Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Jerez, 2011

2011 F1 testing diary part two: Jerez

2011 F1 testingPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Virgin MVR-02
Virgin MVR-02

After the Valencia test and McLaren launch (see the first part of the diary) there’s little time to rest before it all kicks off again.

Cost-cutting has made ‘proper’ F1 launches increasingly rare. But Virgin, despite finishing last in 2010, put on one of the few proper unveilings of this year’s off-season.

It takes place at the BBC Television Centre and a group of F1 fans – some of them F1 Fanatic competition winners – get to join the usual media and sponsors to see the car first.

Although I understand the reasons why some teams choose to roll their cars out at the first test of the season, Virgin’s effort show that even the smaller teams can find a middle ground between the ‘bare minimum’ and the spectacle of McLaren’s MP4-26 unveiling in Berlin.

The following day the last two 2011 F1 cars appear. HRT’s F111 debuts without warning and Force India’s online launch of their VJM04 suffers a few technical hitches.

The next day I head back to Spain for the four-day test at Jerez. Thanks to Alan Baldwin of Reuters for tipping me off on a cost-effective and less stressful way of making the journey.

On Thursday morning I find myself standing at what the media instructions describe as an “ancient petrol station”, familiar from last year, to collect my passes.

Support for Kubica

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Jerez, 2011
Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Jerez, 2011

I head over to the pit lane where McLaren are showing off their new car. It, along with almost every other car that day, carries the message “Szykbiego powrotu do zorowia Robert” – speedy recovery, Robert (the same message is now underneath the F1 Fanatic logo at the top of the page).

Inevitably, Kubica’s crash dominates conversations at the track. As the news about his condition grows more positive, inevitably the discussion turns to how Renault will choose as a replacement.

In the afternoon Eric Boullier talks to the media and makes two things clear: the team want an experienced driver to take Kubica’s place – which rules out any of their five reserves – and he does not regret letting Kubica do rallies in addition to F1 races: “If you put him in a cage you?d get him mad.”

Other drivers are eager to talk about what’s happened and express their support for Kubica and his choice to compete in events outside of F1. ??We need to feel alive away from the track”, says Mark Webber.

I skirt disaster on Friday morning when I awake to discover two parking attendants in the process of winching my hire car into the air.

After much angry gesticulation about the lack of parking signs in the area, the pair relent and set down my Skoda Fabia, then drive off without demanding anything in the way of a fine. No way would I have got away that easily in London.

In the pits

Back at the track, there is much less media interest in this second test than the first. Some of the teams have scaled down their presence, too – Red Bull do not bring their enormous Energy Station as they did at Valencia, sharing instead their smaller but still plush joint motorhome with Toro Rosso.

That’s nothing compared to HRT, who aren’t even at the test.

Lotus and Renault are conspicuously cheek-by-jowl at the sharp end of the pit lane, making it impossible to overlook the clashing ‘Lotus’ brands on their lorries and motorhomes.

But on day three the atmosphere changes. The combination of the beginning of the weekend and the arrival of Fernando Alonso means the place is suddenly packed with fans.

And with Ferrari racking up more laps than anyone else they have plenty of opportunities to chant, cheer and blast air horns at their hero.

I make as many visits to the pits to see the cars up-close as I can. When the cars aren’t on the track the teams generally hide their car behind screens in the garages.

Toro Rosso, Jerez, 2011
Toro Rosso, Jerez, 2011

There are exceptions. Lotus make good on their promise of being accessible by leaving their T128 in plain view – even as they strip it down chasing the various reliability problems that dog their test.

And Toro Rosso have their STR6 in view as it is winched up while adjustments are made to its radical floor.

My final visit to the pits on Sunday coincides with a spate of red flags. Among the cars returning on a flatbed truck are Jerome d’Ambrosio’s Virgin.

The interruptions are frustrating for the teams, but it offers a chance to see the cars being wheeled in and out of garages, which provides opportunities for photographers to snap away at their secret details.

Aside from a light shower on the final half-hour of the last day, the teams have the benefit of a warm, dry track throughout the test. While Williams set the fastest lap the stint times tell a different story (more on that tomorrow).

The test ends and the paddock is already being dismantled as I head back to Seville for my return flight. I share a row with crew members from Red Bull and Lotus, and there’s a sizeable Force India contingent as well.

D’Ambrosio and Red Bull reserve driver Daniel Ricciardo are also on the flight. In another sign of the era of cost-cutting, only Ricciardo has a priority boarding pass.

So the Virgin driver stands in line with the rest of us, and smilingly obliges a fan with a camera despite it being past midnight as we finally shuffle onto the plane home.

I hope you’ve enjoyed F1 Fanatic’s coverage of testing and the launch season so far. Special thanks to those of you who’ve helped contribute to the cost of hotels, flights, internet connections, photographers and more by making donations.

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The next test starts on Friday in Barcelona. I’m not going to be there but F1 Fanatic will have a reporter at the track on all four days, bringing more news and interviews from the drivers and teams.

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