With the second round of pre-season testing now complete, a different driver has finished on top of the timesheets in each of the seven days of testing in the year-to-date.

While some may argue that this indicates a potentially level playing field head of the 2011 season, others have more cynically suggested that those banging in the quicker laps might have other motives at play…

It’s always difficult to interpret any meaningful data in pre-season testing, and those in the know have learned rather quickly to avoid touting the teams and drivers who win the ‘winter World Championship’.

Teams run a host of different programs while in pre-season testing, and aren’t even required to present cars that conform to the current technical regulations, so it is certainly plausible that a driver who delivers an astoundingly quick lap time might be doing so in a racing car that isn’t even legal.

There has been a long history of outfits who have stripped the weight from their cars in testing to go for a quick lap in the hope of pulling some extra sponsors or addressing some other vested interest.

At the beginning of last season, the recently re-formed Sauber squad banged in some rather fast lap times in pre-season testing with the C29, only to turn up in Bahrain with a car that was nowhere near the same level of competitiveness, giving rise to many to suggest that the car (which was almost completely bereft of income-producing sponsors) had been running underweight to try and lure some potential backers.

The Prost team posted some quick testing times and landed sponsorship from Yahoo - but it quickly emerged that the car was anything but fast... At the start of the 2000 season, the Prost team posted some rapid times in testing, but it too turned out to be nothing more than a desperate bid to bring in more sponsors. The car (the AP03) was a dog, and the team finished stone last in the Constructors’ Championship at the end of the season – just a year later, it would collapse in financial ruin.

We might not have been surprised to see the likes of Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren hogging the limelight in testing – granted, these are the form outfits from 2010 – but the top of the timesheets is generally (Ferrari aside) where these outfits have featured so far.

Those who have been at the top of the timesheets have been more surprising: Michael Schumacher went quickest on the second day of testing at Jerez, Nick Heidfeld managed the same feat a day later in just his first outing for Renault, and Rubens Barrichello took his Williams FW33 to the fastest overall time at the circuit, with his car having never previously looked like doing so.

Certainly, the more cynical observers in the paddock have been quick to suggest that these unexpected moments of pace are not the real deal.

Having observed that Schumacher was “immediately [lapping] two seconds off the pace” after his flying lap, Mark Webber described the seven-time World Champion’s effort as “just a little show for Germany”.

Schumacher has in turn rejected these suggestions – as well as those indicating that his performance was to take the heat off the team’s owner, Mercedes.

Few believe that the Williams FW33's pace at Jerez was genuine
Williams: A lack of sponsors, an impending stock market float, and a hot lap time from out of nowhere. Coincidence or conspiracy? 

“I was on a ten-lap run, so I don’t know if you can call that very short (on fuel). It is also true that we are not the only team to have tried these tyres,” he replied.

Similarly, Nick Heidfeld’s rapid lap time – nonetheless a well-timed result given the drive was an audition to replace the injured Robert Kubica – may have been to quell concerns of nervous Renault sponsors.

Barrichello’s lap – which many are claiming was the result of a low-fuelled, underweight FW33 – is equally well-timed, given that the outfit is set to float on the stock market in just two weeks time.

So who’s playing with the cards close to their chest, and who’s trying to sell us up the river? I don’t think we’ll truly know until the first qualifying session at Bahrain. Until then, we’ll need to be kept guessing…

[Original images via Sutton Images and The Cahier Archive]

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.