F1 teams wrapped up winter testing at Barcelona with the third and final pre-season test which took place March 1-4. In a session that saw 10 teams participate, all the competitors barring HRT and Marussia put the final touches on their 2012 cars in readiness for the season opener at Melbourne from March 16-18.
With initial development completed during the first two tests, major Australia race-spec upgrades were flown-in to the north of Spain as most of the teams concentrated on getting race ready for Round 1. Along with evaluating the latest components, most teams concentrated on full race simulations, pit stop practice and fine-tuning their set-up choices.
Lotus returned to track after having redesigned and incorporated a faulty front suspension mounting, detected during the second test. Romain Grosjean reported that the problem had been overcome as he led the time-sheets on Day 1 with a 1:23.252. McLaren picked up on their impressive outing in the previous session and concentrated on pit-stop practice with their full race crew. They tried out new components over the four days as a host of upgrades went into their MP4-27. Scottish driver Paul Di Resta ran 95 laps as he shook down Force India’s second iteration VJM-05 chassis. Caterham put their reliability problems from the previous test behind them and managed to run a mammoth 123 laps on the day with Vitaly Petrov; focussing mainly on set-up work. Williams continued with aerodynamic correlation runs with Pastor Maldonado as they tested a part of their first race update package inclusive of a new front wing.
On Day 2, Romain Grosjean maintained his hold at the top of the time-sheets with a late afternoon lap of 1:22.614 which proved to be over half a second faster than his compatriot Jean-Eric Vergne in the Torro Rosso. Grosjean was happy with progress after he put in his first race distance with the Lotus E20. Vergne, on the other hand, had to sit out most of the afternoon session after a technical blip called for an engine replacement; with their Ferrari V8 having gone through most of its running cycle. The Ferrari team, meanwhile, ran 125 laps with Fernando Alonso as they smoothly went through a race simulation. Alonso also worked on the F2012’s set-up and aerodynamics as he recorded a fastest lap of 1:23.447. Sauber found the going tricky as they struggled with a hydraulics issue on Kamui Kobayashi’s car and multiple red flags due to on-track incidents interrupting their planned program. Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg set the day’s seventh fastest time, a 1:23.893, as he carried out hard and medium compound tyre feedback work, but had his running curtailed to just 36 laps owing to a driveline issue in the afternoon. 2008 world champ Lewis Hamilton completed 65 laps for McLaren as the team completed evaluating its initial spec aero package.
Red Bull stole most of the attention on Day 3, not as much for lighting up the timing screens, rather for their massively revised ‘new’ RB8. The car sported a very different front wing to what was seen previously (also featuring the much talked about nose-duct) as well as a redesigned exhaust solution. However, Sauber’s Sergio Perez headed the times with a 1:22.094 on a day that allowed teams to use Pirelli’s wet weather tyres for the first time this year. Jenson Button, due to check out McLaren’s Australia spec race package, had his program marred by a hydraulic leak that left him out of the car until noon. Meanwhile Felipe Massa, Bruno Senna, Paul Di Resta and Daniel Ricciardo carried out full Grand Prix runs for their respective teams as all of them ran well over a 100 laps on the day. Lotus had most of their program derailed due to wet weather and an issue with the power steering rack on Kimi Raikkonen’s car. They still covered 43 laps, trying to improve balance on their E-20.
On the final day teams concluded pre-season testing and zeroed in on their Race 1 spec configurations at Barcelona as Kimi Raikkonen set the quickest lap of the four day session, a 1:22.030. Two tenths of a second down on him was Fernando Alonso, even as less than half a second covered the top six on the day. Reigning world champ Sebastian Vettel could run only 23 laps after he went off track and damaged his front wing in the process. Additionally, a gearbox problem later in the day meant a rather low-key end to Red Bull’s testing program.
Following the final test, HRT debuted their car on March 5 and Marussia on March 6. Both teams remain optimistic, nevertheless, and hope to challenge each other as the season progresses. Pat Fry, Technical Director of Ferrari, has been downbeat with testing results and publicly doubted the possibility of a top-three finish in Melbourne; the team later ‘clarifying’ that the disappointment was with respect to their own expectations and not their relative standing to rivals. Lotus Team Principal Eric Boullier has expressed his team’s hope that their up-starting E20 could be the car that can bridge the gap to the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari.
Questions are many, answers rather few. “We’ll only know in Melbourne” seems to have been the favorite line of every driver recently. With the final pre-season test done and 2012 projected to be one of the closest in recent years with six world champions battling on track, the wait is nearly over. Check out the full preview coming up and stay tuned for the Australian GP from March 16-18.
[Photos property of Red Bull Racing, HRT, & Lotus]