- Dan Knutson
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JEREZ, Spain -- The hills were alive with the sound of new Formula One cars. Meanwhile, out in the desert, a blizzard of sand did its best to keep other new F1 cars shuttered in their garages.
Eight of the nine current F1 teams were in action testing, and seven of them had their 2009 cars out on the track.
This was the first serious chance for the teams to really start to come to grips with their new cars. There had been one-off test sessions in Portugal, Italy and Spain in January, but only the latter was not hit by constant rain.
Five teams were at Spain's Jerez circuit, in the arid hills just south of Seville, for a four-day test.
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, ING Renault, AT&T Williams Toyota and Red Bull Racing Renault all ran their 2009 cars, while Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari used a hybrid 2008 car.
Meanwhile, Ferrari, BMW Sauber and Panasonic Toyota Racing headed for the F1 track in Bahrain for a pair of four-day tests with their new 2009 models.
With a strong chance of rain in Portugal and Spain at this time of the year, the idea was to ensure more dry-track time by testing in Bahrain's arid climate.
It was ironic, therefore, that apart from a bit of light drizzle on the first day, it was sunny and warm in Jerez and the teams were able to turn plenty of laps.
In Bahrain, meanwhile, Day 1 of the test was delayed by two hours because of fog. Testing on Day 2 lasted only two hours before a sandstorm brought activities to a halt at the desert track. Then a sandstorm wiped out all testing on Day 3 because, once again, visibility was too poor for the medical helicopter to fly if needed.
Only on Day 4 did the teams have a clear track.
The three teams stayed on in Bahrain for the second half of the test from Feb. 16-19. Fortunately, track conditions were ideal for those four days and the drivers and teams got a lot of work done.
Given the new limits on testing, every lap is crucial as the teams prepare for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 29.
Each team is permitted only 20 test days between Jan. 1 and the first race. And they are allowed to run only one car per day. Once the season begins, all track testing is banned, so the only testing the teams will have is during the Friday practice sessions before race weekends.
ESPN.com was in sunny Jerez. Read on for a testing roundup of all the F1 teams.
Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari
They looked fast, but then the lap times were deceiving. Four-time Champ Car title holder Sebastien Bourdais and his new Scuderia Toro Rosso rookie teammate Sebastien Buemi set the pace on all four days of testing at Jerez. But the reality was that they were in a hybrid 2008 car, and the 2009 cars are inherently slower because of the new rules that reduce aerodynamic downforce by about 30 percent.
Although Toro Rosso trimmed the wings back to simulate 2009 downforce levels, the 2008 car is still quicker than the 2009 models.
Besides giving its drivers track time to get back up to speed, the team also worked on getting to know the characteristics of the new slick tires.
Scuderia Toro Rosso gets its chassis from Red Bull Technology, and as the junior team to Red Bull Racing, STR has to wait until after Red Bull gets its new cars. Therefore, the new STR4 won't be ready for track testing until the beginning of March.
While Buemi has some F1 experience working as a test driver for Red Bull last year, he needs as much seat time as he can get, and that is why the team gave him two days of running in Jerez.
"We did a race simulation with qualifying and everything," he told ESPN.com, "so it was quite important for me just to do it once before the season begins. It went well, so I am quite happy with it.
"We didn't have so much to test because we are waiting for the new car at the moment. But it is still good to put on some mileage on the engine and on me."
After an agonizing wait to see if Toro Rosso would invite him back for a second season, Bourdais finally got the call. So the Frenchman, who came close to signing with an IRL team, is set for a second season of F1. He drove the 2008 STR3 for two days.
"It was really nice to be back in the car and to do so many miles," he said. "We have not had any problems. We tried to understand the tires as well as we could. Obviously, we were running quite a bit quicker than the '09 cars, but I think we can still learn interesting things on tire usage and stuff, so that is what we are trying to do."
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
All five teams at Jerez arranged media briefings with their drivers at some stage during the test. The sole exception was McLaren Mercedes, which did little to endear itself by putting newly crowned world champion Lewis Hamilton off limits for the two days he drove the new MP4-24.
The team did issue a release with Hamilton's comments.
