x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Season over but no one is leaving Yas Marina yet

For four days this week, Yas Marina will reverberate to the sounds of F1 as teams prepare for the short-term future.

Red Bull-Renault have clinched both championships this season, but their mechanics are already working towards 2011.
Red Bull-Renault have clinched both championships this season, but their mechanics are already working towards 2011.

For 90 minutes on Sunday, Yas Marina Circuit was the focal point of world motorsport - and the Formula One community is not about to divert its gaze.

After the maddest dash in F1's 61-season history - two grands prix in opposing hemispheres, 12,000 kilometres and seven days apart - teams will remain in Abu Dhabi until next weekend for testing.

The current season might only just have ended, but the next is about to begin.

Usually, a grand prix's conclusion is accompanied by a metallic symphony as garages are stripped down with the same meticulous precision that accompanies their installation. The teams even get competitive about that - Sauber has a reputation for being most efficient at packing up, while Renault is, according to Geoff Simmonds, their team co-ordinator: "Famous for being last, no matter what. We're renowned for it."

On Sunday evening, however, the paddock was relatively calm and the main sounds were musical rather than mechanical as Red Bull-Renault celebrated Sebastian Vettel's coronation as F1's youngest world champion.

The cars were not going anywhere.

For four days this week, Yas Marina will reverberate to the sounds of F1 as teams prepare for the short-term future. Today and tomorrow and on Wednesday, teams will be evaluating young drivers - a rare opportunity for the sport's rising stars to obtain serious mileage behind the wheel of a contemporary F1 car.

In bygone years, driver education was less of a problem. There were no testing restrictions and, stepping back into the 1970s, it was common for the leading teams to enter extra cars from time to time to blood promising youngsters.

But the last such endeavour was 25 years ago and the sport's present regulations prohibit such activities: the entry list is restricted to 12 two-car teams, and that is it. Furthermore, testing during the season is banned, as a cost-cutting measure, and that puts even more of a premium on time behind the wheel.

This week's line-up of young drivers to be tested includes Englishmen Oliver Turvey and Sam Bird, both of whom finished on the podium in Saturday's GP2 Series race at Yas Marina. They are driving for McLaren-Mercedes and Mercedes GP respectively.

Force India-Mercedes will assess promising Portuguese teenager Antonio Felix da Costa, while Indonesia and Bulgaria will both be represented in F1 for the first time: Rio Haryanto is driving for Virgin and Vladimir Arabadzhiev for Lotus.

Pastor Maldonado, this year's GP2 champion, will test for both Williams and the Hispania Racing Team; the Venezuelan has a healthy sponsorship portfolio and is expected to step up to F1 next season.

The young driver test heralds the end of Bridgestone's contract as grand prix racing's lone tyre supplier. There will be a 24-hour break before action resumes with some of the teams' regular racers, who will spend two days analysing Pirelli's F1 rubber for the first time.

The Italian company last competed at this level of the sport in 1991, but will replace Bridgestone from 2011 on a three-year contract.

Tyres may appear to be simply black, round and disposable, but they are actually more complex. In F1, they are a cocktail of waxes, resins, elastomers, polymers and many more constituents besides (including, obviously, rubber).

Their importance is frequently overlooked, but as the sole points of contact between a grand prix car's 750 brake horsepower and the track, they are in many ways the most important element in the performance equation.

Whenever a tyre war rages - the most recent in F1, between Michelin and Bridgestone, lasted from 2001 until 2006 - the quickest way to find lap time is not to spend hours in the wind tunnel looking for aerodynamic refinements, but to bolt on a set of soft, sticky tyres.

The trick, of course, is to combine adhesion with durability - and that will be Pirelli's aim this week. Tyre performance is less extreme when a single supplier is involved, but the Italian company needs to follow Bridgestone's lead by providing a range of compounds that allow scope for tactical diversity.

The new tyres have completed an extensive number of kilometres during the course of the year, with various drivers providing input at the wheel of a 2009 Toyota F1 chassis, but active teams will use them for the first time on Friday. Vettel, the freshly crowned world champion, will represent Red Bull, while Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg share track time for Mercedes, but some teams - including McLaren-Mercedes - will stick with their reserve drivers.

When the second part of the session concludes on Saturday afternoon, it will be the last time the teams run in anger before pre-season testing starts in February.

What becomes of the cars? Policies vary from team to team. Williams-Corworth, for instance, have their own museum. "We keep one example of every car there," says Paul Singlehurst, Williams' race team co-ordinator, "for nostalgia's sake. We need to make sure we keep at least one full set of operating kit, a spare set of bodywork, a laptop and the relevant software with every chassis, to make sure we can run it properly at demonstration events."

Technological advances can cause occasional headaches: Williams took Damon Hill's 1996 title-winning FW18 chassis to Bahrain earlier this year, to participate in the world championships' 60th anniversary celebrations, and they struggled to pinpoint an electronic fault when it occurred: nobody was able to provide a Windows 95 laptop to assist their investigations. Eventually they pulled the car apart, put it back together and it fired up, without any logical explanation being found.

Renault organise regular F1 street demonstrations, in cities that don't ordinarily experience the sport - Moscow, for instance. "We have a busy show car and street demo programme, Simmonds said. "We have a fleet of 30-odd chassis and all this year's R30s will be adapted to look as much like next season's cars as possible. Sometimes, when I'm wandering through an airport, I'll see one of our cars on display. It looks for all the world like a current model, but it might be from 2003."

For a new team such as Lotus-Corworth, the programme is a little less intense. "We only have four cars," said Watson. "Contractually, two will go to suppliers and the others will become show cars - sporting next year's livery, whatever that might be, to support marketing events around the world.

"We might put one in the reception area at the factory, but it will probably be borrowed quite regularly because we don't have too many options."

After packing up at Yas Marina, teams are due back at their European bases a week tomorrow. Any chance of a holiday?

"It's problematic because we have to fit most of our annual leave between the end of the season - November 22, in this case, after the Abu Dhabi test - and the start of the new car-build programme in January," said Singlehurst.

"It's a difficult balancing act when you have kids at school, or your wives and girlfriends are working. By the time we take our holidays, our partners tend not to have much left - I end up doing DIY jobs around the house, stuff I'd really rather not do during my break."

This season's 19 grands prix spanned five continents and 247 days and 2011 will be more intensive still, with incorporation of an Indian Grand Prix and the calendar's expansion to 20 races.

"Every year you get to the end of the season and think, 'Phew.' Then within a week you notice that England is wet and cold, so you want to go away again," Simmonds said. "People who travel tend to be those that want to - it's part of their make-up and it would be very difficult to chain them to a desk for five days a week."

The window between the end of one season and the start of the next is becoming ever smaller, though. Singlehurst said: "We're due to start building our new car on January 14 and I don't think we'll be coming home much before December."

 

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