x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

New Formula One campaign begins before old one is done

Teams put their designers to work in May or June, developing the cars that will race the following season.

Fernando Alonso drives Ferrari’s new car, the F2012.
Fernando Alonso drives Ferrari’s new car, the F2012.

The start of a new Formula One season is approaching with such velocity it can now comfortably be calculated in days rather than weeks or, as it was during a pleasant Sunday evening in Brazil last November, months.

Since the moment the chequered flag appeared at Interlagos, ending the 2011 season and effectively ushering in the winter break, the attention turned to this coming weekend.

Friday's first practice session ahead of Sunday's Australian Grand Prix not only raises the curtain on another nine months of open-wheel racing, but it provides the first opportunity for the likes of Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes to close the gap on their rivals at Red Bull Racing.

How the 12 racing marques have developed their cars in the off-season is a topic of much discussion among media, investors and fans' forums. Yet for the teams themselves, preparations for the 2012 season have been at the forefront of the minds of designers and engineers for the best part of nine months.

Last year, just around the same time Sebastian Vettel was thrilling spectators at the Monte Carlo Street Circuit in late May or Jenson Button was delighting a surprised grandstand on route to victory in Montreal in early June, the majority of race teams were beginning to seriously switch their focus from their 2011 car to the 2012 model.

Nikolas Tombazis, Ferrari's chief designer, confirmed last May that the Italian manufacturers had already begun work on this season's car.

When asked why preparations had started so early, he replied: "Because otherwise it will be too late."

Graeme Lowdon, the chief executive officer at Marussia, the rebranded team known last season as Virgin Racing, outlined to The National how a new car goes from design table to tarmac.

"For the coming season, you could argue preparations started as far back as June of last year with the design of the new car," Lowdon said.

"That's how F1 works: you start on the design as early as possible and, as the season progresses, more and more of your team start working on the car for the following season."

Immediately after the calendar is confirmed for the following season, with the first draft normally coming out in June, the teams outline a plan working backwards from the date of the season's first grand prix.

"What we will do, is work out the minimum amount of time it will take to manufacture the required parts and then we know the aerodynamicists can work on improving their design right up until that point," Lowdon said.

Marussia, along with Hispania, did not participate in any of the three pre-season testing sessions in Spain after the new car last week failed to pass the last of the world governing body's 18 individual crash tests. Lowdon had earlier played down the importance of testing.

"Car design is more important," he said. "If somebody said to you, you can have your new car ready to do all of the tests or you can do one test, but your car will be quicker for it, there's only one answer because by the time you get to Melbourne there is only one thing you want: a competitive car."

Hispania, Marussia's rivals at the back of the grid, launched their car after testing had been completed, and Narain Karthikeyan did a brief shakedown of the car in Barcelona, but other than the first proper chance for the car to run will be in first practice in Australia.

Pedro de la Rosa, the team's lead driver, said: "It might not seem like it, but any sort of mileage before Australia is vital to see that the car is in good conditions. From here it is our job to try to improve it and make it progress."

Observers often struggle to fathom how a team of engineers who have been working on a car for more than eight months should endure such obstructive, debilitating delays, but, Lowdon insists, more often that not there is method to the apparent madness.

"There always seems to be a bit of rush at the end to get the final car out," he said.

"The reason for the rush is that every single day you can spend on improving the aerodynamic side of the car improves the performance.

"Of course, you could finish your car with a month to spare, but then the chances are it will be woefully uncompetitive. So it is a case of getting the maximum amount of design time, the minimum amount of manufacturing time and the optimum amount of testing time."

Different parts of the car can be finalised at different times, but the most important decision - the car's overall aerodynamic parameters - depends on the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile. Only once the FIA clarifies the technical rules for the forthcoming season can teams proceed to try to exploit loopholes.

"One of the main reasons why the teams are so keen for some stability and clarity coming in terms of the tech rules is because as soon as those rules are fixed for the following year, that's when you can fix the concept of the car," Lowdon said. "Some of the major aerodynamic surfaces will already be fixed by July or August and, by that stage, you are in a process that you can't really stop."

It is for this reason that controversial designs such as McLaren's 2010 F-duct and last year's exhaust-driven blown diffusers are often deemed legal during the continuing season, but then prohibited the following year. It was reported last week the FIA are already almost certain to change the rules for next season to rid the new cars of the aesthetically displeasing stepped noses.

Several teams will this year run a front nose with a small step in it to lower the tip of the car's aerodynamic nose safely below the driver's monocoque.

Paul Hembery, Pirelli's head of motorsport, called the steps "pig ugly" while Vettel confidently claimed that "for next year's cars, the steps will be gone".

Any rule change by the FIA will need to be confirmed soon. The 2012 season-opening race might be this weekend, but preparations for the 2013 campaign will likely get under way in less than three months.