First 2009 test puts KERS on F1

As exciting to some as Fashion Week -- on in Milan, Italy -- is to others, Formula One opened the 2009 season Monday with official testing. Like the outfits in Milan, most teams rolled out new models. Drastic differences in looks owe to rules changes. Williams debuted its FW31 with the claim the car is the company's first design from scratch in nearly 30 years, such are the sweeping nature of the new regs. The test gave teams their first opportunities to use kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS), optional this season, in 2009 cars.

Sebastien Buemi, Scuderia Toro Rosso .
Photo by xpb.cc.

The driver whose ride did not reek of new-car smell let familiarity help him to the top of the time sheets. Sebastien Buemi, having been confirmed as an F1 race driver since last testing, picked up where he left off as top timer for Toro Rosso. Swiss driver Buemi was a fast-lapper for Toro Rosso and sister team Red Bull as testing drew to a close in December. Scuderia Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing will bring out their new models in February.

Toro Rosso was one of five teams assembling at Portugal's Autodromo Internacional do Algarve, the newest in hip, Iberian fast tracks. Buemi's 1 minute, 41.528 seconds in the STR3-04 topped lap times in a big way. The team had planned work on other areas, but when overnight rain made for wet going, Buemi spent the day on extreme-wet slicks and the team shifted focus from engine specifications, cooling system, and reliability concerns to electronics. The F1 rookie completed 65 laps of the 2.9-mile circuit, nearly a third more than the next busiest runner, Kamui Kobayashi of Toyota, who completed 46 laps.

Temperatures of around 60 degrees Fahrenheit and a slippery track put off others including Pedro de la Rosa of McLaren Mercedes, Nico Huklenberg for Williams, and Nelson Piquet for Renault. De la Rosa, whose MP4-24 was launched last week at the McLaren Technology Center in Woking, England, was second-quick, but the Spaniard posted only 28 laps (1:46.076.). Hulkenberg also logged 28 (1:46.335). Piquet (1:48.907) completed 33 laps and Kobayashi (1:50.989) 46.

Hulkenberg turned the first laps on the Toyota-powered FW31, laps intended only to make sure the parts fit correctly, Williams technical director Sam Michael said. The German test driver said his newness to the Portuguese track -- his first glimpse -- inhibited his ability to compare the FW31 and the FW30. He said this first test at Spanish tracks near Jerez de la Frontera or Barcelona would have let him be more articulate. Noticeable differences to cars this year are high and narrow rear wings, low and wide front wings that adjust by driver control, and slicks. Other changes include reduced aerodynamic add-ons such as barge boards. Rules changes are expected to make races more competitive -- wings shapes should improve overtaking -- and less expensive -- engines and gearboxes must last longer and budgets have been imposed.

Nelson A. Piquet, Renault F1 Team.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Like Williams, and reflecting F1's new budget-mindedness, Renault unveiled its newest car, the R29, at the track. Although all team drivers, including double world champion Fernando Alonso, Piquet, third driver Romain Grosjean of France, and development drivers Davide Valsecchi of Italy, Charles Pic of France, and Marco Sorensen of Denmark were on hand, only Piquet drove the thing. The Brazilian who enters his second season in F1 said it was great to be in the R29 but the test itself was routine mileage.

Renault managing director Flavio Briatore, known for wringing success from Walmart-worthy budgets, addressed teams' agreed cost cuts with the assertion that keeping KERS for '09 is a mad idea. Williams's Michael said KERS potentially can clip full seconds off lap times, but at the moment the systems represent added weight not all cars will carry. Briatore said team principals who met and agreed drastic cost-cutting measures last month in London were willing to delay adding KERS. Except for one. At the behest of BMW Sauber, Briatore said, KERS implentation goes forward this season instead of holding until 2010.

BMW Sauber is scheduled to launch the team's 2009 car Tuesday in Valencia, Spain. No word on how driver Robert Kubica, who spent last winter making a drastic drop in body weight to help the F1.08's handling, will offset KERS weight.

Toyota's first go with KERS went without incident. Kobayashi did a shakedown Sunday and expected more mileage Monday only to encounter wet conditions. "Today has gone well and I'm happy with the new car," Kobayashi said after his first experience with KERS. Toyota introduced the TF109 last week via a live webcast.

In Mugello, Italy, former world driving champion Kimi Raikkonen drove Ferrari's new F60 for the first time. His teammate, world driving champion runner-up Felipe Massa took first turn at the wheel last week. Both were confronted with last-minute venue changes owing to poor weather conditions in northern Italy. Massa's first shakedown was moved from the team's track at Fiorano to the team track at Mugello. This week's test was scheduled to be in the Algarve, where some motorhomes already had arrived. Raikkonen finished 54 laps in heavy rain with a fast lap of 1:34.430. He will drive Tuesday before handing off to Massa for two days.

Force India, with drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil returning for the team's second season, is not planning to put a car on track until March.