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10,000 Laps of Albert Park – Before they even get here

If you thought the 2012 FIA Formula 1 World Championship season was due to start at Albert Park on Sunday 18 March, think again.

While Australian fans have been patiently waiting for the new crop of cars and drivers to arrive Down Under, up there in Spain the teams have been pounding around the circuits at Jerez in the south-west and Barcelona in the north-east throughout late February and early March. So much so that tyre supplier Pirelli reckons that in three official four-day pre-season tests the drivers have completed no fewer than 48,987 kilometres on the Italian company’s new-for-2012 tyre compounds.

Since the Albert Park circuit measures 5.303 kilometres, that’s the equivalent of close on 10,000 times around the picturesque Melbourne circuit. What’s it all for?

Well, it’s like an athlete ‘putting miles in his legs’ before his racing season starts. The drivers are keen to get back in harness after their winter break, the design teams are eager to see how their new cars have responded to the latest regulations and there is a lot of homework to do on Pirelli’s latest offerings.

It’s also a question of balance, between reliability – getting the cars to pound around without missing a beat – and performance, i.e. seeing just how quick they are. But if you can’t get the former right, then the latter might remain a mystery until you get to Melbourne and the first official practice session on Friday 16 March.

If you want to know who was quickest in those 12 days, look no further than Kimi Räikkönen. The Flying Finn clocked 1 minute 22.030 seconds on the final day of the second Barcelona test, more than three-tenths faster than anyone had managed in the first session at the Circuit de Catalunya.

But his speed only tells half the story. Lotus, for whom the returning champion will drive this season, had to abandon the first Barcelona session after the opening day because of an ‘issue’ (testing buzz-word) with the E20’s front suspension.

“We will never catch back those four days we lost,” admitted team principal Eric Boullier before the final Spanish session, “but we need to make the best of these four days coming up to make sure that we do well.”

Despite the temporary drama, Lotus did so well that only Räikkönen and team-mate Romain Grosjean managed to be top of the daily time-sheets twice each. Otherwise no fewer than eight other drivers clocked fastest times. So where does that leave us?

If you were a betting person, you might look at the Silver Arrows and treat them as your dark horses. Putting it another way, Mercedes left it late to unveil their 2012 challenger, the W03, but have logged up some impressive mileage and are making encouraging noises ahead of the car’s debut in Melbourne.

Nico Rosberg put in 257 laps in the second Barcelona test; in fact over the combined 12 days of testing the German totalled 2996 kilometres of track work to be the hardest-working driver out there.

“I think it shows that bringing the car to the second test was the right decision, because we have no reliability problems,” said Rosberg, yet to win a race after six seasons in F1, the last two with the re-born Silver Arrows. “The reliability is better than last year and it means we can focus more on performance.”

Meanwhile, over in the Maranello corner, the noises emanating from Ferrari after testing have been distinctly low-key. “The new single-seater has some characteristics which are difficult to understand and maybe we’re not where we want to be yet,” said Fernando Alonso.

Technical supremo Pat Fry went further, claiming the F2012 had no chance of podium finishes early in the year, which would mean the Scuderia was on the back foot from the start.

“But we’ve all lived through many Formula One seasons,” added Alonso, “and we all know very well that until we’re in Australia we don’t really know where we stand. I just want to remind you of an episode two years ago: at the last test in Barcelona we were fifth behind Red Bull, McLaren, Sauber and Force India and two weeks later we gained a one-two win in Bahrain.”

Looking for a 1-2 result in Melbourne will be defending champions Red Bull, but they too left Barcelona under something of a cloud. Vettel gave them ‘more than 5 but less than 10’ out of 10 for their pre-season work after failing to complete more than a handful of laps on the final day because of an ‘issue’ that caused him to go off-track and a gearbox problem.

Mark Webber, as usual, gets it about right. The experienced Aussie doesn’t use ‘issue-speak’ but refers to the fact that everyone ‘faces some headwinds’ in pre-season testing, which is what Red Bull have experienced. But would you bet against the RB8?

While seasoned veteran Webber knows exactly how to tackle the season-opener in Melbourne, fellow-Aussie Daniel Ricciardo will be having his home race debut in the Toro Rosso. Dan got more running in the final Barcelona test than in the previous two sessions and said he has “a clear understanding” of the changes the team has made to its STR07 and the way the car reacts.

On the second-last day in Barcelona he clocked 131 laps. “The perfect preparation for Melbourne,” he called it – and many insiders are saying Toro Rosso could be on target for a significant move up the grid in 2012.

‘Issues’ are all very well, but what if you have so many of them that you don’t get any running in the pre-season tests at all? It’s happened to two teams this year, both of whom had to rely on the sleight-of-hand of ‘filming days’ to roll out their 2012 cars on the Monday after Barcelona testing had shut down.

One is HRT, whose pre-season has been overshadowed by changes of management, of location and other ongoing difficulties which meant the car itself took a back seat. On March 5 their F112 had a shake-down run in Barcelona with Narain Karthikeyan at the wheel.

An interested spectator was his team-mate Pedro de la Rosa, a senior figure who believes F1 has got its whole severely restricted approach to testing quite wrong.

“We need two or three sessions a year of open Formula 1 testing, with any driver the team wishes to appoint,” declared De la Rosa, who is returning to a full-time race seat after many years as a ‘third and reserve’ driver, most recently at McLaren.

“Imagine if McLaren would have needed me towards the end of last year, without me having tested for eight months? It would have been embarrassing to drive a McLaren, a car capable of winning races, and not even make it into Q2!”

The other team yet to turn a wheel in anger with its 2012 cars is Marussia, who gave the MR01 its first outing at Silverstone on the same day as the F112 was doing its stuff in Spain. Their car’s unveiling was put on hold when it failed to pass the final FIA-observed crash test, mandatory hurdles for the car and its componentry to get over.

So two teams at least will be ‘testing’ for all they are worth in the opening two days of their Melbourne weekend, while the others attempt to live up to or exceed their own pre-season form.

As Michael Schumacher says (and the Mercedes ace, with 91 wins under his belt, should know), “We all know that testing does not show everything.” And at least they only have to cover 58 laps of Albert Park when the lights go out on Sunday 18 March...

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