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by Mark Hacking

The curtain rises on the 2010 F1 season

Valencia, Spain—The lap times at the first official F1 test of the 2010 season mean less than nothing. As evidence, consider that the fastest lap set over the first two days of the three-day affair, set by Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, was some three seconds off the lap record. In the world of Formula One, three seconds is an eternity.

Still, there was plenty of interest surrounding the events at the Ricardo Tormo circuit, held just outside the burgeoning city of Valencia, which is currently hosting the test. All of the interest derives from the many changes that took place during the off-season—new rules, new teams, new drivers—and one old driver.

On the first day of the session, held on February 1st, all eyes were on this one “old solder,” Michael Schumacher. After making an early morning appearance at the Mercedes GP photo op, the 7-time world champion returned to the team motorhome and allowed teammate Nico (“I’m no #2”) Rosberg to run through the tedious system checks that occupy much of the early-season test mileage.

While the F1 returnee cooled his heels, photographers held station either outside said motorhome or in the pit lane directly across from the team garage. Finally, at just before 4 pm local time, Schumacher took his place in the MGP W01, quickly setting a competitive time that proved to be a half-second quicker than Rosberg’s best effort.

There were numerous other changes on display in Valencia. Of course, all of the seven teams running—BMW Sauber, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Renault, Toro Rosso and Williams—brought brand new cars that have been carefully sculpted to take advantage of the new rule for 2010. Of primary concern is the need to carry a full race fuel load and to develop a handling package that will allow the tires to last the distance as well.

Based on appearances alone, some teams look to be more successful than others. The Mercedes, in particular, is a very striking design with a high, prominent nose and a chassis that is clearly designed for optimal aerodynamics. As expected, the Ferrari and the McLaren look very clean, very well put-together.

On the other end of the scale is the Renault, which looks striking in its retro bumble bee paint scheme, but seems a fairly slab-sided car nonetheless. Worst of all is the BMW Sauber, a car that not only looks outdated, but also has no sponsors at all—just a giant white shark-fin tail waiting for support of some kind. The team were required to call themselves “BMW Sauber” because they’d already registered for this season prior to the Munich manufacturer pulling out of F1 and re-selling the team to Peter Sauber.

If I were BMW, I’d pay to have my name taken off the car; there seems little chance that this outfit will prove competitive in 2010, although I confess to a soft spot for new team leader Pedro de la Rosa, a vastly underrated driver.

In terms of sponsorship, Renault looks to be in similarly dire straits. In effect, the only major sponsor for the team is Renault, so they’ve adopted the yellow-and-black paint scheme that harkens back to the first foray into F1 as a manufacturer, back in 1977. The team have lost their team principal (Flavio Briatore), lead driver (Fernando Alonso) and all their major sponsors from last season. They’ve landed a capable new leader in Robert Kubica, but have had to take on a pay driver, Vitaly Petrov, to fill the second seat. Not a good sign.

Still, according to Renault press officer Clarisse Hoffman, there’s a renewed sense of energy and purpose within the team. “There have been a lot of changes since last year,” she noted during a visit to the team garage, “but all for the better.”

This mood was echoed in the Williams garage, where the outgoing driver pairing of Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima has been replaced by veteran Rubens Barrichello and rookie Nico (The Incredible) Hulkenberg. Barrichello handled all the driving duties on the first two days, running through those same systems checks that can make test sessions so gruelling.

“It’s very refreshing to have Rubens in the team,” reports team press officer Claire Williams. “He’s so experienced, he knows exactly what he wants. And we’re very excited about Nico, so we think we have the perfect balance with our driver pairing.”

Of course, much of the interest surrounding the new season rests in who will get the upper hand within the various teams. Will it be Schumacher or Rosberg? I predict that, within three races, Nico will be required to pick up Michael’s dry cleaning, collect him from the airport and paint his summer home in Switzerland.

What about the two British world champions at McLaren, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button? A quick survey of British racing fans in Spain revealed not one that thought Button had a chance of being the quicker of the two.

For the fans gathered at Valencia, though, all the focus was on whether Alonso would have the early advantage over Massa. The seats were fairly full during Monday testing, even though Alonso was not at the track. On Tuesday, there were more fans still; the Spaniard was not driving, although he was seen in the Ferrari garage. With his first runs in the Ferrari set to happen on the Wednesday, the track will no doubt be thick with Alonso fans.

But let’s all try to remember one thing: The lap times don’t matter—at least not yet.




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