It's very difficult to find a subject on which the entire Formula 1 paddock is in agreement. But there are a few. Take, for example, a phrase that you will hear repeated over and over again during pre-season testing: "At this stage, the times you see on the screens don't mean anything."
It's not so much that the times are useless, but rather that trying to extrapolate any meaningful conclusions from them is an impossible mission. During pre-season testing, there are far too many variables at play for the teams or onlookers to be able to reach a consensus on which drivers are looking good for the year ahead. What's more, the engineers make use of these variables in order to throw the competition off the scent.
That has been the case during this week's testing sessions at the Montmeló circuit in Barcelona. "During the testing sessions, the times on the screens are only useful for the team and the driver, because they are the only ones who know the conditions of the car during the lap," says Toni Cuquerella, chief engineer of Spanish team Hispania.
The sport's regulatory body, the FIA, has spent years trying to spice up the racing on the track, and one of the ways it has done this is by increasing the variations available in terms of strategy. The biggest factor in this respect is the fuel load carried by a car.
"In Jerez or Montmeló, for example, all you need to do is add an extra 30 kilos of gas to see your lap time increase by a second," explains Cuquerella. "So theoretically, all other teams need to do is take that time as a reference and add a second. The problem is that no one knows the fuel loads. No one trusts anyone else." When a Formula 1 car is carrying a full tank of fuel, it weighs 140 kilos more than when it is empty. At the Montmeló track, that is a difference of 4.2 seconds per lap.
Other factors include KERS, the kinetic energy recovery system, and the moveable rear wing system, known as DRS. When used together, the systems can cut lap times by as much as two seconds.
Put the three elements together, and the lap time can vary by as much as six seconds, which is an eternity in the world of Formula 1. Not until the first timed session of the year will the teams drop their masks and reveal the results of the work they have put in during the winter.
All of the teams are in the same frame of mind, although there are some that need to do more work than others. Fernando Alonso's team, Ferrari, has been under the hammer since the presentation of the F2012, on February 3. After the first four days of testing, in Jerez, the team has been left with a lot of homework. The problem, it appears, is that the complexity of some of its parts is making life difficult for the engineers. In addition, the team suffered what it described as "a small mechanical problem."
That minor hitch left Alonso in the garage on Tuesday for two whole hours. He managed to get in 75 laps, but bearing in mind that there are only seven more days of testing before the season gets underway in Australia on March 18, he lost precious time.
The Spaniard - who is about to embark on his third year at Ferrari, and is as desperate as ever to take his third world championship title - finished fifth on those unreliable timesheets on the first day of practice on Tuesday, 0.8 seconds behind current world champion Sebastian Vettel, of Red Bull, who was the fastest man on the track. On Wednesday, the Spaniard improved to fourth with an improved lap time only 0.3 seconds behind Vettel, who was third. The fastest men on the track were Nico Hülkenberg with a lap time of 1m 22.6s in the new Force India car and Mexico's Sergio Pérez, who was just 0.04 seconds behind in the Sauber.