The first winter test of the year is underway at Jerez in the south of Spain. There was frenetic activity up and down the pitlane as teams put the finishing touches on their new cars, except at Red Bull Racing where the mechanics stopped for a coffee – make that Red Bull – break.
The team was facing a three-hour delay after some new parts being flown out from the factory were diverted to Seville due to freezing fog at Jerez airport. But no-one seemed stressed about it; Mark Webber joked with his engineers and team’s chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, used the delay to examine something at the rear of the car.
The only guys who complained about the hold-up were the photographers who sat in the freezing cold outside the Red Bull pit garage. They had to wait a bit longer to see the most eagerly anticipated car of 2012.
But good things come to those who wait and when Mark Webber pulled out of the pit garage mid-morning, the snappers were greeted with a revolutionary-looking car. Clearly an evolution of last year’s world championship-winning RB7, the new car features several innovative features that have rival technical directors scratching their heads. What’s the air vent on the top of the nose? How have the designers managed to make the rear of the car so tight?
Webber ended up completing 53 laps on this opening day of action and set the fourth fastest time, ahead of fellow Aussie Daniel Ricciardo, who’s putting the first kilometres on the new Toro Rosso STR7. Unlike Webber, Ricciardo has a trouble-free day and effused about his new team at the end of play.
“It feels great to be back behind the wheel,” said Ricciardo. “The car is working well and by that I mean the front and rear ends are listening to each other. It’s a good base to start from and it feels like a better car than the STR6, which I drove at this test last year.”
Webber and Ricciardo were back in their respective cars on day two of the test, both of them knocking up trouble-free mileage. Webber completed 97 laps and Ricciardo 100, with Webber fastest of the 2012 cars present after setting a time of 1:19.184s. Michael Schumacher was fastest of all in a 2011-spec Mercedes.
Such is the level of enthusiasm surrounding these early tests that both Australian drivers stayed to watch their team-mates for the final two days of the test. Webber and Ricciardo were spotted at various corners around the track, observing their own cars and those of their rivals, as was Ferrari driver Felipe Massa.
The weather conditions were at their best for the third day of the test. The ambient temperature hovered around 10 degrees, making it cool enough to maximise engine power while still warm enough to get the tyres up to temperature.
Romain Grosjean maximised the conditions to set the fastest lap of the week – a 1:18.4s. Vettel was second fastest, one second shy of Grosjean. He was most likely carrying a heavier fuel load than the Lotus driver, at least that’s what he told Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz, who flew in to watch his new racing car in action.
And Grosjean’s time was quick: it was 1.4s faster than the best time at the Jerez last winter. But it’s impossible for people outside each team to know what fuel loads rival cars are running, so no-one can say for sure where Grosjean’s time would have stacked up in a qualifying session.
“Who knows?” said Romain afterwards. “We were just concentrating on our own programme.”
The final day of this opening test of the year was Ferrari territory. Fernando Alonso set the fastest time early in the day and was never headed. Vettel’s progress, meanwhile, was hindered by electrical issues, leaving Jean-Eric Vergne second fastest in the Toro Rosso.
With a two-week gap before the next test session, the teams are faced with an intense period of factory-based development. They’ll then lock horns at the Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona to continue the game of cat and mouse that is winter testing.
“The car was pretty competitive in winter testing last year and it's the same again this year. We feel that we are prepared to do well, but we have to keep improving," said Webber. “We have an idea of what the car can do in terms of time. You are always anxious and nervous about that, but we are a long way from Melbourne and can't get excited about things. The team is massively experienced and we don't get hooked up in winter testing excitement.
“The concept of the car has changed quite a bit from last year, particularly with the [lack of a] blown diffuser. The leading teams had a very good understanding of it last year and now we've hit the reset button and go again."
"It feels great to be back behind the wheel, but it’s too early to talk about the competitiveness of the RB8" said Vettel. "The car feels fine, although there’s still a lot of work to do before we get to the first race. There is quite a big loss in grip because of the change in regulations, but you get used to it fairly quickly.
"So far I think we can be quite happy. We had a couple of issues that stopped us, but that's normal for this time of year.”
Ricciardo said, “It feels great to be back behind the wheel of an F1 car. The new car is working well and by that I mean the front and rear ends are listening to each other. It’s a good base to start from and it feels like a better car than the STR6, which I drove at this test last year. I don’t want to get too locked into this track because we don’t race here; for that reason I look forward to the next test at Barcelona, which is the home of the Spanish Grand Prix.”
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