The final Formula 1 test before the season starts at Albert Park has been completed in Barcelona. The talk has all been of dress rehearsals, of tyres and the challenges Pirelli has created for 2013 – and of a couple of late changes in the driver line-up for the new year.
GLASS HALF FULL FOR ADRIAN AGAIN
Assessing a driver’s chances, you don’t often wonder if he’ll even be allowed to travel to the Grand Prix venues of the world. But Adrian Sutil had to be reassured that he would have no difficulties in obtaining visas before confirming his return to a Force India seat for 2013.
Sutil was given an 18-month suspended sentence and a substantial fine for assaulting one of the Lotus team’s co-owners and missed the 2012 season entirely, but Force India, for whom the 30-year-old German raced for four years, is back.
“Everyone can make mistakes in life,” said Sutil, who has 90 Grands Prix under his belt. He insists he is a better man for the unhappy experience – and plans to prove he is a better driver than many believe.
"I am not here to race for fifth or sixth position,” he insists. “I want to go on the podium . I have raised my goals. I want to win in the future and be one of the best drivers in the world in F1."
JOY FOR JULES, BAD LUCK FOR LUIZ
One minute you’re a Formula 1 driver, the next you’re not. That’s what happened to Brazilian Luiz Razia, signed then dumped by Marussia after failing to meet sponsorship (read financial) commitments in time to secure his place with the British-based team.
Instead it was Frenchman Jules Bianchi who got the nod – with just a day and a half’s running at the very end of that second Barcelona test before heading for Australia and his Grand Prix debut.
Bianchi, 23, has F1 experience as a Ferrari protégé and a Force India reserve – he took part in free practice sessions with VJ Mallya’s team and lost out on a race seat to Sutil at the last minute.
A race-winner in GP2, Bianchi missed out on the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5-litre title by just four points after a controversial last-round clash with eventual champion Robin Frijns. At the final Circuit de Catalunya test he got 136 laps under his belt in the Marussia entry and said that was enough. “We have maximised the one and half days of running I have had and the weather has remained good for me, so I feel happy with what we have achieved. I am ready for Melbourne,” he said.
“Next week I will visit the UK to do some work on the simulator and I will also go to the Marussia Technical Centre for the first time to meet the rest of my new team. There is a lot to squeeze in over a very short space of time, but I can relax on the plane next weekend.”
THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT
Compare Bianchi’s limited preparations with what some of the teams have achieved over the past few weeks. Lewis Hamilton, for example, has totalled over 2500 kilometres in his new Mercedes, while teammate Nico Rosberg got 2600 km under his belt. Their laps over the four days of Barcelona 2 read: 113, 120, 117 and 141, which is virtually a couple of Grand Prix distances a day.
But if Bianchi’s experience in the Marussia was short, just try Davide Valsecchi’s in the Lotus E21. The Italian, who is the reigning GP2 champion, was given the nod at quarter to nine on the morning of the third day – giving him just 15 minutes to get ready.
That’s because Kimi Raïkkönen was indisposed, so Valsecchi had to borrow the Finn’s seat – “a World Champion’s, so I knew I would be fast” – and his racewear before hopping in for just 16 laps of the 5.9km Barcelona track.
But that was also enough for Valsecchi to pronounce himself happy. "Here at Lotus the drivers will be fighting for podiums, so I should be strong enough to fight for the top five or six,” he said confidently. “I think right now, if Kimi could finish third in Australia, then I could finish sixth. I would like to be strong enough to fight for victories in Formula 1 and I don't see why I can't be fast enough. When I am there, I'm sure I'll get my opportunity."
THE TYRES ARE THE KEY
“If you sum up all three tests I think all the teams were linked in to what the tyres could do and at times it was extremely difficult to read the set-up changes and find a direction because the tyres were always pretty challenging.”
That’s the World Champion speaking after his final 100-lap stint for Red Bull in Barcelona, at which Sebastian Vettel was eighth-fastest overall. Teammate Mark Webber had been seventh on his last day, with Rosberg setting the pace again in his Mercedes.
During race simulations in Barcelona the teams tended to focus on the Pirelli options which will be available in Melbourne, namely the Medium and Supersoft compounds. The experience will not have been conclusive as the Circuit de Catalunya, by Pirelli’s own admission, does not lend itself to the Supersofts.
As a guide, though, Rosberg’s day four time of 1:20.130 on new soft tyres was quicker than at Barcelona 1 and around one and a half seconds faster than the quickest times seen at the equivalent Barcelona tests at the start of 2012.
Webber, Grosjean, Hamilton and Rosberg were the drivers who topped the time sheets across the four days, while the variable weather in Spain also caused some head-scratching. “A lot of the time,” said Vettel on day two, “we were in that crossover between inters and wets.”
Sauber’s Nico Hülkenberg added his voice to the long list of drivers and technical experts insisting that the tyres will be the key to what happens, not only in Melbourne but over the course of another gruelling season.
“Tyre degradation at the beginning (of a race simulation) is very high,” said the young German, “and it’s quite challenging to keep tyres alive.”
The drivers who can do that, especially at the start of the year, may well be the ones who keep their title hopes alive as well.