Webber closes Barcelona weekend with speed

Progress toward the Formula One season opener continued apace Sunday as the F1 teams concluded weekend testing, a number of them approximating race conditions -- right down to rain -- in Barcelona, Spain.

Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing, RB4.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Red Bull Racing's Mark Webber topped unofficial time charts, running a quick lap of 1 minute, 22.385 seconds on the 2.75-mile Circuit de Catalunya. He and teammate David Coulthard (1:22.889) completed a full program of testing new aerodynamic and mechanical bits in their RB4s. They covered 147 laps between them. By the time overcast skies gave way to sun then rain, in mid-afternoon, the two were able to test wet tires.

"It's been a very positive week, the car's been reliable and we've got through everything we came here to do," team chief test engineer Ian Morgan said. "It was encouraging to see Mark at the top of the time sheet today."

Webber bested the times of McLaren Mercedes, whose drivers Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton were second- and third-quickest, respectively, in MP4-23s. Kovalainen posted a 1:22.422 in 67 laps and Hamilton a 1:22.459 in 92. They were followed by the BMW Sauber of Robert Kubica in 1:22.492 in 83 laps.

Hamilton and Kovalainen completed 159 laps toward what team exec Martin Whitmarsh termed an intensive and comprehensive weekend of testing in preparation for the season opener in Melbourne, Australia, on March 16.

"It is always interesting when we test here for the first time with a new car, as you have a comprehensive evaluation of the whole package," Whitmarsh said. "This is a demanding time of year for the team. We ask a lot of every, single member as we work to reach the level of competitiveness we want for Australia. The progress we are making is quantifiable, and the drive within the team to continue to push remains high."

Kubica's F1.08-02 ran without incident although teammate Nick Heidfeld's F1.08-03 encountered a problem that brought him to a stop on course. The pair got in intermediate- and wet-tire testing before the day's session ended. Heidfeld's quick lap of 1:22.874 placed him sixth-quickest behind Renault's double world champion Fernando Alonso (1:22.509).

Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren Mercedes, MP4-23.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Renault tested two R28s, working on set-up and long runs until the rain cut short their agenda.

"Today we concentrated on the basic set-up of the car and made good progress," Alonso said. "The track conditions improved over the three days, and the temperature was OK because it stayed more or less consistent throughout the weekend. We were able to keep improving our understanding of the Bridgestone tires, and also the new way of setting up the car with no traction control or engine braking. Every day I am happier with the car, and these have been useful days here in Barcelona."

Renault's newest race driver, Nelson A. Piquet, followed Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sebastien Bourdais and Red Bull's David Coulthard on time sheets. Piquet covered a quick lap of 1:23.039 in 64 laps.

Toro Rosso drivers Bourdais (1:2.877 in 80 laps) and Sebastian Vettel (1:23.232 in 72) traded STR2Bs to evaluate a new front suspension as they spent the weekend simulating race conditions. The weather provided a tire-test bonus. Chief engineer Laurent Mekies deemed the weekend a good test and said the team made progress in reliability.

Again showing at the slow end of the field were Hondas driven by Rubens Barrichello (1:23.795 in 84 laps) and Jenson Button (1:23.808 in 85), and the Force India in the hands of race driver German Adrian Sutil (1:23.800).

Barrichello ran 84 laps and evaluated set-up options, and Button did long runs in 86 laps to work on chassis set-up. The afternoon rain interruption gave both race drivers the chance to drive the RA108 without traction control or engine braking in wet conditions.

"I am pleased with the reliability of the car," Button said. "Generally, we have made some progress this week, but there is still a lot of work to be done in the forthcoming tests. The car is completely new, which means we are starting from zero in terms of developing the set-up. We are also experiencing some drivability issues as we work with the new ECU. The weather conditions today meant that I was able to get my first wet running in without traction control, which was good."

Participation was down to 13 drivers after the Williams Toyota team left Saturday following a shunt that damaged the front wing of Kazuki Nakajima's FW30. Team managers determined they were unable to make repairs without returning the factory in England.