Teams in race to be ready for Melbourne

There is promise and potential everywhere you look. The glass is half full at every team during pre-season testing before the Grand Prix grid lines up for the first race in a new season. This year the anticipation is greater than ever, thanks to the biggest raft of technical regulation changes since narrow-track cars were introduced in 1998. The new generation of Formula 1 cars have a limited amount of track time before the Australian GP on March 29, so learning and development will be more important than usual. As we gear up for what promises to be another thrilling season of F1, here is a rundown of the teams’ progress as Melbourne looms ever closer.

Pedro de la Rosa gave the MP4-23 a solo outing at the Algarve Motor Park on January 17, just before the group test at the same venue that ran from January 19-22. Rain blighted the week for everyone, and Heikki Kovalainen didn’t get to drive at all as the last day was washed out. The Finn finally got his chance at the Jerez test that ran from February 10-13, where the new car ran with active KERS for the first time. Intriguingly, at both venues the team frequently used an illegal 2008-style wider rear wing to provide extra grip while still gathering data.

The F60 became the first 2009 car to run when it appeared at Mugello on January 12. With rain expected in Portugal, the team made a late decision to cancel its planned trip and run again at the Italian venue on January 19-22. While Mugello was also hit by rain, the team had more dry running than did its rivals in the Algarve. Ferrari then joined BMW and Toyota for two four-day sessions in Bahrain on February 10-13 and 16-19. Ironically fog and then a sandstorm compromised the start of the test, but all three teams had a chance to run in hot conditions, useful in learning more about slicks and the cooling properties of the ’09 aero package.

BMW Sauber
BMW opted to roll out the F1.09 on its own at Valencia on January 20, and then stayed in Spain for three further days to put miles on it. Although the team avoided the rain that affected those who travelled to Portugal and Mugello the same week, strong winds hindered progress, while the fact that just a single car was running meant little rubber went down. Thereafter the team joined Ferrari and Toyota in Bahrain for the twin four-day tests.

Renault gave the R29 a low-key unveiling in Portugal on January 19, and like everyone else struggled to learn much because of the poor conditions over the four days of the test. However, the initial signs were that the team still had much work to do with the ungainly car relative to some of its rivals. Nelson Piquet later did some straightline running at Kemble airfield in the UK, before the team went to Jerez on February 10-13.

Like McLaren, Toyota had a solo shakedown with the TF109 in Portugal on January 18 before the group test, and in common with the others present in the Algarve the team didn’t get much dry running in over the next four days. Unlike some rivals, however, Toyota ran with KERS from the start. The team then joined Ferrari and BMW in Bahrain, having already run there on its own in December. There was controversy over Toyota’s interpretation of the rules and the use of the rear crash structure to effectively extend the diffuser, a route also pursued by Williams. The FIA has indicated that it is legal, but there could yet be a protest at the first race.

Toro Rosso
Inevitably Toro Rosso has had to wait for Red Bull Racing’s contender to be signed off before its STR4 could be completed, and the new car is scheduled to run at Adria in early March. As before, the Ferrari engine is the major differentiating factor between the two cars. Meanwhile the team continued to run its 2008 model and thus regularly topped the times. Rookie Sébastien Buemi had the Algarve test all to himself and logged some useful miles, while Sébastien Bourdais was not confirmed until early February, and after two months out of the cockpit returned to action at Jerez.

Red Bull
Red Bull made the bold decision to launch its car late, which meant more time was spent on R&D and the initial car spec could be signed off much later by Adrian Newey. The team skipped Portugal and the RB5 did not appear in public until its initial solo run at Jerez on February 9, four weeks after the new Ferrari ran for the first time. The striking-looking car immediately set competitive times over its five-day stint in Spain, and after his winter convalescence Mark Webber finally got back in the cockpit on February 11.

Williams shook down the FW31 in Portugal on January 19, the same day that the new Renault appeared. Rain and an early off for test driver Nico Hulkenberg meant the car did few laps, although Nico Rosberg set the fastest dry 2009 lap, behind Buemi’s STR. Kazuki Nakajima didn’t get to sample the car until the Jerez test on February 10-13. As with Toyota, questions have been asked about the legality of the aero treatment at the rear of the car.

Force India
The relatively late change of engine supplier gave the team’s engineers a massive winter workload, and thus there was no option but to skip the January/February tests. Unlike Toro Rosso, the team couldn’t run an older car because Ferrari had taken its engines back. The VJM02 won’t appear until early March, but its engine, gearbox and KERS system have been logging miles in the back of the McLaren MP4-23, which will help reduce teething problems.

The team formerly known as Honda
At the time of writing there was still no news on the future of the former Honda team, although rumours suggested that Ross Brawn’s men were working towards competing this season, despite the apparently impossible task of being ready for Australia with a new engine supplier. STR’s confirmation of Bourdais appeared to suggest that Jenson Button and Bruno Senna were unavailable.