"Today's test gave me the first opportunity to drive [the] MP4-24 in warm, dry conditions," he said, "and I'm very encouraged by what I felt. The car feels strong, very similar to last year's car, in fact. It doesn't take long to get used to the new buttons in the cockpit [KERS and front-wing flaps], but the real test for everyone now is to understand the slick tires ahead of the first race in Melbourne next month."
Hamilton set the fastest time of the 2009 cars at the test, although his car was fitted with a 2008 rear wing set at 2009 downforce levels.
Starting his second season with McLaren, Heikki Kovalainen now feels much more at home with the team. He spent the first two days in the car and said he was content with its potential.
"I'm fairly happy," he explained, "but it's fair to say there's more pace to come. We were not going for lap times, even in the long runs, as we know we can do better. I think the most important thing is to work on the reliability, to get the miles done, to sign off all the parts, and get all the systems checked as is normal at this point of the season.
"We did a few pit stops, a few starts. We checked the cooling as this was what we needed to do here. Before Melbourne there will be quite a lot of performance increase with the new parts that are about to be ready."
Red Bull Racing
Red Bull Racing was the last of the major teams to bring out its 2009 car. The team unveiled the RB5 at Jerez on Feb. 9, and Sebastian Vettel turned a handful of laps before the engineers noticed the gearbox oil temperature rising and called it a day.
The next day, as the other teams joined in, Vettel's Red Bull was the fastest 2009 car on the track, posting times quicker than McLaren, Renault and Williams.
"The first impression is positive," Vettel said of the Renault-powered RB5. "Of course, it is difficult to say where we will be. The other teams are also just about to find their way.
"We are working hard now. The most important thing is that we get more and more laps and a lot of data, and then in Australia we will see where we are. The team is in a very strong position. We have great people on board and great potential, so now it is up to us to use it."
Vettel drove the car on Days 1 and 3, while Mark Webber was in the cockpit on Days 2 and 4. They clocked identical fastest lap times.
Webber's return came 81 days after he badly fractured his lower right leg in a cycling accident. He was in some pain but still managed to rack up 83 laps on his first day back in the car, and another 92 laps on his second day.
"There were a lot of questions going into today, and I answered them,"
Webber said. "From my point of view, it all went better than expected, and to do over a race distance on my first day back in the cockpit, with several weeks to go to Melbourne, is a good thing."
Webber told ESPN.com that the main source of discomfort wasn't from the original fracture but rather because of minor surgery six days earlier to remove one of the pins in his leg. He also experienced some muscle cramps.
Asked if he had ever considered he might not be fit enough to race in his home Australian Grand Prix, Webber's answer was short and to the
Some 10,000 fans showed up at Jerez to watch their Spanish hero, Fernando Alonso, sample the new Renault R29.
His teammate Nelson Piquet drove the R29 for the first two days with mixed results.
"It's been frustrating," Piquet said. "It was raining together with a few little problems on the car [on Day 1], and then [on Day 2] we again had a few little reliability problems.
"Sometimes you have a bit of bad luck at the beginning when these cars are born. Sometimes you are really lucky and the car goes [well] straight away. I think we are having a few more issues than we thought we'd have.
"What is a little bit on the downside is that testing is more limited.
We have only one car, not two. Our testing is cut in half. That makes it a bit more complicated."
Things went smoother for Alonso.
"We just tried to do some mileage with the KERS and tried to learn something about the car because this is really the first test with the car in dry conditions," he said after his first day in the R29.
"Nelson had some problems with the brakes, so unfortunately we didn't make enough laps to really 'see' the car. Today was the first time we drove with no problems, and obviously we need to keep improving the car. And now we will start working on the setup of the car so that I can get more comfortable with it."
Things improved on the final day as the team tuned the setup. Alonso held the fastest time of the 2009 cars right up until the final minutes when Hamilton went two-tenths of a second quicker.
AT&T Williams Toyota
With all the restrictions on testing, the role of the test driver has been diminished considerably as the teams prefer to give their race drivers as much time in the cars as possible.
"This was the first time I had the possibility to drive the car properly," Nakajima said. "It was very interesting and the new car felt very comfortable for me. Of course, at the moment it's very difficult to speak about the potential of the car, but it looks all right for me. We didn't have any major reliability problems. So it was a very positive first test."
Nakajima practiced pit stops during the morning of the final day, and then Rosberg drove the FW31 in the afternoon.
