Possibly the best excuse I have yet known to escape the cold, wet, dark and dismal winter months of England is a swift trip over to sunny Spain to watch the February F1 test sessions. Not only is it a chance to see all of the team’s new steeds in action, it’s also the cheapest way to see F1 cars “in the flesh” throughout the year.
The ferociously rising costs of race attendance makes live viewing of F1 machinery prohibitive for most, with a weekend ticket to Silverstone costing the equivalent of a weekend in Paris, it’s no surprise that many stick to watching on TV. However, what is lost on TV is immeasurable for those first few, goosebump raising moments when you see these ground based rockets in action.
The blonde and I jumped on the “redeye” flight to Valencia airport on Tuesday February the first to sample some sun, sand and F1. After we had negotiated the ridiculous excuse for accurate road signs on the highly confusing Valencia ring road we had to then deal with the amusing and highly frustrating reality of Spanish drivers.
The Spanish can be a fiery lot, but at the same time they can also be remarkably relaxed and laid back, this reflects in their driving in most odd ways. For instance, if I am cut up by someone in a severe chop that almost relieves my hire car of a nose, I presume they must be in a hurry. It thus comes as some surprise when they proceed to bimble along in front of me at a slower speed than I was doing to start with. What was also catching me out was that everyone would race towards a red light (including myself, of course!), then screech to a halt at said line. Then, when the light eventually switched to green, everyone seemed to have gone to sleep and it took what felt like months (In my mad brain, anyway) before they managed to pull away.
This is in some contrast with driving in Italy, where every set of traffic lights is the chance to start a new race! It can be noted in Italy, when stopped at the lights, that every driver on the line is focussed one hundred percent on those lights, and when the red goes out (Not when the green comes on!), they are AWAY! Alas, some positives exist in this comparison, as the relaxed attitude in Spain at least means that one doesn’t find any angry lunatics in Fiat Pandas travelling not more than seven millimetres from one’s rear bumper.
I digress, as ever.
As we pulled into the Circuito de la Comunitat Valenciana Ricardo Tormo (via an impromptu run around an unsignposted industrial estate!) at around ten thirty on the bright, blue skied morning of Wednesday February the second, I heard the high pitched scream of 2.4 litre V8’s in the distance and commenced an all over goosebump event. Nothing else does this for me, well, not much else!
We got into the circuit and took up station between turns one and two for some car watching. Early runners were Paul Di Resta in the 2010 Force India, Lewis Hamilton, also in a hybrid 2010 car, Fernando Alonso and Nico Rosberg in their “new for 2011” cars, the Ferrari F150 and Mercedes MGP-W02 respectively.
Later through the morning there would be runs for Barrichello, with his Williams bedecked in a dark blue, interim livery, Kubica in the JPS styled Renault and various others. It was immediately apparent who was in trouble, as the Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguarsuari speared into view at turn one, viciously sideways, running over the exit kurb then gathering up a huge tankslapper. Every lap around the STR looked on the edge, lacking notably in downforce and clearly challenged when trying to keep up with other cars. It could be a tough year ahead for the Faenza based squad.
Alonso, as ever, was a sight to behold, very flamboyant in the car, muscling the thing around, very much the conquistador, with aggressive turn in angles and fierce throttle application. His line through turn two, wide on entry and cutting back across the exit apex, allowed this hard throttle input, the Ferrari looking very good in the traction zones.
Possibly matched only by Vettel’s RBR when it came to low speed traction, Alonso was out on track most of the day, clocking up some 108 laps. What seemed of note to me was the comparative lack of tyre wear on the F150 over long runs compared with some of the other cars on track. The sound of Alonso cracking the throttle open on the exit of turn six was infectious, prompting the blonde to put in ear plugs.
Kubica also looked very quick in the new Renault/Lotus/Lada/Total/Genii. The black car displaying very good stability under brakes and generally impressive low speed grip.
We can but hope that this test does not mark the last time Robert takes to the wheel of the Renault R31. Unfortunately, for now, his convalescence will see different drivers behind the wheel in Jerez and Barcelona, and probably for much of the season. Whether the promise of the car will continue on the more high speed circuit at Jerez will tell a great deal for the potential of Renault stepping up to race winners this year. Kubica’s untimely accident could prove to be very costly for the team.
Lewis Hamilton was out for some 83 laps during the day, concentrating on long runs and analysing the tyre wear levels on the new Pirellis. This led the Spanish crowd to laugh and jeer as after a good 15 or so laps on the Italian rubber Lewis was scrabbling for grip, and sliding the hybrid McLaren through turns. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself.
Other runs of note included Rosberg running in the new Mercedes. He ran for much of the morning, the silver car expiring around lunch time on the exit of turn nine. Rosberg’s smooth style has a very Prost-like feel to it, where good laptimes sometimes look slow due to the apparent lack of effort from the driver. This hid nothing when it came to the composure of the MGP-W02, whilst it did not look like the fastest car out there, it was certainly less of a handful than last year’s car. This will be a reason for Nico and Old Mike to breathe a sigh of relief for the coming season.
The Sauber of Sergio Perez also hit the track around lunchtime, and quite the event it was. The young Mexican looking very latin in the car as he seemingly went to war with it around the Valencia circuit. As the laps ticked by he became smoother, finding the limits of the new machine. The rookie showed some impressive car control, whether this will reflect in laptime is yet to be revealed. Bahrain will be a telling time for the newcomers.
This week we move on to Jerez, which will be much more indicative of high speed performance. As well as this we will finally see all of the new cars on track for the first time, perhaps Team Lotus will manage more than a handful of installation laps. I find myself back in the UK this week, enjoying the sun but not quite the warmth of Spanish climes, from where I will continue to keep a close eye on the developments for what could be another landmark season of Formula One racing.