The fact that eight different drivers have topped the opening eight days of Formula 1 pre-season testing is a fitting illustration of how hard this year's form book is to read.
Even after witnessing thousands of miles being completed at the first test at Jerez, it was nigh on impossible to say who was in the best shape. Besides, we were yet to see Mercedes and its W03, or for that matter the 2012 challengers from Marussia and HRT.
Of the trio, only the W03 made it to the second test, held at what is by common consensus one of the best testing facilities available: Barcelona. Four days at the Spanish Grand Prix venue produced a slightly clearer picture of the 2012 pecking order, not least because we saw for the first time race simulation runs and the full range of Pirelli slick tyres for the coming season.
Though F1's 'phoney war' is still incredibly difficult to puzzle together, here is what we learned from the second, and penultimate, pre-season test.
Blink and you missed it. Lotus packed up after only seven laps on day one © LAT
1. Lotus will be busy
What a difference a week makes. At Jerez, there was no getting away from the fact: Lotus looked on its game. The E20 appeared aggressive and nimble in the hands of both Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, and seemed to have the reliability and consistency to match.
Just seven laps into Barcelona, things deteriorated badly. Grosjean reported a 'strange' feeling from the chassis and the team decided to stop running for the day, the plan being to ship out the chassis used at Jerez for the second day onward. Bench testing then revealed that the problem - concerning the front-suspension mounts - affected the Jerez chassis too, so Lotus elected to abandon the test.
Though the team was immediately confident that it could rectify the problem, its Enstone base will have been a hive of activity amid the disappointment. Lotus will be burning the midnight oil to make up for lost ground.
Massa's F2012 looks a stronger proposition following Barcelona's test © LAT
2. Ferrari has improved...
The F2012 was the talking point of the Jerez test, as Ferrari struggled to get its radical challenger dialled in. The mood of the team also suggested that it was not where it wanted to be - fighting for world championship glory in 2012.
The good news for fans of the Prancing Horse is that the F2012 did indeed look better at Barcelona. Even as Fernando Alonso conceded he may not have the quickest car heading into the season, there were signs - such as long-run pace and improved handling - that Ferrari was making progress.
Then came Felipe Massa's comments on the final day that the team had found 'the direction' to follow, and that it had been a positive day, "not so much in the morning but in the afternoon."
With such a radical machine, it was inevitable in some ways that Ferrari struggled to get an immediate handle on the car, but the signs suggest the team is starting to work out how to extract its performance.
You could throw a blanket over the midfield based on Barcelona pace © LAT
3. ...but so has the competition
The problem for Ferrari is that, as it works out the F2012, its rivals are also making progress.
It was hard to read too much into the form of Red Bull and McLaren at Jerez, but the fact that they were the first to complete race simulations was significant, not only in the pace they achieved, but in what it inferred about their preparations. Race simulations, after all, can only be attempted once the minor issues connected with a new car are ironed out.
The RB8 in particular looked strong, the drivers able to run deeper, hold a wider - and faster - line through the left-handed SEAT curve and ease the throttle on without losing the rear. Through the first turn and the following long right-hander it was able to hold a tighter line than anyone but the McLaren, which wasn't able to ride the kerbs quite so well but looked similarly assured in the slow stuff.
Then there was the launch of the Mercedes W03, which instantly looked settled and soon proved reliable too. Ferrari has its work cut out...
The new Mercedes has its first official test run last Tuesday © LAT
4. Mercedes looks sharp
Speaking of the W03, Mercedes' calculated decision to introduce the car at the second test seems to have been rewarded. The W03 was quick out of the box and by day three was capable of long runs. It also looked a close match for McLaren and Red Bull out on track.
The mood of the camp matched that impression. Team principal Ross Brawn said the outfit was in a much better position than last year, that it had "something to work with" even if he was not quite convinced he had a car capable of race wins.
Michael Schumacher too said it was "definitely clear we have improved the car", while Nico Rosberg said the team was heading in the right direction and looking at "big things".
