F1 greets 2008 in low-key style

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World Champions Ferrari won the race to get the first 2008 Formula 1 car on track, beating McLaren by just 24 hours. But the first showdown between the two likely title contenders at Jerez in January was spoiled by rain, so there were no clear conclusions as to who will set the pace at the start of the season. However, the high-voltage launches of past years seem to be passé, all teams revealing their cars relatively quietly.

For 2008 all the teams have had to address the introduction of the FIA’s standard ECU, provided by McLaren Electronic Systems. It comes in tandem with a ban on traction control, although the general consensus is that the loss of electronic engine braking will have a bigger impact and make the cars more difficult to drive.

On the whole designers have placed emphasis on creating a stable package, with greater attention than ever before paid to weight distribution and wheelbase length.

The other major rule change for 2008 is that gearboxes must now last for four race weekends. If any internal parts have to be changed – other than ratios – the driver concerned will receive a five-place grid penalty. Teams have thus tried to beef up gearbox components without adding weight to the rear end.

There are no major changes that affect the bodywork other than a 50mm increase in the height of the headrest, a direct result of the collision between David Coulthard and Alex Wurz in last year’s Australian Grand Prix.

Ferrari

Ferrari unveiled its F2008 in a low-key affair at Maranello on January 6, and the following day Kimi Räikkönen gave the car a shakedown at Fiorano. Two chassis were available for the Jerez test, where Felipe Massa joined his team-mate, and the car looked impressive during the rare dry spells. The team says its main target with the car was to improve its performance in slow corners and over bumps and kerbs. As part of the strategy the car’s wheelbase – extended significantly last season – has been shrunk slightly. With Ross Brawn now out of the picture Aldo Costa holds the role of technical director, while Mario Almondo – who had that job last season – has become director of operations.

Toyota

The Toyota TF108 was shown at the team’s Cologne factory on January 10, prior to its debut at Jerez. The team has made no changes to its technical line-up, but it has finally moved on from the Mike Gascoyne era, since last year’s car was a clear development of its predecessor. A new aero concept has focused on the front wing and the area between the wheels and the sidepods. Last year’s car suffered a lack of consistency, and Toyota says the new model has been designed to be less pitch-sensitive.

McLaren-Mercedes

For the first time Mercedes played host to a McLaren unveiling, the event taking place at the company’s Stuttgart museum the day after Ferrari’s launch. A development of last year’s model, the new MP4-23 has been refined in every area and features a more conventional nose and a longer wheelbase. Fernando Alonso’s replacement, Heikki Kovalainen, made his test debut for the team at Jerez. Then on January 18, Lewis Hamilton signed a new five-year contract that commits him to McLaren until 2012.

Red Bull

Red Bull has traditionally shied away from high-profile launches, and its new car was pushed from the garage into the Jerez pitlane on January 16, after which David Coulthard set off for an exploratory installation lap. The RB4 is the second model to be totally overseen by chief technical officer Adrian Newey. He was able to adopt a different approach this year after Geoff Willis joined the team as technical director last summer, leaving Newey free to concentrate on performance. Willis was charged with revamping the team’s internal systems and improving its awful reliability record.

BMW Sauber

The team revealed its F1.08 in Munich on January 14, before heading to Valencia for a solo test while the opposition ran at Jerez. The inclement Spanish weather affected both tracks, however, and that meant the drivers were able to make little progress. A new nose arrangement is the car’s most distinctive feature. Team boss Mario Theissen insists that the figures indicate the car is significantly better than its predecessor, and he is confident that the results will reflect that – which means the target is for the team to challenge for wins in 2008 (see interview, p94).

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