For the first time in December, someone besides Sebastien Buemi topped timesheets in Formula One testing in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. After blaming his car for putting him second-quick to the Swiss on Tuesday and receiving a little overnight work from team mechanics, Red Bull Racer Sebastian Vettel popped to the top of charts Wednesday with the quickest time of the month on the 2.75-mile track. Vettel's fast lap of 1 minute, 16.617 seconds kicked the pins from previous standards that reached a mere 1:17.029. As ever, times are unofficial.
Five drivers from three teams finished the testing year in Spain under mostly cloudy skies and in chilly temperatures that hung in the 50s Fahrenheit.
Lest he go unnoticed by Red Bull bosses evaluating drivers for Scuderia Toro Rosso, Buemi also nipped under the 1:17 mark. Barely. Buemi pegged a 1:16.998. He now goes off to spend the Christmas holidays with his family in Switzerland before doing some physical training at Red Bull's center in Austria.
Both drivers drove '09 rules-adapted RB4s in continuing to evaluate mechanical setups with slick tires. Vettel completed 107 laps and Buemi 92 as the cars ran reliably.
"We've had pretty smooth running at this test and have completed a lot of mileage before the end of the year," Vettel said. "I think we've done everything we could here, learning about the tires and next year's regulations, and, hopefully, we will start next year with a car strong enough to challenge the big boys."
BMW Sauber concluded its test year with tweener F1.08s adapted to 2009 rules. Robert Kubica pounded out 100 laps with a best of 1:19.013 in working on setups with slick tires. Christian Klien started the day working on "energy strategies" with the KERS-equipped car. Plan was the two would trade cars at midday. Problem was the KERS car suffered a mechanical failure so Kubica reverted to the non-KERS car and carried on. That left Klien completing only 38 laps. His best was a 1:19.066.
Williams racer Kazuki Nakajima had his head down for a second day of hard graft in an FW30. The second-generation F1 driver posted a 1:19.341 as fast lap among 131. He focused on setup work, aerodynamic optimization and slicks development. Nakajima racked up 1,045 kilometers (649 miles) in two days.
"Today marked the end of our 2008 test program," team technical director Sam Michael said. "Our schedule over recent tests has focused on setup work for Bridgestone's slick tires, consideration of aerodynamic regulation changes (including the driver-adjustable front flap) and the KERS. Kazuki also completed a significant number of laps, which helps with the three-race engine life required in 2009. We're making good progress and are looking forward to returning to the test track after the Christmas break with the FW31. Thanks to the test team and everyone in the factory for all the effort they've put into the interim car over the past few months."
Said Nakajima: "These two days at Jerez have been really productive. Unlike last week, when the weather was quite bad, I've covered a lot of mileage with the car, which was good for me as it's allowed me to get used to all the changes. In terms of what we've been testing, we've worked on setup and the aero package for next year, but we mainly concentrate in the slick tires this week. It is quite interesting to drive on slicks."
Over in Portimao, Portugal, veteran test drivers Pedro de la Rosa for McLaren Mercedes and Luca Badoer for Ferrari had the 2.91-mile Algarve Motor Park to themselves. They enjoyed warmer temperatures -- to 60 Fahrenheit -- and sunnier skies but the new track has proven susceptible to winds. Grip levels increased as the day wore on as evidenced by De la Rosa's quick lap of 1:28.993, a good drop in 1:30 times posted earlier in the week. Badoer managed a 1:30.163 in 75 laps.
De la Rosa ran 74 laps in the MP4-23K, the KERS-equipped car, with the team proclaiming the year's final test improved their understanding of the kinetic energy recovery system by leaps and bounds. Next testing takes place in late January, after the launch of the MP4-24 on Jan. 16.
Badoer continued to test slick tires in a rules-adapted F2008. He also continued the focus on engine life ahead of the 2009 requirement that engines last three instead of two races.
At Bahrain International Circuit, Toyota brought its 30,000-kilometer (18,641-mile) test season to a close with Italian adolescent Andrea Caldarelli of the Toyota Young Drivers Program putting the final miles on the TF108 alongside race driver Timo Glock and test driver Kamui Kobayashi. "This has been a great experience for me and I have thoroughly enjoyed it," Caldarelli said. "To get the chance to test a Formula 1 car when I am still only 18 is such a good opportunity, and I was determined to make the most of it. Obviously, the TF108 is a big step up compared to my usual car; the power is amazing but so are the brakes, and the grip you have going round corners takes a few laps to adjust to. I think I did a good job considering the circuit is new to me and this is my first full Formula One test."
Caldarelli raced last season in the Formula Renault West European Championship and Eurocup. In Bahrain this week, he drove 128 laps with a best of 1:33.170. Toyota last week gave a test ride to Henki Waldschmidt of The Netherlands. The work at hand for all three drivers this week included testing slick tires with low-downforce aerodynamic configuration and putting miles on the RVX-08 engine in anticipation of extended-life race requirements next year. Also in the mix were a new gearbox, other mechanical bits and KERS development. Glock drove a total of 258 laps with a best of 1:32.090. Kobayashi drove 33 laps.
Off track, teams continue to announce sponsor deals as if to defy a global credit crunch and sport-imposed cutbacks that could yet slash driver and executive pay -- FIA vice president Mohammed Ben Sulayem told a news conference in Dubai that another 25 percent must come out of teams' budgets for 2009. Teams last week agreed to cut at least 30 percent from big-team costs. Ferrari will carry the name of Indian carmaker Tata, which enjoys a partnership with Ferrari parent FIAT. Tata this year unveiled its prototype for the cheapest car in the world, a $2,500 model thought to be challenged by production costs. McLaren Mercedes has landed a deal with computer producer and former Williams sponsor Lenovo.
Further off track, McLaren Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton continued his vacation tour as the only top driver not to put in a turn of offseason testing. But after collecting a bag of awards for his accomplishment in becoming the youngest-yet F1 world champion, he has lost two votes of the people, well, people and French editors. He was beaten to the BBC's popularly chosen Sports Personality of the Year top spot by Scottish bicyclist and three-time Olympic gold medalist Chris Hoy. In a vote by editors of French sports newspaper L'Equipe, Hamilton trailed MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi, who in turn trailed world Champion of Champions Usain Bolt, the gold-medalist sprinter, Michael Phelps, the gold-medalist swimmer, and Rafael Nadal, the two-time Grand Slam tennis tournament winner. ... A poll at manipeF1.com shows 77 percent of voters oppose Bernie Ecclestone's gold-silver-bronze medals plan for determining a world driving champion.