The tailback, bizarrely, was longer than any I’d encountered en route to last month’s British Grand Prix. Back then I made a point of reaching Silverstone’s main gate at absurd o’clock, to minimise the risk of delay, and breezed in each morning without a murmur. This time, though, for the tail end of a three-day test of modest consequence, the line of cars stretched most of the way to the A43. More than 7,000 paying spectators turned up to watch, many of them simultaneously.
Nowadays, midweek F1 tests – once a matter of routine – are something of a novelty. Rewind the clock, indeed, and you could drop in to a general Silverstone test session to find contemporary Grand Prix stars trying to thread a path through a clump of Formula Fords on the old, lamented and largely triangular club circuit. A pity such charming informality has been phased out.
Despite appearances – not least a Grand Prix-sized fleet of trucks and pit garage screens erected to deter prying eyes – testing feels relatively relaxed. The relentless rhythm of a race weekend is absent, although there is great intensity of purpose – particularly for younger drivers, nowadays starved of F1 mileage until they actually graduate to a race seat… a significant hurdle when you don’t have any F1 mileage. It’s one of modern sport’s great paradoxes.
From the outside, lap times don’t mean a damn. Sebastian Vettel is instantly quick as he knuckles down to Pirelli tyre development… but “quick” translates as almost three seconds shy of his British GP qualifying time. Rodolfo Gonzalez plods around in a Marussia, but you know he’s been let loose for reasons other than pure driving ability – this, after all, is the driver who finished 21st, 26th and 22nd in his three GP2 campaigns. And then there are those with significant long-term potential that has yet to be untapped – James Calado, Carlos Sainz Jr, Daniil Kvyat and their ilk. Calado had previously done some straight-line work for Force India, mainly to acclimatise to the car’s controls, and relished his first serious F1 experience. “There is absolutely nothing that can prepare you for the forces involved,” he says, “but it took only four or five laps to feel comfortable.” It’s possible that the Englishman might step up to do some Friday morning sessions during Grand Prix weekends, once his GP2 obligations are complete.
Susie Wolff captured many of the pre-test headlines, thanks to her Williams commitments, but wasn’t the only female racer involved. Several garages away from Williams, a slight figure attracted barely a second glance as she perched on the pit counter, monitoring almost every movement within the Red Bull and Toro Rosso enclaves. Beitske Visser is a 17-year-old from Holland and forms part of Red Bull’s driver development scheme. Last season she graduated from karting and scored a podium finish first time out in the Germany-based ADAC Formula Masters series. She has since added three victories and her next target is F3. When first she arrived at Silverstone, she Tweeted to confirm her presence then added, “I want to drive…”
She might not have to wait as long as Wolff, who hasn’t raced single-seaters regularly since 2005 but looked thoroughly composed as she racked up 89 laps with scarcely a blemish.
Earlier in the week, F3 Euroseries champion Daniel Juncadella had managed a 1m 34.6s lap in a Williams FW35, about half a second shy of Pastor Maldonado’s best on the day (although the times weren’t directly comparable, with Maldonado evaluating tyres and the youngster focusing on development work that was off-limits for the regular racers). “I saw what Daniel had done,” Wolff said, “and the team was quite impressed, so getting into the 1m 34s was definitely my goal.” She eventually missed out by a tenth, but did most of her new-tyre runs in the morning before concentrating on “live” pit drills in the afternoon. She felt she could have met her target had another fresh-tyre run been available later on, with the benefit of added confidence.
“With the medium tyre,” she said, “it’s quite difficult to bring in the fronts and rears at the same time. I struggled quite a bit with the fronts on my first flying lap and when the fronts were in the rears were already starting to go. I set my quickest time on the fourth lap, which is not how to get the best from a tyre. There was more potential there, definitely.
“Many people said the team was crazy and wondered why they were wasting a day on me, but I was given a chance and it was fantastic. I was happy to do a good job to pay them back.
“After such a tough end to my DTM career, many people presumed I was always at the back and wasn’t quick enough, but today possibly shows that is an unfair judgment.”