Of course, the question of just how much Mercedes has improved remains. The third and final test may go some way to answering that question, but there was plenty of evidence to suggest Mercedes has taken a big step towards the front with the W03.
A loophole on any kind of exhaust blowing will be closed off © LAT
5. The games have already started
The FIA has been on a crusade to eradicate any form of exhaust blowing that produces an aerodynamic benefit, and last October AUTOSPORT revealed the imposition of strict engine-mapping limits to prevent continued off-blowing.
But teams will continue to push the limits of regulations, and last Thursday a new loophole - which opens the possibility of teams getting around the stricter limits - was reported to the FIA by Mercedes.
AUTOSPORT understands that an updated version of the software used in F1's standard ECU will be released before the Australian Grand Prix. The FIA also said it did not suspect any team had been making use of the loophole.
Still, the games have begun, just a few days into the pre-season.
Most of the cars had a run on the supersofts at Barcelona © LAT
6. Pirelli's supersoft appears to be versatile
Pirelli brought 34 sets of its new super-soft compound to Barcelona, the first time the red-marked tyre has been used this year. While only 16 were used, there was enough evidence to suggest it could be quite versatile.
Primarily, the consensus was that it behaves like a classic qualifying tyre, with a large helping of grip for a one-lap run. It was perhaps significant that Nico Hulkenberg and Pastor Maldonado went fastest (on days two and three respectively) when their cars were shod with the super-soft compound.
But this does not appear to be wildly more competitive than the soft - as evidenced by the fact that Kamui Kobayashi's best super-soft tyre was fractions slower than his best time on softs on the final day.
In addition, a 10-lap run was managed on the super-soft - albeit at slow times, and way down on the highest run on softs, which stood at 24 laps.
The Williams looked better than the 2011 model through the slow stuff © LAT
7. Slow-speed corners could be critical
While each team will have different areas to focus upon, and different areas of relative strength and weakness, the slow-speed corners are where the biggest gains can be found and therefore where lap time can be recovered.
Williams openly recognised the need to improve the handling of its FW34 in the slow stuff and, encouragingly for the Grove-based squad, looked to have made progress between Jerez and Barcelona.
De la Rosa was out at Jerez in the old car, but hasn't been seen since © LAT
8. HRT faces a race against time to make the final test
After testing for two days at Jerez, HRT had to abandon plans to attend the first test at Barcelona when its 2012 challenger failed the mandatory FIA crash tests.
The team said the decision would help it focus on getting its new car ready for the final test, which begins on March 1.
But it was only able to pass all the new tests on the February 25, leaving the team facing a race against time to be ready. It may end up missing one or two days - far from ideal preparation given the season's start is less than one month away.
Kobayashi topped the final day, but did it mean anything? © LAT
9. It's still incredibly difficult to read testing...
Pirelli will tell you that the teams collectively managed 14,949 kilometres in Jerez. At Barcelona they managed 17,207km, bringing the grand total to just over 32,000km. Despite that, it still remains incredibly difficult to ascertain a definite idea of the pecking order.
Apart from surprise packages such as Kobayashi and Maldonado, we've seen Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso in the mix. But no one team has consistently run at the front as a multitude of testing programmes - and perhaps an element of keeping the powder dry - blur the picture substantially.
Vettel chases Hamilton during Wednesday's test session © LAT
10. ...but this year could be close
OK, call us optimists. But up front, the general consensus is that Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes all look well matched. It's harder to know what to expect from Ferrari, but it seems to be making progress, raising the prospect of a tremendous scrap between the top four.
The midfield looks even closer, with Force India, Toro Rosso, Sauber and Williams all having reasons to be positive. Most have also profited from the blown-diffuser rule changes, and have closed on the front as a result.
Then of course there is Lotus, absent for all but seven laps of Barcelona, but with a strong enough base at Jerez to suggest it too could be a force come the first round in Australia.
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