Barcelona preview - final test kick starts Melbourne countdown 01 Mar 2012
In a little over two weeks time everyone will be assembled on the Melbourne grid readying themselves for the start of the Australian Grand Prix. But before raising the curtain on the 2012 championship, teams have one last chance to evaluate new upgrades, push forward their development programmes and improve their cars at this weeks final pre-season test, which starts on Thursday.
With most teams having already completed two tests with their new cars, this weeks session in Barcelona should provide the clearest indication yet of everyones relative pace ahead of the season opener.
Although Red Bull seem intent on being as understated as possible (they have topped the timesheets on just one day this year), pundits are pretty much agreed that their championship-winning juggernaut has not come to a shuddering halt with the RB8. In fact, they are unanimous in praise for Adrian Neweys latest creation. Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel will alternate in the car, which is widely expected to feature a bundle of updates, with Webber opening the action on Thursday.
At McLaren, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton will also share driving days. Both Britons are quietly confident (and no doubt secretly relieved) of the MP4-27s merits. And most onlookers suspect that the British team will be Red Bulls closest rivals come Australia.
Ferrari, who hope to be in the mix with their habitual rivals sooner rather than later, will continue to plug away at finding pace in their radical F2012. Shrugging off their slow start, the Italian team have been huddled in their Maranello factory over the last week eeking out a greater understanding of their complex car and are optimistic they can translate those efforts into improved on-track performance. Felipe Massa will be in action on Thursday and Saturday, with Fernando Alonso in the cockpit on Friday and Sunday.
Mercedes, who chose to relinquish an early launch of their new car in favour of more factory-based design time, will tackle their second test with the F1 W03 this week. There have been more than a few rumours that the car features a clever rear diffuser, so expect the paddock to keep a close eye on its progress. Nico Rosberg will be in action Thursday and Saturday, Michael Schumacher on Friday and Sunday.
Also hoping to accrue a lot of mileage at the Circuit de Catalunya are Lotus, who missed out on most of last week's session at the track after a chassis fault forced them to abandon their programme and return to base. With the problem now fixed the team will be chomping at the bit to stretch the E20s legs, so busy days beckon for drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.
Lotuss preparations may have taken a hit, but those of midfield rivals Force India have been enviably smooth, with Nico Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta both in optimistic mood about their quick and reliable new charge. Toro Rosso and Sauber can also take solace in how well their equally young driver line-ups are handling the pressure of pre-season testing. Both teams cars looked to have improved from Jerez to Barcelona and theyll be hoping to stay on that upward curve this week.
Williams have already completed an epic amount of mileage and the target for this weeks test will be finding more speed in the FW34. It's a similar story at Caterham, who will field Heikki Kovalainen and new signing Vitaly Petrov over the four days.
After admitting their still-to-be-seen new car had failed its 18th (and final) crash test, Marussia will not be in attendance in Barcelona, but rival backmarkers HRT do hope to at least make the final day with Narain Karthikeyan and - fingers crossed - the Spanish team's new F112 car
Check back over the next four days for the latest news and images from Barcelona.
This weeks driver line-up - subject to change (Thurs, Fri, Sat, Sun):
Red Bull - Webber, Vettel, Webber, Vettel
McLaren - Button, Hamilton, Button, Hamilton
Ferrari - Massa, Alonso, Massa, Alonso
Mercedes - Rosberg, Schumacher, Rosberg, Schumacher
Lotus - Grosjean, Grosjean, Raikkonen, Raikkonen
Force India - Di Resta, Hulkenberg, Di Resta, Hulkenberg
Sauber - Perez, Kobayashi, Perez, Kobayashi
Toro Rosso - Vergne, Vergne, Ricciardo, Ricciardo
Williams - Maldonado, Maldonado/Senna, Senna, Senna/Maldonado
Caterham - Petrov, Kovalainen, Kovalainen, Petrov
HRT - n/a, n/a, n/a, Karthikeyan
Marussia - not attending
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