Until a few seasons ago, most F1 teams had a test team constantly at work, grinding out lap after lap in the quest to develop new parts, experiment with different set-up options and shave fractions of a second off a lap time. Rain or shine (or even snow if you happened to pick the wrong day at Paul Ricard) a test driver would be on the track.
These days, testing is restricted to just a few short weeks early in the year. As a cost-saving measure, it’s been very successful but it also severely limits the opportunities for young drivers to get real, hands-on experience in a Formula One car.
Contrast the cases of Heikki Kovalainen, who was an F1 rookie in 2007, having driven 26,000km in testing for Renault, the previous year and Jaime Alguersuari who arrived mid-2009-season with zero km and spent most of Friday at the Hungarian Grand Prix practice trying to figure out what all the buttons on the steering wheel did.
The solution was to institute a test specially for young drivers and those who hadn’t raced in F1 for the past couple of seasons. Every F1 driver reaching the ‘veteran’ stage of his career will tell you he can go on forever, but the reality that youth will inevitably get its chance – and it’s better that youth finds out how to drive a Formula One car during a test, rather than during a race.
For the past two seasons, Red Bull Racing have had Daniel Ricciardo in their car at Abu Dhabi – but with Daniel now a fully-fledged F1 driver, the honour has gone to fellow Red Bull Junior Team driver Jean-Eric Vergne, who last year drove at Yas Marina for Toro Rosso.
Just like his predecessor, Jean-Eric topped the time sheets every day of the test. We spoke to him before heading for home and onwards to Brazil.
RB: So, Jean-Eric, what were your impressions of the three days of testing?
JEV: It was a fantastic three days for me. I’m really happy to have had the experience with Red Bull Racing. It was an opportunity for me to learn as much as possible, and driving in the best F1 car of the season made it just an incredible experience.
RB: You drove the Toro Rosso in first practice on Friday. Is every F1 car similar or are the differences between the STR6 and RB7 striking?
JEV: There’s quite a bit of difference between the two cars maybe more than you’d think. The main thing is the Red Bull car has a bit more all round aero performance – so in braking, in high-speed and low-speed corners – basically a little more downforce across the board. If you’re one-tenth quicker in every corner then on a long circuit like Yas Marina, that’s worth two seconds a lap.
'Driving in the best F1 car of the season made it just an incredible experience'
RB: How does the team approach the test? Is it set up for you, or are you working on developing the car?
JEV: We are testing to develop the car. It’s my job to develop a better understanding of the car and get it ready to win its next race. That’s the driver I’ve tried to be for the last three days. You learn a lot from working that way, and you’re encouraged to be interested in everything.
RB: The car spent quite a lot of time in the garage with technical issues – did you manage to get through the whole programme or did the team need to adapt it?
JEV: We had a big programme but we got through everything the engineers wanted to test so, yeah, they were pretty happy about it. We had a few problems but nothing too significant. Actually everything went quite well.
RB: Sebastian Vettel’s race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin was looking after the car this week. How was it working with someone of Rocky’s experience?
JEV: It was really, really good. Even though we’re both French we still did all of our briefings in English! I think working with somebody who’s won so much over the last few years can really concentrate your mind. I wasn’t asked to do anything special, just good, professional testing. I think it all went pretty well.
'Working with somebody who's won so much can really concentrate your mind'
RB: What do you think of driving Yas Marina in an RB7? It maybe doesn’t have the sort of high-speed corners the car really likes…
JEV: There are a few high speed bits. The end of the lap has one high-speed turn and going through turns two and three is a good, flat-out section of track – and with the DRS open that can be pretty interesting! Yas is a great racing complex and the track is really, really nice.
RB: And finally, even though it was all about testing, were you paying attention to the timing screens?
JEV: It’s always nice to finish on top of the timesheet! I knew I had the pace from the first session of the first day, and so it wasn’t something I was really concerned about and it wasn’t the primary aim of the team, but if you asked anyone where they’ve like to be, obviously it’s P1. I just hope one day I can do it during a race weekend.
- More from the Abu Dhabi young drivers test
- Abu Dhabi Grand Prix race report
- More from the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix on redbull.com
- My favourite things: Jean-Eric Vergne