F1 testing continued in Jerez but with many new drivers in the cars. Nico Rosberg was predictably fastest again in the old Mercedes but behind him things were… interesting.
The third day of testing saw an enormous crowd (for testing) descend on the Circuit de Jerez, most of whom – alright, all of whom – had braved the freezing weather to see Fernando Alonso do a shift for Ferrari. Alonso was taking over from Felipe Massa for his first run in the 2012 car. Down the pitlane that move was mirrored at most teams. Romain Grosjean was driving for Lotus, Lewis Hamilton for McLaren. Jean-Eric Vergne replaced Daniel Ricciardo at Toro Rosso, and Bruno Senna would run for Williams. Third driver Guido Van der Garde got his first go in a Caterham, and, of course, Sebastian Vettel stepped into the RB8 recently vacated by Mark Webber. Elsewhere Jules Bianchi was having another morning with Force India before Nico Hulkenberg was scheduled to take over in the afternoon, Sergio Pérez was to continue for Sauber and Nico Rosberg would once again run in last year’s Mercedes.
As has been their policy all week, Caterham made sure they were first out of the pits with Van der Garde appearing ahead of the pack. Everybody was taking it easy on their installation laps. Ambient temperature was around zero; track temperature maybe a degree or two higher but nothing like what the Pirelli tyres are designed for. By 09.30 teams were just about ready to begin serious running but the session didn’t last long before the red flags were out as Jules Bianchi found out just how little grip an F1 car had under those conditions. His impact with the wall was minor but it was enough to ensure Force India’s day was over before they recorded a laptime.
You have to feel a little sorry for Bianchi. It’s an invidious position to be in: the team don’t need or want the driver to do anything spectacular at a test – but no is anyone going to remember a test driver who doesn’t. The car wasn’t badly damaged but the team didn’t have spares to repair it. With HRT having competed their testing yesterday and Marussia not showing up at all, the disappearance of Force India reduced the field to nine.
“I made a small mistake on my second run. The tyres were a bit cold and I spun into the gravel and touched the wall with the right rear wheel,” said Bianchi. “It was not a very big impact, but it caused some damage. I’m very sorry because my mistake has cost the team a lot of time and effort.”
Nine was to temporarily become eight as Alonso pulled into the pits for what turned into a long absence with a hydraulic problem, while out on the track it was Grosjean leading the way with some benchmark times in the 1m19s and, by 1130, a 1m18.419, the fastest time of the test so far. Lewis Hamilton wasn’t far behind but Vettel was easing himself into things slowly, hovering around the 1m21m. Meanwhile Sauber were the first car to put a meaningful upgrade on their car with remodelled rear bodywork making an appearance. Pérez put it to good use. As noon arrived Grosjean was fastest from Hamilton, Vergne and the Mexican.
Much to the delight of the audience, Fernando Alonso nosed out of the garage at 1230, having managed only 14 laps in the morning. He immediately set his fastest time, and Ferrari’s quickest of the week, a couple of seconds off the pace set by Lotus. Nico Rosberg, however, got the old Merc hooked up. Having done consistent and patient long runs in the morning, lapping in the 1m21s, Rosberg put the hammer down and reset fastest lap at 1m17.613, where it would stay for the rest of the day.
Rosberg’s car will, of course, not race this year. The new rules requiring the cars to be homologated before the test (as opposed to homologated before the first race) are inspired by safety concerns. The Mercedes was running the banned hot-blown diffuser and the out-of-specification nose but it has long-since met all of the crash test criteria so is free to turn up and test. The team could have taken those parts off – but introducing new variables doesn’t help in the quest for reliable tyre data.
Meanwhile, Vettel was finding his feet and took the RB8 sub-1m20s as did Vergne for Toro Rosso. The red flags came out again on a bad day for third drivers as Van der Garde took the Caterham sightseeing in the gravel, though he managed to avoid hitting anything and, after coming back to the pits on a tow truck, was up and running again soon afterwards. Romain Grosjean stopped out on circuit also, running out of fuel in the in-no-way-accidental sense as the session drew to a close.
Rosberg finished the day comfortably top of the timesheets in what was the final outing for the W02 Mercedes. They are not due to run tomorrow as so the next time Mercedes appear it will be with a new – and probably a great deal uglier – car. "I'm happy with the testing that we have achieved here in Jerez, and we learned a lot about the Pirelli tyres and a few other things for the new car,” said Rosberg. “You can't really compare the lap times with other teams, but it was interesting to learn a lot with our 2011 car. Now I'm really looking forward to the two Barcelona tests with our new Silver Arrow."
As for the three world champions on display, both Vettel and Hamilton had solid if unspectacular introductions to the cars with which they will be expected to add to their championship tally.
'There were no nasty surprises, which is pleasing' – Lewis Hamilton
“Today felt pretty good considering it was my first time in the new car,” said Hamilton. “My initial feelings are pretty positive, despite going through a long, tough programme of initial tests – there were no nasty surprises, which is pleasing.”
“It’s been two months since we were in the car, so it does take a couple of laps to get back in the rhythm, but the car feels fine and as we expected,” echoed Vettel. “There’s quite a loss of grip due to the regulation changes, but you get used to it quickly and then start to explore how the new car feels. So far we can be happy, we had a couple of issues, but it’s normal when the car is new.“
Meanwhile down at Ferrari, Alonso didn’t comment, though the message from the team was a very plain ‘move along, nothing to see here’, with technical director Pat Fry insisting everything was going to plan and that track times were not indicative of performance this early in the programme. “There’s no reason for us to take the fuel out and try and do a quick time to make headlines in the newspapers,” he said. From an engineering point of view he’s perfectly correct but many of Ferrari’s fans wouldn’t mind if the team banged in a couple of quick laps here and there. Tomorrow is their last chance at Jerez.
Jerez testing – Day 3 times
1. Rosberg (Mercedes) 1m17.613s 118 laps
2. Grosjean (Lotus) 1m18.419s +0.806 117 laps
3. Vettel (Red Bull) 1m19.297s +1.684 96 laps
4. Hamilton (McLaren) 1m19.464s +1.851 80 laps
5. Vergne (Toro Rosso) 1m19.734s +2.121 79 laps
6. Perez (Sauber) 1m19.770s +2.157 48 laps
7. Alonso (Ferrari) 1m20.412s +2.799 67 laps
8. Senna (Williams) 1m21.293s +3.680 125 laps
9. Van der Garde (Caterham) 1m23.324s +5.711 74 laps
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