Launching an F1 car used to be a bombastic affair. There would be Lycra-clad dancers, dry ice and laser shows that Jean-Michel Jarre would think over the top.
The team would wheel out the car in the middle of the maelstrom, team booses and drivers would make grandstanding speeches, the fireworks would go off, the Spice Girls would perform, an audience of the sporting press with an average age in the mid-50s would watch bemused and then shuffle off to eat tiny avant garde sandwiches before filing copy saying yes, a car had been launched, and yes it had wheels, and yes, the team were confident it would perform mighty deeds.
Today, in F1’s new age of austerity, the teams generally just wheel the new cars out of the preparation bay at the factory, or onto the apron at the test track, let the photographers take a few pictures and then get on with it. It’s rather refreshing actually…
Enter the Platypus
But not everyone plays along, and sometimes an opportunity to grab the limelight is too good to ignore. That’s why Caterham (the artist formerly known as Lotus) went for the softest of soft launches on January 26 by plastering pictures of it’s new car all over the front cover of F1 Racing magazine and – rather stealing the magazine’s thunder – releasing an image on the official CaterhamF1 Twitter feed.
Despite the mock-up having some parts very clearly grafted on from the 2011 Lotus, the CT01 looked very different from its predecessors. New rules for 2012 have mandated some pretty hefty changes. Notably there’s a fundamental redesigned rear to accommodate top-exiting tail-pipes but inevitably the feature that attracts the most attention is the broken nose.
In recent seasons, nosecones have become higher and higher – the better to drive air under the car in advantageous ways – but with the tip of the nose potentially higher than the cockpit head protection structure, the risk to a driver in a T-bone accident was all too apparent. For 2012 the area ahead of the front bulkhead can be no higher than 550mm, while the area behind the bulkhead can go as high as 625mm. Rather than a gentle curve, Caterham unveiled a design with a step at the bulkhead – and thus the platypus nose was born.
No moose at McLaren
With Caterham sporting a nose only a mother could love, it came as something of a relief when McLaren unveiled a classically beautiful car on February 1 at its factory. From the front the MP4/27 doesn’t look very different to the car which Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton parked in the garage at the end of last season. It always had a low nose anyway, and given that McLaren looked very competitive at the end of 2011 there probably wasn’t much desire to change direction. Further back the U-shaped ‘moosepods’ of last year have been replaced with more traditionally-shaped sidepods, while the fairings around the upward-pointing exhausts have just a hint of 1950s Cadillac about them – though the position of the exhausts is probably more to do with trying to point them at the rear wing.
Ferrari’s actual launch event at Maranello scheduled for Friday was cancelled because of the heavy snow in Northern Italy but the team did release images of the car, which were still sufficient to send fans reeling away in terror. Like the Caterham, the F2102 has a brutal and practical stepped nose, but Ferrari are held to a higher aesthetic standard than their peers and so it’s been a big talking point both inside and outside Italy. Team principal Stefano Domenicalli conceded the design was ‘not really so pretty from my personal perspective,’ while chief designer Nikolas Tombazis pointed out that it’ll look pretty enough if it wins races. Both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso confessed they were just pleased that Ferrari had chosen to be radical and aggressive in the design after a lacklustre 2011 campaign.
Meanwhile at Silverstone…
Over in England Force India were showing off the VJM05. Again the nose – possibly even worse in orange – drew the attention but everything else looked very neat and tidy. Force India did good things in 2011 and there’s a sense that they might move forward again. The team is targeting fifth, which reading between the lines means they want to beat the New Lotus/Old Renault outfit. Meanwhile the drivers will be out to beat each other. Of course that’s always the case but with Michael Schumacher going into the final year of his contract, there’s a good chance there’ll be a seat available at Mercedes for 2013 . Both Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg have been mentioned as potential replacements which adds an element of intrigue to what should be an interesting battle.
The return of Räikkönen
Lotus – as we must now call Renault – were the final team to show off their new model before the Jerez test got going with a web-based soft launch for the E20. That name isn’t a reference to the fictional postcode of the BBC’s Eastenders soap opera but rather homage to another British institution, the Enstone F1 factory where the team, under the names Toleman, Benetton and Renault has collected trophies since the early 1980s. The intention was to show the car on Lotus’s own website but that broke so the video appeared on YouTube instead. Hopefully this isn’t the equivalent of the champagne bottle failing to break on the side of the ship.
