- Dan Knutson
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PORTIMAO, Portugal -- The Formula One teams and drivers are taking their first full-fledged steps into the unknown this week as they begin to come to grips with the new 2009 cars, which are considerably different from the 2008 models.
Six of the F1 teams have unveiled their new cars in recent days.
Ferrari started it off, showing its new F60 on Jan. 12 in Mugello, Italy. Three days later, Toyota's TF109 made its debut on the Internet. Then the McLaren Mercedes MP4-24 was shown to the media at McLaren's futuristic base in England on Friday.
The Renault R29 and the Williams Toyota FW31 made their debuts at the new Portimao track in the Algarve area south of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon on Monday, and the BMW Sauber F1.09 was launched in Valencia, Spain, on Tuesday.
McLaren, Renault, Williams and Toyota are testing their new cars this week in Portimao, along with Scuderia Toro Rosso's hybrid car.
BMW Sauber, meanwhile, is testing privately in Valencia. Ferrari was supposed to test in Portugal but switched venues to Mugello.
As reported earlier on ESPN.com, there have been a number of rule changes this year. Some of the first things that strike you about the new cars are the wide front wing, the narrow, high rear wing, and the absence of the plethora of aerodynamic tweaks on the bodywork and wings.
With the new cars barely completed before their first public showings, many of the drivers got their first looks at the machines at virtually the same time as the public and the media.
"I expected [the Ferrari F60] not to be as nice as we have always had," Felipe Massa said, comparing the new Ferrari to past models.
"Although the regulations seem to make the car worse from a graphic point of view, I think the car is very nice.
"I hope it will be a fast car and a nice car -- I would always rather have an ugly car that was fast rather than a nice-looking car that was slow."
The new cars especially look different from a head-on view.
"I think it looks great," Heikki Kovalainen said of the McLaren MP4-24. "Whatever the regulations changes are, I think the team has managed to make a beautiful car."
Nelson Piquet gave the new Renault its first shakedown on a rainy day in Portugal.
"It feels great to be in the R29, even though the weather was not great," he said after his first day in the car. "Today was all about adding miles to the car, collecting data and learning as much as we could. Hopefully the rest of the week will allow us to build on the progress we have made today."
Piquet's teammate, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who slimmed down over the winter by doing plenty of bike riding, had yet to drive the new car. But when asked for his opinion of the Renault R29, he said that, like "all the 2009 cars, it is a little bit strange to see because of the rear wing and the front wing."
"But I like the car," Alonso added. "It does not matter if it is nice or not nice, it only matters if it is quick. And this we will find out in three or four weeks. But at the moment, I am happy with the work of the team, and we are all optimistic so far."
With the new rules banning mini wings, side deflectors, horns, flips, strakes, vanes, and the other aerodynamic bits and bobs, the 2009 cars look a lot cleaner than last year's models.
"The look of the cars from the last two or three years, they were sorted out with nice detail," Toyota's Timo Glock said. "Now, when you see the car, you think they are missing something. But in the end, our car looks pretty nice.
"First of all, you have to deal with the front wing and rear wing. It looks a bit strange, but when 18, 20 cars are on the grid, everyone will get used to it. All the cars will look pretty similar as the regulations are pretty tight, so there isn't room for maneuver. But it is a bit strange to look at when you see it for the first time."
Tight as the regulations are, the teams already have found a few loopholes through which they can slide some aerodynamic tweaks.
"It's like weeds in a sidewalk crack," Renault's chassis technical director Bob Bell told ESPN.com. "If we can find the tiniest opening [in the regulations], we will take advantage of it."
Those wide front wings are going to result in more accidents and bent wings this season as the drivers get used to the new dimensions.
"The front wing is very, very wide this year," Toyota driver Jarno Trulli said. "Being wide means it's very easy to have contact with another car, and instead of wheel to wheel, you might have wing to wing."
Toyota test driver Kamui Kobayashi got the honor of turning the first laps in the TF109.
"I am happy with the new car," he said. "It has been an interesting experience to drive with [Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems] for the first time, and we are understanding more about the system all the time."
F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone had this to say about the new generation of F1 cars:
"With fashion, you have to get used to things. I am pleased we have slicks again, but I don't like the small rear wings. But let's see if they do the job."
For racing purists, the return of slick tires that replace the ungainly looking, grooved, dry-weather tires F1 had used since 1998 is a welcome sight.
The drivers are happy about it, as well. Although they raced on slick tires in the lower categories, none of the current drivers except Trulli was around in F1 when slicks were last used. So this is something new for most of them.
"I think slicks are the right way to go," Kovalainen said. "It gives you a little bit more grip, especially in the slow speed corners."
The drivers who competed in F1's feeder series GP2 (and before that,
F3000) have relatively recent experience with fast cars on slick tires, but only Glock (and Sebastien Bourdais, if he re-signs with Toro Rosso) has the combined experience of slick tires and high-powered single-seaters, thanks to his days in Champ Car.
However, Glock doesn't believe he will get any advantage from that.
"For us as drivers, we know what we have to do behind the steering wheel," he said. "Going back to slicks is easier than going from slicks to grooves. They are hard to understand. You learn with driving experience in karts and up to GP2, and then suddenly you have to go on grooved tires, so it makes it harder to understand the tires. Going to a tire that is easier to understand means no one will have a problem."
Lewis Hamilton is one of those who raced in GP2, and he thinks he will adapt quickly to F1 slick tires.
"I have always found I am quite good at learning and understanding with tires, and knowing how to use them," he said. "So I don't think I will be at a disadvantage."
Although the grip levels and the predictability of handling characteristics of the grooved tires improved over the years, the tires had a snap breakaway point that made it difficult for the drivers to find the limit of adhesion.
