F1 teams ready for pre-season showdown
The Formula 1 teams are gathering in Spain this week to make their final preparations for the most eagerly anticipated new season for years.
With star names such as Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso all in attendance, the four days of running at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya from Thursday to Sunday are a final chance to judge form before the opening grand prix in Bahrain on 14 March.
The three tests so far this winter have produced fastest laps from a wide-ranging number of people, including unfancied teams such as Sauber and Toro Rosso. Despite this, there is a consensus on the story behind the headline times - Ferrari have so far had an edge over all their rivals.
New signing Alonso and team-mate Felipe Massa headed all four days of the first test in Valencia nearly a month ago.
But most observers share Button's belief that Ferrari have had the quickest car at the two most recent tests in Jerez given that both Alonso and Massa have been consistently fast while carrying a heavy fuel load.
As for McLaren, whose drivers set the fastest times of the last two tests in Jerez, and Red Bull, they have so far seemed to be in better shape than Mercedes, who won last year's titles in their previous guise as Brawn and now have the sky-high expectations that come with having Schumacher in their ranks as the German legend makes his return following a three-year retirement.
Will Alonso and Ferrari carry their pre-season pace-setting form into Bahrain? Photo: Getty Images
But things can change very quickly. None of the cars has so far run in the specification in which they will compete in Bahrain, and all of the teams will have updates for this week's runs in Barcelona, and yet more for the first race of the campaign. The difference those updates make to each car's performance could easily shuffle the competitive order significantly.
At the same time, the banning of in-race refuelling this year for the first time in 16 years makes testing particularly hard to read.
The difference in lap time between a car laden with enough fuel to complete a race distance and one on qualifying-style low tanks is more than five seconds. That makes it easy for teams to disguise their true performance - Alonso, for example, has made it clear that Ferrari have been doing exactly that.
But while all the top teams appear to have been concentrating so far on race simulations, all will want to go to Bahrain having done at least some low-fuel runs aimed at understanding their cars in qualifying trim.
The difference in weight between a car in qualifying on Saturday and at the start of the race on Sunday will be in the order of 150kg - which has a huge effect on ride heights and therefore on aerodynamic performance.
So tuning the cars so they perform well enough in qualifying to produce a good grid position while not compromising their speed in the early stages of a race will be one of the biggest challenges facing teams this season - and all will have to do some work on this in Barcelona. That should give observers a chance to see all the top cars running on low fuel.
Behind the top four, a number of other teams have hinted at potentially strong form.
Renault, who are starting a new era after selling 75% of the team to a venture capital company and with Robert Kubica attempting to fill the void left by the departure of Alonso, and Williams, with veteran Brawn refugee Rubens Barrichello joined by highly rated German rookie Nico Hulkenberg, have both looked quick on occasion.
As have Sauber - now back under the ownership of founder Peter Sauber following BMW's departure from F1 - Force India and Toro Rosso, who are building their first car since their former days as Minardi four years ago.
Virgin had a torrid time at their debut test in Jerez, with a front wing breaking and running limited to about 20 laps over the first three days. But things improved markedly for the second Jerez test last week, where Lotus made their debut.
The Lotus was impressively reliable at its maiden test, doing 140 laps on one of the days - an incredible achievement for a team that did not have an entry until mid-September. The car was less impressive against the stopwatch, though, being about a second slower than the Virgin.
The progress of both teams will be watched closely at the Circuit de Catalunya, which hosts the first European race of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix on 9 May.
It is a demanding track that comprehensively tests a car's all-round capabilities - another reason why these next four days will be watched particularly closely by those eager for an insight into pre-season form.
Despite the difficulties in reading the lap times, the Barcelona test should provide a reasonably accurate guide to form for those who know what to look for - such things as consistency of pace over long runs - and where to find out the information that fills in the gaps.
BBC Sport will have an extensive presence in Barcelona, with expert analysts Martin Brundle and David Coulthard, commentator Jonathan Legard, pit-lane reporters Ted Kravitz and Lee McKenzie and journalist Sarah Holt all attending.
They will all be feeding into our coverage on the BBC Sport website, which will include live text commentary on all four days and extensive end-of-day reports.
At the end of the test, on Monday next week, we will have video interviews with all the leading drivers, as well as analysis of what it all meant from Ted.
Then it will be a question of waiting until Bahrain to see whether Barcelona provided the insight we all hoped it would.