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Friday fun - up 50 percent for 2007 15 Mar 2007

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren Mercedes MP4/22. Formula One Testing, Barcelona, Spain, Day Two, Tuesday 13 February 2007. World © Hartley/Sutton

Everything you need to know about Friday practice changes

Rule changes introduced for the new season mean race fans at Albert Park on Friday will see not two, but three hours of Formula One track action as the teams fine-tune their cars for the first race of this year’s 17-round campaign.

Rule changes introduced for the new season mean race fans at Albert Park on Friday will see not two, but three hours of Formula One track action as the teams fine-tune their cars for the first race of this year’s 17-round campaign.

With third cars now banned, it will no longer be the ‘Man Friday’ test drivers who occupy centre stage - at least not all of the time. We can expect to see the majority of teams run their two race drivers throughout the two newly-extended 90-minute sessions, though they may opt to substitute a tester if they so wish.

Free practice will now be ‘free’ in more ways than one, as well. While the times set in these two sessions won’t count towards grid positions, nor will the drivers face any grid penalties, as in previous years, should they blow an engine and require it to be changed (unless it’s a race engine in its second event of the required two-event cycle). That rule will come into force only on the Saturday of each Grand Prix weekend, so the drivers are free to run around at will on Friday and push their machinery to its limits.

Another thing to look out for will be the tell-tale markings on the tyres. This year they all come from Bridgestone, who are required to offer two dry-weather compounds to each team at every round. The Japanese company will select those from four compounds, ranging from ‘Hard’ to ‘Super Soft’ this year, and are likely to have their ‘Medium’ and ‘Soft’ compounds on hand for the Melbourne event. With the rubber being largely a mix of carbon, sulphur and oil, it’s the proportion of the latter that dictates the ‘softness’ of a particular specification.

“From the evidence seen at all the winter tests I think we will see very close racing in Australia,” says Bridgestone’s Head of Track Engineering Operations, Kees van de Grint. “It will come down to the detail and the circumstances of the race, but looking at how close the times have been between the teams it is certain to be very exciting.”

The markings - probably a large white circle - will help fans to check which compound a particular driver is running on at any given time. Given that the new rules insist on each driver using at least one set of each type of tyre compound in the race, it’s likely to be a crucial distinction. On Friday they will have just four sets of dry-weather tyres to play with.

Testing has confirmed that, by design, there is less grip available from Bridgestone’s stiffer-sidewalled Potenza brand in 2007, so we will see some drivers having to adapt their styles. “Before,” says new Renault test driver Ricardo Zonta, “we had a very good level of grip on the first lap, which meant that you could set a quick time straight away.

“That’s not the case any more; the grip is lower because the tyres are harder. At first I was over-driving and being too aggressive, but I quickly learned that you needed to be smoother with the steering to get the best from the tyres.” And as Renault used Michelins to achieve their back-to-back world titles in 2005-06, they need to learn how to extract Bridgestone’s best as soon as they possibly can.

Having to be easy on the car is good news for the likes of Honda’s Jenson Button, renowned as one of the smoothest stylists out there. Not such good news for some, like BMW’s Robert Kubica, who is well known for his aggressive turn-in style: “The Bridgestone tyre construction is quite different to what we had last year,” confirms the Pole. “You have to adapt your driving style. Now I drive more smoothly with less steering angle and it is okay.”

The consensus seems to be that cars which are easier on their rear tyres may have an edge, as rear tyre degradation has been one of the trends over the European winter, but Fridays will be all about how best to marry all-round chassis performance to the optimum contribution from the tyres themselves. Spinning at 3000 rpm at top speed, they function at temperatures between 90 and 110 Celsius, but there is usually only a contact patch the size of an adult’s hand in touch with the track surface.

We don’t know yet exactly how many teams will use a ‘Man Friday’ this year: the regular drivers are holding out for as much Friday running as they can get, especially now that each team is limited to a season’s maximum of 30,000 km in testing. The new rules also say only two cars per team may run on Friday, though any third nominated driver can share duties with the race duo.

If the ‘third men’ do get a look in, among those to watch out for out for will be Nelson Piquet Jr, son of the three-time world champion, who has come through the F3 and GP2 ranks to work in this key role with Renault.

“I think the nature of the job will be quite different this year,” says the 21-year-old Brazilian. “There is much less tyre development, and very little engine work either, and of course the testing restrictions might mean less running than in previous seasons: we can only do 30,000 km, and use a maximum of one car on track. Maybe that means we will do fewer miles than a test driver in previous years, but it will still be a fantastic learning experience.”

The really good news for Formula One fans is that we may get the chance to see car control at its finest again. “The tyres clearly provide less grip,” says BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld, “therefore everyone will be slower and sliding a lot more with them.”

For Formula One fans and drivers alike, Friday at Albert Park can’t come soon enough.