When it comes to pre-season testing, look behind the lap times

THE familiar ritual of pre-season F1 testing kicked off at Barcelona yesterday with nine of the current 12 F1 teams turning up to start what amounts to the long slog towards the first race of the season in Melbourne on March 3.

Most drivers were champing at the bit after ten weeks of forced inactivity during the course of a testing ban which lasted from mid-October to the end of December.

Yet seasoned formula one hands know that pre-season testing times have to be taken with a large pinch of salt. While it is no surprise when Williams, McLaren and Ferrari top the timing sheets, when less fancied runners start producing apparently competitive times it is usually because they are running underweight.

During a grand prix weekend, all cars must weigh in at a minimum 600kg complete with driver, but no such restrictions apply during testing. Twelve months ago the Prost team's new AP04 set unbelievably quick times during pre-season testing only to fade when the races began. By running underweight.

"What you've got to remember is that the weight of an additional ten liters of fuel equates to around 0.4sec per lap around Barcelona," said one team insider.

"When they are racing, a lot of the cars run with up to 50kg of ballast to bring them up to the minimum weight limit, so if they take that out they can pick up an instant two seconds a lap. The top teams don't tend to do this, but some of the lesser outfits do. It's really a meaningless sales pitch, which might keep the sponsors happy, but little more than that."

For the moment, however, it was left to Antonio Pizzonia, the BMW Williams team's promising young Brazilian test driver who won the 2000 British formula three championship, to grab the headlines by setting fastest time.

The 22-year old from Manaos, managed a 1min 20.033sec fastest lap to finish the day ahead of the McLaren-Mercedes of Alexander Wurz (1m 20.088s) and David Coulthard (1m 20.566s). Pole position for last year's Spanish grand prix at this circuit was set by Michael Schumacher's Ferrari in 1m 18.201s.

And that is the only yardstick that matters.

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