The drivers are going to be a lot busier in the cockpit this season, and they will have more input in the final performance output of the car.
This is for two main reasons: the introduction of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems and the new adjustable front wing.
"If the systems will work at 100 percent," Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said, "the drivers will have an extremely big delta performance, which will find its expression in tenths of a second."
KERS, which is optional, will allow the car to store energy created by the heat released from the brakes; the energy then will be on tap for the driver to use at his discretion. For as long as nearly seven seconds each lap, the driver can push a button for an 80-horsepower boost in power.
The drivers can do this in one 6.7-second spurt or in segments totaling 6.7 seconds. They are not allowed to store unused boost for the next lap.
So when is it best to use KERS? Obviously, drivers are going to use it off the starting line to try to get a jump on the cars around them. But after that, it becomes more complicated.
"Driver overload is going to be an issue this year," McLaren chairman Ron Dennis said. "There is an awful lot of functionality that is under the control of the driver, and this is going to be a challenge for the drivers to be able to cope with everything and get the best out of everything.
"It is not going to be, with KERS, as simple as pressing the button -- it will be a question of optimizing its use throughout a lap, not just on a straight."
Alonso quipped that the drivers should get paid more this year because of the extra work they will have to do.
Hopefully we don't have any reliability problems. We have been very, very fortunate in the past.
-- Lewis Hamilton
Like the other teams, McLaren has been working with its drivers at tests on just how and when to depress and hold the KERS power button.
"To get the most out of KERS, you have to deploy it as early as you can on the straight," McLaren chief engineer Tim Goss said. "As soon as the car comes out from being traction limited and power limited in the corner, then you want to deploy KERS."
McLaren gives the drivers a detailed chart showing how well they use KERS on each lap they test the system.
Massa says KERS will be used primarily to improve lap times and secondarily as a tool to protect the lead or pass a car in front.
"KERS is not made for overtaking; it is made for performance," he said. "So we will use it every lap. Especially if you are in front of somebody and the guy may be quicker than you. You will try to use it in every straight, which is maybe the only opportunity the other one has to pass you.
"If you are in front of somebody and you know you have maybe two overtaking opportunities on the track, you will use them on these parts because you know the guy can pass you there."
The other new addition that will keep drivers busy fiddling with levers and switches in the cockpit is the adjustable front wing. Twice each lap, a driver will be allowed to increase the angle of his front wing by 6 degrees.
This will be used to give a driver more downforce as he closes in on the car in front, which upsets the airflow to the wings of the car following.
"The idea is that when he comes in behind another car and starts to suffer any kind of wake effects, he can wind in a little more front wing and get a bit more front grip," McLaren senior aerodynamicists James Ingalls said. "And then as soon as he can successfully overtake, he can then reset the front wing to where it was before."
Operated by an electronic/hydraulic system, it will have a fail-safe mode so the wing will remain locked in one position should the switch gear fail. Thus there is a safety setting to prevent the flaps from flopping around.
A member of the video game generation, Hamilton is looking forward to driving the new-generation cars.
"I have a few other buttons to play with, which is more fun for me," he said. "I've always liked gadgets, so I have a few more devices I can play with.
"We don't really know to what effect the new controls will have, so for sure the team and the driver that gets on top of it more than the others will have a slight advantage. That is what we are working toward."
Kimi Raikkonen tried all the various 2009 systems in hodgepodge form on the 2008 test mule car and is looking forward to seeing how they all work together on the Ferrari F60 this week in Italy.
"These are the biggest changes for many years in F1," he said. "I don't have an idea how it will be all together. We have tried the tires, but it was last year's car. We tried to take the downforce off to get it more close to where it should be this year, but it is still not the same car, so with everything together, we should know better how it works. But it is interesting, and hopefully it will improve the racing, and that will be much better for all of us.
"For sure it will be difficult for the teams to get everything working well together. We don't have much testing before the season and no testing during the season. So it is up to the teams, and it will be whoever gets everything working and gets the best out of the package."
After the Williams FW31 made its debut, the team's technical director, Sam Michael, told ESPN.com that it is going to take several months before Williams knows how well its new car stacks up against the competition.
"I don't think we will know until the first four or five races,"
Michael said. "It has been the biggest change, particularly to the aerodynamics, since the 1980s. It has been a fascinating development period, and it is still continuing. Now for the first time, we are seeing what the other teams did with their cars."
Testing is always important, but that is especially the case this year because the cars are so different because of all the rule changes.
But preseason testing has been restricted. The teams are allowed only 20 test days between the beginning of the year and the first race.
Hamilton, for example, will get only a few days in the new MP4-24 before the season opener in Australia on March 29.
"I have, like, only seven days in the car," he said, "and so we are going to make sure that we really extract the most from those days.
Hopefully we don't have any reliability problems. We have been very, very fortunate in the past. In two years, we have not had any reliability problems, so I am confident the team have done a great job."
And with testing being banned during the season, the drivers will be spending more time in the driving simulators and more time discussing things with their engineers as they try to extract every last ounce of performance from the new systems and new cars.
Plus, the cars and their components will spend more time on testing rigs in the teams' factories.
Still, it is hard to beat good old-fashioned track time.
"If you don't have everything under control by the last test of the winter, there is no more time to do anything," Alonso said. "If the KERS is still not working by the last test, it is better that you remove the system and race without for the rest of the season.
"You cannot arrive on the Friday in Malaysia or Bahrain and think about testing a new solution for the KERS. It is too late."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
The new cars several F1 teams have unveiled in recent days are sleek and shiny, but how do they drive? Lewis Hamilton and company are eager to find out.