First test looms for teams

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The 2012 Formula 1 season – which will be the longest in history assuming that none of the 20 races is cancelled – will kick into gear when most of the new cars take to the track at Jerez on February 7. It will be the first of just three group tests before the opening race in Australia, with two sessions following on in Barcelona.

Last year there were four tests before the first race, but the teams have agreed to abandon Valencia and move one session into the season. It will take place at Mugello at the start of May, before the first European race in Spain.

The curtailed pre-season running has put a premium on getting it right first time, and it will be particularly tough for Mercedes, the team having opted to save the new W03 until the first Barcelona test. That decision gave Ross Brawn’s men an extra 14 days of R&D time, but it means that there is a limited safety net should the team experience problems when the car runs.

This year all teams have had to deal with a new FIA rule that requires cars to pass all their crash tests before they are allowed to take to the track, whereas previously the deadline was the first race weekend. This led to teams adjusting their schedules so that the first examples of the chassis and other crash structures were ready for crash testing earlier than in the past, in case of any unforeseen problems.

That in turn has made January a little more relaxed, in that it allowed teams to finish the car build earlier and squeeze in more factory rig testing before their cars take to the track.

In 2011 teams used testing to learn about Pirelli, KERS and the DRS. There are fewer novelties this year, and the focus is all on the aerodynamics. Exhaust blowing of the diffuser has been banned, and teams have sought ways to claw back the extra downforce.

As Brawn notes in this issue (see interview, p98), everyone is waiting to see what the opposition has come up with – and whether there is a repeat of the double diffuser controversy of 2009, when a disputed new piece of technology proved decisive in determining the outcome of the world championship. There remains a large question mark over precisely how teams, and the FIA, will interpret the revised exhaust rules.

“The blown diffuser is such a big drug that it’s very difficult to wean yourself off it,” one technical director told Motor Sport. “The performance was that big. There are methods of extracting some of that performance back again, and I believe a lot of the teams will do that. We are certainly keeping our eyes open to the possibility. We’ll wait and see how it plays out during February and March. I think all the teams who got it to work will be looking to get it to work again.”

Another area of focus will be the ‘reactive ride height system,’ designed to maintain a stable ride height even under braking. It emerged in January that several teams have been pursuing that direction, which the FIA apparently deems legal as long as it is operated via brake torque, and not directly by the driver.