- Testing preview
Formula One is back
On February 1 the Ricardo Tormo circuit outside Valencia will awaken to the sound of 12 highly-strung V8 engines, bringing an end to an eerily quiet winter in the Formula One world. Seven brand new cars will be on track (Lotus are waiting until Wednesday), four of which will have been unveiled to the public that very morning.
It's an exciting prospect, but by the end of the three day test we won't be that much closer to knowing who the favourite is for the 2011 championship than we are right now. Times will inevitably be skewed by fuel loads and set-ups, and the front-running cars present will evolve dramatically ahead of the first race in Bahrain. Keeping that in mind, the following is a preview package to help you keep on top of the news stories over next week.
Ferrari is keen to hit the ground running with a reliable and quick package and launched its car last Friday. However, the secrets to its 2011 design are being kept under wraps as the team intends to bring a series of major bodywork developments to the car throughout testing. The F150 that was launched on Friday did not look like a dramatic departure from last year's F10, but technical director Aldo Costa insists it is a completely new concept underneath. Don't expect too many quick times at the first test as Ferrari will be focused on reliability and gathering data about the new Pirelli tyres.
The new Force India will be ready for the second test, meaning the team will turn up to Valencia with the old VJM03 chassis. This will give it a solid reference to test the improved Pirelli tyres and is the same strategy the team used last year. When the VJM04 does appear, it will be the product of a design team led by a combination of Lotus-bound technical director Mark Smith and his replacement Andy Green. Smith is the second technical director to leave the team in the last 12 months, after James Key moved to Sauber earlier in the 2010 season, and the disruption will not have been good for the gestation of the new car. The second, third and fourth tests will therefore be crucial both for the car's development and the team's bonding.
Anything will be an improvement on last year's HRT F110, and the news that a Williams gearbox will be fitted in the rear of the 2011 car is a promising start. It's being designed by ex-BAR technical director Geoff Willis with the help of several "groups of engineers" and will be a brand new chassis. The car is not expected to be ready until the final test in Bahrain, so the old chassis will be back for the first three tests to give Narain Karthikeyan as much track time as possible.
A completely new car will emerge from Lotus in 2011, with a brand new Renault engine and Red Bull gearbox. As a result it will almost certainly feature Red Bull's pull-rod rear suspension layout (that several teams may also copy), which allows for much tighter packaging of the rear end and should be easier to implement now that double diffusers have been banned. The boxy and angular T127 will be a thing of the past and the team is hoping the new car will challenge for points. The only question is whether all these changes will stretch the team's relatively small resources and compromise reliability.
McLaren has made a very deliberate decision to unveil its new car the day after the first test in Valencia. Like Force India, it will be able to collect data on the new Pirellis using a reliable and predictable chassis - the MP4-25 - and send that information back to the factory to be analysed by the team's sophisticated tyre-modelling software. It also gives the design team an extra week to refine the car in the wind tunnel and one less week for its rivals to copy any innovative ideas like last year's F-duct. Martin Whitmarsh recently said: "There are new regulations for 2011 and the MP4-26 will not only adhere to them, but it will also sport a few fresh design features in response to the opportunities presented by those new regulations."
The 2011 W02 will be the first car since 1955 designed completely under Mercedes ownership and with the full weight of its financial backing. That's significant as the development of last year's W01 started when the team's future was far less certain and major cuts were being made. In contrast, last season the team switched its focus from 2010 to 2011 earlier than its rivals and, while that isn't always a recipe for success the following year, it can't have done any harm. During testing the focus will be on Michael Schumacher and his reactions to the Pirelli tyres, which he is hoping will solve the problems he had in 2010.
Adrain Newey has said the new car will be an evolution of the championship winning RB6 rather than a revolution. But Newey's idea of evolution is probably a little more radical than most. Either way the new Red Bull should be a championship contender, and its unveiling on February 1 will be the most eagerly anticipated in the Valencia pit lane. In 2009 the bulky Magneti Marelli KERS unit didn't fit into Newey's design philosophy and Red Bull ditched it. This year he will have to be more accommodating, but on the plus side he has been given an extra 20kg of car weight in the FIA regulations to do it.