"The car is running reliably," Rosberg told ESPN.com. "But we did have some problems with oversteer. It seems like other teams had similar trouble."
Indeed, many teams and drivers struggled with rear tire wear. With the change from grooved tires to slicks, the contact patch of the front tire has increased relative to that of the rear, with the result that the cars have an increased front-to-rear tire grip ratio. Thus the front end of the car is sticking and the rear end is sliding.
Laps times for many drivers dropped off noticeably on long runs as the rear tires lost their efficiency.
It was only on the fourth and final day of the first half of the Bahrain test that the track conditions allowed serious running all day. At the end of that day, 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen had posted the fastest lap time of the three teams and six drivers at the desert circuit.
Raikkonen also set the quickest time during the second four-day session.
"The track was very slippery in the morning, due to the sand, but we managed to go ahead with our program," Raikkonen said after Day 4. "It's a pity for the time we lost over the last days. This happens and you just have to accept it. My first day with the new F60 on a dry track was extremely positive."
Felipe Massa was also encouraged despite his limited time in the new Ferrari during the first four days.
"We lost a lot of mileage," said the runner-up to Lewis Hamilton in the 2008 title chase, "but I'm happy with how things are going. Happy with the reaction of the car and how it is behaving. Happy with the setup work, the consistency and the reliability. I think we are in a good direction, but there is still a lot to do."
BMW Sauber and Toyota asked for the test to be extended into the break between the two four-day sessions because of all the track time lost due to the sandstorms, but Ferrari refused because it had booked the Bahrain circuit privately for two days to film promo material.
"This was a good day's work," said Trulli, who completed more than two race distances on the fourth of the eight days. "In the morning the track conditions were still really poor with a lot of dust on the circuit. It was also very windy, but the surface cleaned up during the day and got better and better.
"We managed to get through a lot of laps, and the car balance felt pretty good. We are still playing around with [the] setup and other parameters to understand how to get the most out of the package. But it looks promising so far, so let's hope we can carry on like this."
All in all, the three teams in Bahrain seemed pretty equally matched with just half a second separating the drivers.
"You never know what the other guys are doing," Glock told reporters, "but here for us it looks quite tight. But you have to have all the cars together on the same track on the same day to see the real result. I think the real result you will only see the first time in Melbourne. Everyone at the moment is playing around trying to find some direction. I would say it is still a quite open window."
BMW Sauber's plan at Bahrain was for Robert Kubica to drive the new F1.09 for the first three days and then for test driver Christian Klien to take over on the fourth and fifth days. The team stuck rigidly to its plan even though it meant the Kubica did not get valuable track time on Day 4 when conditions were best.
Nick Heidfeld drove the car for the final three days.
Klien completed 125 laps on Day 4.
"In the morning, the track was still slightly wet as a result of being cleaned after yesterday's sandstorm," he said when conditions improved on the fourth day. "Because of this it took some time to build up a proper grip level. That gave me the opportunity to get used to the BMW Sauber F1.09, which I drove for the very first time.
"In the afternoon, the track conditions were much better and we were able to go ahead with our test program as scheduled."
Speaking to the media in Bahrain, Kubica said: "We are not in bad shape."
"But, as always, to find the results we have to make sure we use our maximum potential of the car, the drivers, everything, to beat everybody," he added. "Which will be not easy for sure, because in the end, if you go up against top teams, everything has to work 100 percent or even better.
"If you want to win you have to be better than them. I think we are working well, but it is difficult to say where we are."
With the rather late switch from Ferrari engines to Mercedes-Benz engines and McLaren gearboxes, which required various changes to be made to adapt the chassis to the engine, the Force India squad has been working flat-out to build up its 2009 VJM02. The new car is expected to run in early March.
The clock is ticking on the Honda team that still has not been sold. There have been a dozen serious offers, but none of them have panned out. It seemed likely that there would be a management buyout, with former team bosses Nick Fry and Ross Brawn taking over.
And now Virgin tycoon Richard Branson has expressed interest in buying the team.
Furthermore, F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone has stated that something will be done to prevent the team from closing its doors.
Even though the team has been working on the 2009 car, it's going to be a mad scramble to get it prepared in time for the season opener at the end of March -- especially considering that a deal with a proposed new engine partner Mercedes-Benz still has to have the financing guaranteed.
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.