Modern times

The 2003 Formula One season began on November 26, 2002 — not racing, you understand, but the endless grind of testing. Just 44 days after the last engine was shut off in the Suzuka paddock, the circus was up and running at Barcelona and Valencia.

Over the next few days every F1 team ran at one or other of the Spanish circuits except Jordan, which is busy trying to replace its lost Deutsche Post sponsorship, and of course the broken Arrows. Antonio Pizzonia and Mark Webber were hard at work for Jaguar, Fernando Alonso for Renault, Olivier Panis and CART champion Cristiano da Matta for Toyota. Montoya and Ralf Schumacher were back at Williams, Raikkonen and Coulthard at McLaren, Heidfeld at Sauber and Trulli at Renault. Plus the patient testers — Ferrari's Luca Badoer, McLaren's Alex Wurz, Williams' Marc Gene and BAR's Anthony Davidson.

And then there were the new boys, being tested in the hope of finding the next Raikkonen, or perhaps merely a youngster with a flush sponsor in tow. Williams, short-listing for a full-time test contract, tried F3000 hotshoe Giorgio Pantano and ex-world kart champion Vitantonio Liuzzi. They also tested touring cars' Dirk Muller and young Nico Rosberg, who has been racing Formula BMW single-seaters.

The son of 1982 world champion Keke is a mere 17, and thus becomes the youngest person ever to drive a current F1 car under official conditions. "Dad told me not to try too hard," said Nico, but the genes must all be present and correct, for his best lap in a fairly brief session was within 3.5 per cent of Montoya's best that day. We'll be hearing more of Nico: he is, after all, exactly half Schumacher's age.

German F3 champion Gary Paffett had a run at McLaren, as did Formula Nippon champ Ralph Firman at BAR. Renault gave F3000 racer Romain Dumas a whirl. Minardi tried out Dallara World Series star Franck Montagny, and Matteo Bobbi from Italian Formula Nissan 2000. Plus they gave some laps to a Russian, Sergei Zlobin. Sergei was 3sec a lap slower than Bobbi, who was 6sec off Kimi, the fastest at Valencia that first week.

These days top constructors have complete shadow teams for testing, with their own cars, drivers and personnel. It's a major factor in the worrying stampede of F1 costs; one of the much-vaunted changes for 2003 is to offer extra Friday running at grand prix weekends to the teams who agree to limit testing. But, while the teams put in hundreds of expensive laps in front of empty Spanish grandstands, it's worth remembering when racing cars came out in the winter to race.

In the 1960s, the Tasman Series let F1 drivers spend European winter in Antipodean summer, docking up four races in Australia and four in New Zealand over an eight-week period. Stirling Moss and Jean Behra started the exodus in 1956: in their 250F Maseratis they finished one-two in the Australian Grand Prix around Melbourne's Albert Park, using some of the same roads to which the GP returned 40 years later. While Fl went to 1500cc in 1961, and then to 3 litres in 1966, the Tasman Formula remained at 2.5 litres because of all the older cars still racing in Australasia. But several of the F1 teams still prepared smaller-engined cars for the series. In 1968, for example, there were works entries from Ferrari (Amon), Lotus (Clark and Hill), BRM (McLaren, Rodriguez and Attwood) and Brabham (Brabham and Hulme), as well as a privateer F2 McLaren for Piers Courage, who famously won the wet final round on the hairy Longford track in Tasmania. This 4.5-mile triangle of public roads featured a railway crossing and two wooden bridges, one of which once caught alight during a meeting.

That same year the South African GP at Kyalami, as it had in 1965, opened the new world championship on January 1 —just five days before the New Zealand GP, the first Tasman round many thousands of miles away. Simultaneously, the Springbok Series in South Africa included an F1 race, won by Jean-Pierre Beltoise in an F2 Matra, and sportscar rounds contested by the likes of Paul Hawkins (Lola T70) and Mike Hailwood (GT40).

But while international racing avoided the northern cold by chasing the southern sun, British club racing continued almost unabated. Between November and February that winter there were no fewer than nine race meetings at Brands Hatch, as well as a November Oulton Park and a December Lydden Hill: it was cheaper to run races in those days, and there seemed to be no shortage of entries.

The Boxing Day Brands Hatch was a wonderful institution, with large crowds, a hog roast in the paddock and at least one driver regularly racing in a Santa outfit, with the pointed hood over his crash helmet. In 1961, having recently passed my driving test, I drove my Austin A35 van from Somerset to Kent in the early hours of a frosty Boxing Day, to be rewarded with the sight of Graham Hill winning the Christmas Trophy at Brands Hatch in a Scuderia Serenissima Ferrari Testa Rossa. A year and three days later, Hill was crowned world champion in the final round of the 1962 championship, the South African GP on December 29.

But if winter racing is a thing of the past, today's off-track activity keeps the motor-racing weeklies full: like Ford's firing of Niki Lauda as principal of the Jaguar F1 team. As I write no replacement has been appointed — there isn't exactly a glut of people with the right credentials, experience and stature — but when he is named he will be Jaguar's fifth boss in four years. Jackie Stewart, having sold his team to Ford, continued at the helm until February 2000; Ford senior honcho Neil Ressler was in charge until CART boss Bobby Rahal arrived in September 2000. Lauda was hired in February 2001, but the division of authority between him and Rahal was never clear. Rahal went after 11 months; Lauda has lasted 15.

Jaguar's technical management has been just as fraught. At the end of 2000, tech boss Gary Anderson, formerly of Jordan, was replaced by Steve Nichols, who had Ferrari and McLaren on his cv: but he was gone barely a year later. Then Rahal, astonishingly, persuaded McLaren's design genius Adrian Newey to leave his cosy seat. Adrian told Ron Dennis he was leaving, but Ron persuaded him to change his mind — an embarrassing reversal which probably hastened Rahal's departure a couple of months later.

It's been a saga with as many twists as a TV soap. Now, after shedding 60 staff in a cost-cutting exercise, Jaguar faces the new season with two new drivers (Webber and rookie Pizzonia were both contracted by Lauda before his abrupt departure) and no team chief. With Ford's bosses in Detroit clamouring for some return on their investment the new recruit, whoever he may be, faces a tough job.

If Jaguar is Coronation Street, Arrows is Eastenders. Tom Walkinshaw's team hit the financial buffers last season and missed six races. Apart from any FIA fines that those non-appearances might entail, it owes engine supplier Cosworth £4m, and its former driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen £600,000. Walkinshaw had apparently found a Middle Eastern buyer prepared to refloat the team, but now the FIA has refused to accept its entry for 2003. After 25 seasons and 382 grands prix, the team that nearly won its second race, but never actually scored a victory, seems to be no more.

Among the Lauda and Arrows headlines, I was hoping for good news from the F1 team principals' meeting on December 4. This was their opportunity to take a courageous look at F1's technical rules and, perhaps for 2004, to improve the racing for fans and TV viewers around the world. A few days before that I talked to Ross Brawn, who represented Ferrari at the meeting: did he feel there was any chance of real change? "Not for two years," he told me. "You have to understand that we're already thinking about our 2004 car, and the design programme for that starts in earnest in April."

The meeting lasted for eight hours, and no public announcement was made at the end of it. But it seems to have done no more than rubber-stamp the FIA's new proposals covering qualifying and points-scoring. So there will be no changes to the technical regulations until 2005 at the earliest. Disappointing: but maybe it's not so long to wait In 2005, Nico Rosberg will still only be 19.