Speaking of champagne, while the car itself is prettier than many of its competitors that for once wasn’t the main attraction. Kimi Räikkönen’s return to Formula One is the story of the moment. Lotus may well have pulled off the coup of the off-season by tempting the former World Champion back to single-seaters. Of course it very much depends which Kimi turns up and how long it takes him to blow away the cobwebs of a two-year layoff – but at the moment the Finn looks lean and hungry. If the Lotus is anything like competitive, expect Kimi to drag it further forward than it has any right to be.
Making a show of it...
Yesterday in Jerez, three more teams unveiled their new challengers: Sauber, Toro Rosso, oh, and Red Bull Racing. That one was causing some excitement too.
Sauber kicked things off with the C31, rolled out onto the start-finish straight in Jerez. Sauber’s flat nose seems to play more attention to drag reduction than several of those that have gone before and the whole front end just looks a little more tidy – though that might just be the flattering paint job which is worryingly bereft of sponsor logos.
At the other end, Sauber have a miniscule derriere and, unsurprisingly given their Ferrari gearbox, have gone over to pull-rod rear suspension. Finishing seventh last year was a good result for the Swiss team, but with technical director James Key leaving (doubtless to pop up somewhere else in the pitlane shortly) and no replacement announced, Sauber may struggle to drive development forward. In Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi, however, they have two highly motivated young drivers prepared to give it a real go out on the track.
With all due respect to Sauber, the team from Hinwil would accept that they were today’s warm-up act, with Red Bull Racing showing off the RB8 next. RBR also opted for the online teaser rather than allowing anyone to kick the tyres of a real car (we’re not actually allowed to kick the tyres).
Many fans of Adrian Newey’s designs claimed their champion would not sully himself with a stepped nose, and comments from Helmut Marko, saying the RB8 would be "not as ugly as the Ferrari" seemed to back that up. Well, each to their own, Dr Marko because Red Bull has the same nose, though intriguingly appears to have an air-intake in the step which has set tongues wagging.
Internet gossip suggests it could be anything from a passive F-Duct to a cubby hole where Mark Webber can keep his sandwiches. That, of course, is plainly ridiculous: Mark’s much too carb-conscious to eat sandwiches.
Other than meeting the regulation changes, the RB8 looks suspiciously like the RB7’s younger, slightly tidier brother. And without seeing a wheel turned in anger, the bookmakers have installed it as the favourite for the 2012 title (possibly just to annoy Christian Horner who hates tempting fate) but technical commentators are divided between saying Red Bull will be given a run for their money and thinking they’ll walk away with another armload of trophies.
On the one hand it’s reasonable to suspect Red Bull will suffer more than most with the banning of the exhaust-blown diffuser. The RB7 was, after all, built around the exhaust from the ground up, while the competition scrambled to copy the design. It follows that RBR had the best optimised system and will therefore have the most to lose from its banning.
The other school of thought says that while the blown diffuser have gone away, the repackaging of both the front and rear ends amounts to a whole new set of aerodynamic challenges – and Adrian Newey has a history of prospering when the rules change. At this stage, you pays your money, you takes your choice.
Last but not least, Toro Rosso rolled their STR7 out into the fading Jerez sunshine and had a very bouncy pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne on hand to stand next to it for scale. McLaren apart, Toro have probably the prettiest of the new designs, carrying over the beautifully sculpted undercut sidepods from the STR6, albeit in a narrower form.
With two new drivers eager to get on with it, Toro is another team where the internecine squabbling will be interesting to watch. Both Ricciardo and Vergne come into their first full season with big reputations. Arguably the regulation changes work against Toro Rosso – after struggling for much of 2010 and 2011, the car came good at the end of last season and began to score solidly. With limited resources, having to start over is going to favour any of Toro’s midfield rivals who have deeper pockets. Then again, smaller teams tend to take more risks and sometimes those come good.
We’ll begin to get real answers later on this week as the teams complete their programmes in Jerez but it won’t be the true picture. In the past they would have continued the phoney war by hiding the big ideas until nearer the start of the racing season. This year, with the cars having to pass FIA safety inspections before testing rather than before racing, the opportunities to do that are more limited but there’ll still be an element of sandbagging.
Then there’s the track itself. Jerez is a tyre killer – running the softer compounds for any length of time here is usually pointless – so long runs will be restricted to the harder compounds tyres. The two tests that follow this one will make the picture clearer but ultimately it’ll be Albert Park in the middle of March when we get a proper idea of who’s won the winter development battle.
* Williams will be revealing their new wheels at Jerez on Tuesday while Mercedes and Marussia have announced they intend to wait until the second test to reveal their new cars, while HRT will launch theirs presumably when they finish building it.