Searching for YouTube videos of old F1 races in the F1 off-season to get through the endless wait for the car launches in February. New cars at the ready, winter testing can begin.
During the last few decades, winter testing has been mainly carried out on Spanish tracks. Let’s begin with Valencia’s Ricardo Tormo Circuit, where no F1 race has ever been held (the former European GP was staged in the downtown, Port era of the city). Ricardo Tormo was primarily made, in 1999, for MotoGP racing. This explains its short, specific layout, which also happens to be perfectly suited to testing new F1 cars.
I first visited Valencia in 2007 when I was invited to the launch of BMW Sauber’s new car. Before the GFC brought things to a halt in 2008, F1 teams had been competing for honours to see who could stage the most overblown gala reveal of their new F1 machine.
BMW hired a huge indoor arena for the occasion and invited some 200 international media, partners and special guests. There was a certain buzz after BMW was announced as Sauber’s new technical and financial partner the previous year. BMW had defected from Williams after failing to win the championship, and were clearly aiming high for the small Swiss team.
Before the end of the previous 2006 season, BMW Sauber had dared to drop 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve in the favour of up and coming Polish pilot Robert Kubica. There was also a 19-year old German hot property by the name of Sebastian Vettel as reserve driver. The young drivers were easy to approach for a short interview and photo before the main event.
The launch itself turned out very theatrical, with the new car emerging from haze of smoke, like at a rock concert. Team Principal Mario Theissen, Chief Designer Willi Rampf and all the drivers took to the stage to deliver their expectations from the new car and season. The seasoned F1 journalist doesn’t hear much beyond the obligatory optimism. The action moved to the circuit in the afternoon, where the new car hit the track for the first time and the two pilots drove some VIP guests around the circuit…in a BMW, of course.
I returned in 2011 for three days of winter testing, which included a few new car launches. The dollar-burning shows were a thing of the past. The team unveiled their cars in front of the garages. That’s how Mercedes did it, with huge media interest in Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg. This was their second season after taking over Brawn GP and Schumacher’s return from retirement. Everyone expected them to win in 2011 after their modest first season the year before.
Renault became Lotus and Kubica took No.1. driver duties after taking his maiden win for BMW Sauber in 2008 and scoring some memorable podiums for Renault in 2009/10. Their launch was special; not only did the historic Lotus name make a comeback to F1, but they were also employing the black & gold livery from the Chapman era.
Winter testing is very different to a regular Grand Prix weekend. Even though we are in Spain, everyone is still dressed in heavy overcoats and warm hats; it’s cold here in February. The mood in the paddock is more relaxed – and the paddock itself is more reminiscent of the 1990s, before the caravans and tents had given way to huge motorhomes.
People aren’t in such a hurry, so us journalists have more chances for longer chats or even a one-on-one interview, which is always better than quick round-table interviews. You can see how hungry the drivers are to get back behind the wheel after a long winter, their dreams for the coming season are written in their eyes. Especially the rookies. I remember talking to debutants Sergio Pérez and Pastor Maldonado, plus Toro Rosso’s marginally more experienced Sebastian Buemi. Papa Alonso and Papa Button were present as well – the former never available for an interview, while the latter always good for a laugh.
Three days of testing means a lot of work for the teams and a lot of free time for the media because there are periods when there is little activity on the track and lots of analysis at close quarters in the garages, behind the curtains.
Leaving Ricardo Tormo circuit on the last day I bumped into Robert Kubica and is manager Daniel Morelli. It felt like meeting friends, and they were in high spirits after Robert had set the fastest time. It was February 2, 2011. Four days later, the world heard about the terrible rally crash that had almost cost Kubica his arm, and his life. Eight years have now passed, and Kubica will be back in Barcelona next February, after a long European winter, as a full time Grand Prix driver once again. That warms the cockles of the heart.