suggests that's the kind of company it now intends on keeping.