The start of the new F1 season is only UNDER THIRTY days away. Not that I’m getting excited or anything. Much. What a long, endless winter it has been but at least now the end is really in sight. All the teams have now officially launched their cars (except for Williams who have pushed it back to 19 February). Funny old things, F1 car launches. Back in the day someone would literally pull a sheet off the car, say voilà and the assorted F1 journos would trundle off to the bar. And there’s a lot to be said for keeping it simple especially when you call to mind the horror of the 1997 McLaren launch (Spice Girls in attendance and enough dry ice to submerge Alexandra Palace) or the one where Honda unveiled its hideous ‘earth dreams’ livery to promote environmental awareness. The memory of that season probably brings poor Jenson out in a cold sweat even today.
Possibly my all time favourite (before my time but it lives on in legend) was the 1974 Hesketh launch which involved whisky and the simultaneous launch of a campaign to ‘Back British Bears’. Perhaps this underlines the absurdity of all overblown and overhyped launches. Having said that, the different car launches mark the start of the season and if like me you’ve barely functioned without F1 in your life since November, it was beyond exciting to see all the new cars, the new line-ups and Christian Horner again. I’ve missed Christian – he brings a calm to my house that is totally lacking. But I’m not going to cover the launches on here not least because they have already been brilliantly chronicled (almost at live-blogging speed!) by Katie over on stoodonthepodium.
What got me even more excited than the launches (or even the sight of Christian Horner) was the First Test in Jerez that began on 5 February. Obviously we have to remember that the cars are still just prototypes and all the engineers are pretty much camped out in wind tunnels working ballistically hard to refine the design and improve the car’s performance. Its safe to say Adrian Newey won’t get much shut-eye between now and Melbourne (unless the RB9 is already so utterly brilliant that he can just sit back and enjoy the view).
Its hard to draw meaningful conclusions as the cars run different set ups, use different tyres and are on different fuel loads and throw into the equation the fact that the abrasive Jerez track tends to chow up tyres. BUT I think there are still things that we as fans can learn (as opposed to the elite few who have degrees in aeronautics and mechanical engineering who can obviously learn loads) from last week’s four day test.
So here goes – lets take a look at how all the teams shaped up for better or indeed for worse in Jerez.
Red Bull: The RB9 looked solid and tidy without blowing anyone away with times (but Vettel in particular is of the ‘but we’re not even pushing’ too cool for school brigade). As we all know, Red Bull like to keep their cards very close to their chest and it will be interesting to see how the car has evolved by the time of the next test in Barcelona. Certainly its straight line speed is lagging well behind McLaren or Ferrari and so early indications are that the front runners will be bunched much closer together this year. But are Red Bull still the team to beat? Probably.
McLaren: Button caught the eye by clocking a blisteringly fast speed on the hard tyre on a dirty track though was hit by some reliability issues during the test. Its safe to say there is some disparity between the performance levels of the two team-mates and Perez has really got to raise his game between now and Melbourne. I expect him to be doing a LOT of track-time in Barcelona in the MP4-28.
Ferrari: The new F138 looks very fast (without apparently any of those niggling issues that afflicted last year’s uninspiring car) and that’s not even with a Spaniard behind the wheel. Yes, Felipe Massa actually set the fastest time of all 4 days on the soft tyre. Slight mystery why Alonso was a no-show. Definitely not due to a rib injury say Ferrari and hey they wouldn’t lie to us. Apparently Fernando was working on his fitness (while taking some lovely, arty photos on Instagram while others did all the boring donkey work). Unlike last year, Ferrari really need to hit the ground running and make sure that Alonso is given the top performing car he deserves from the off. Keep an eye out for their nifty DRS booster system with sexy Fluidic Switch. It will be all the rage apparently. Until other rival teams lodge protests or Adrian Newey designs a better version.
Lotus: Attention all fans of Kimi Raikkonen – the new Lotus looks seriously impressive. The E21 topped the time sheets twice on two days of testing. And this time round, Kimi is a finely honed (give or take!) and race-sharp driver with a full year of F1 racing under his belt. It looks fast and reliable but really none of that matters a hill of beans to mounting a title challenge unless Lotus have hired someone who can devise race-winning strategies (their Achilles heel last year).
Mercedes: In many ways this is the team-mate battle I’m really looking forward to seeing play out. Because the car was so all over the shop last year and notoriously unreliable, it was hard to compare Nico with a winding-down-to-retirement Schuey. But I have a feeling that Nico will give Lewis Hamilton a far greater run for his money than people are expecting. And does the W04 look any better than last year’s clapped out dustcart? Not all that much to be honest. Now lets see, one car had a brake failure, the other an electrical fault, it lacks aerodynamic downforce (the thing which makes F1 cars fast) and basically any grip. Lewis (never one to mince his words) said “We have some work to do but it doesn’t feel like a disaster“. Damned by faint praise hey. It will be VERY interesting to see how Lewis deals with driving a pig of a Mercedes week in and week out. Still if he wants to embark on a romantic re-run of Rebuilding A Formerly Great Team à la Schuey in 1996, now is his chance. Am also keeping a watchful eye on the political machinations within Mercedes itself. Especially as Toto Wolff and Ross Brawn are now doing apparently the same job. Who will actually be calling the shots?
Force India: A more refined version of last year’s car without setting the world on fire. Please can someone at Force India just pull their finger out and for the love of God sign up another driver. At this rate, there’ll either be just one Force India on the grid in Melbourne or Narain will turn up with a helmet and just get into the car when no one is looking. Mind you, Jules Bianchi did himself no harm with a strong performance in the VJM-06 on the final day of testing.
Sauber: The new car looks quietly impressive. Beautiful cars which look fast often are fast. Early doors but the C32 is already my Dark Horse for the season (especially in those carnage safety car races) and they have a seriously talented driver on board in Nico Hulkenberg.
Williams: Well not much to say as they’ve not actually launched their car yet. They turned up to Jerez to get tyre data and try out some parts but (and I might be wrong) there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned testing practice. Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice (I have an Alice so this quote is allowed!).
Toro Rosso: To listen to Jean-Eric Vergne, this car is ground-breaking. To listen to everyone else it looks ok and perhaps is a bit faster than last year’s. Possibly not one to watch.
Caterham: Oh dear. Apparently their next upgrades are due in Barcelona (in May). You just want to give them a big cuddle. Poor sods.
Marussia: A completely new driver line-up with two rookies (Max Chilton and Luis Razia) with NO Grand Prix starts between them. But just to be in Jerez genuinely was a MAJOR achievement. Its all relative at the end of the day and it could be worse – the MR02 could be sporting an earth dreams livery!
Roll on the next test at the Circuit de Catalunya starting on 19 February. Lets face it we still pretty much know nothing (by that time, Adrian Newey could have designed a completely new car with straight line speed worthy of NASA!). The road is long…