After a solid season in 2010 Renault will be very keen to push for wins in 2011. The car has been described by Renault's technical director as being at the "brave end of brave" and has been designed with upgraded CFD and wind tunnel facilities. In Robert Kubica, the team knows it has a driver who is incredibly consistent and fast, so testing should yield positive results.
Force India's loss of technical director James Key is very much Sauber's gain. It's no coincidence that Sauber improved dramatically towards the end of last season after Key joined, whereas Force India's form plateaued. The big question for the Swiss team is whether it has the money to make the most of its resources and staff. Last year it quite happily survived off BMW's payout when it left the sport, but the car's body panels remained ominously devoid of sponsorship throughout the season. On the plus side, Sergio Perez brings backing from his sponsor Telmex, but with such a competitive field Sauber will need to get the new car right straight away in testing.
2009 was the last year Toro Rosso was allowed to use the same chassis underpinnings as Red Bull. Last year it could develop the 2009 car into a new car of its own construction, but in 2011 the regulation changes mean the task of evolving last year's chassis is much bigger. Parent company Red Bull needs to focus its resources on defending its championships with its senior team, so Toro Rosso is now very much on its own. It has already announced that it will run KERS, which will be the tried and tested Magneti Marelli unit which Ferrari used in 2009. That should keep the car competitive compared to its rivals, but ensuring it works effectively will be the big task in testing.
Virgin will use its old car this week and then launch the MVR-02 ahead of the Jerez test. After the team's reliability problems last year, the cut in testing for the new car is something of a surprise but technical director Nick Wirth is confident he has learned from the mistakes of 2010. On the plus side Virgin has doubled its CFD computing capacity (crucial as it is still against using wind-tunnels for development) so the car should be a big improvement on the VR-01. However, the problematic X-Trac gearbox and hydraulics system remains.
Williams is another team that has been hyping up the design of its new car, with Patrick Head and Rubens Barrichello promising an "aggressive" approach. The team has lost several sponsors over the winter but insists it has its budget covered, largely thanks to Pastor Maldonado bringing Venezuelan oil company PDVSA to the team. But be warned, in recent years Williams has often shown well in testing but failed to deliver at the races.
Valencia is a favourite for F1 testing due to its mild winter weather, but the track has never held a race. Turn one is a high-speed challenge for the drivers and a good opportunity to see and hear which cars are stable on the limit at speed. The mid section of the lap is made up of tighter corners that put an emphasis on traction. However, last year Sauber was consistently one of the quickest in the opening tests, so times can be misleading.
The host of the Spanish Grand Prix from 1986 to 1990 and then the European Grand Prix in 1994 and 1997, Jerez has seen some action over the years. It eventually lost its grand prix slot due to poor attendances and the fact that the Circuit de Catalunya outside Barcelona was more accessible. The most thrilling contest at the track was in 1997 when Jacques Villeneuve sealed the title after a high-stakes battle saw his rival Michael Schumacher come off worse. The circuit itself features a couple of high-speed sections as well as some more fiddly corners.
The Circuit de Catalunya is widely considered to be one of the best all-round tests of a Formula One car there is. Its high and medium-speed corners give the aerodynamics a thorough work out, but it also has tighter corners and a long straight. Unfortunately when it hosts the Spanish Grand Prix racing is usually very processional, but for testing purposes the teams and drivers love it.
Where better to host the final test than at the venue of the first grand prix of the season. Last year the organisers decided to use the extended version of the circuit with its twisty infield. It had a disastrous effect on the racing, but Bahrain is sticking with the layout for 2011. By the time of the test, all the teams should have their 2011 cars up and running and it will be by far the best indicator of who will be competitive this year and who won't be.