No sooner than the f1 world was rocked by the news BMW intended to leave F1 at the end of the season, further news came crashing in, as it was revealed that Felipe Massa would be replaced by Michael Schumacher as he recovered from his horrific incident at the Hungaroring.
Putting all feelings, aside on the matter, which have polarised large chunks of the F1 fanbase, the return of the former world champion raised a number of issues. Not least how he will prepare for the next race with the current testing ban in place.
All the F1 teams do have a reserve driver as a contingency if one of their drivers is ill or unable to compete, with the ban on testing though and restrictions on having a 3rd car available for Friday running, these drivers are a last resort and their experience of an up to date car will be limited to a simulator
These are often highly sophisticated pieces of kit, which attempt to replicate the race cars as best they can. However the reduction in testing this season has forced teams to adapt their cars on the fly with far less data than they would like. Not only does this make the job of driving them harder, but I would imagine the subtle changes in characteristics makes modelling for a nightmare. Not to mention the key issue of how the car handles on its tyres has been far from consistent this year, simulating this would again be tricky.
With this lack of preparation, it is understandable that people were concerned when Torro Rosso announced their intentions to replace Sebastian Bourdais with a youngster who had never sat in a GP2 car, let alone driven a current F1 car around in anger. Jaime Alguersuari’s as allowed to do some limited preparation running straight line tests before the race weekend, but it was not until his sighting lap on Friday morning that he was able to get a genuine feel for the car on a circuit.
Questions have been raised about the safety of these restrictions; it is certainly less than ideal to have drivers with next to no experience of a 2009 f1 car sharing a track with guys pushing to the absolute limit in order to win the world championship. Hopefully this will be taken into account in future, and we can see the return of some testing, perhaps less than the endless lapping of Barcelona we saw in the past, but if they had one test day a month, or so, then it could be done collectively, and broadcast which would no doubt make the sponsors happy.
In any case these are the regulations we have now, so it would seem logical that the arrival of Schumacher at the next race would be preceded by the same sort of preparation as Jamie had.
However Ferrari’s resources are far greater, and despite the fact that F1 is supposed to be in the midst of a 2 week factory shutdown, Schumacher has been able to run over 70 laps in a 2 year old f1 car around Ferrari’s own test track. This is within the legal letter of the law as whilst the F! facility was closed, Ferrari have the benefit of running Schumacher’s testing though their F1 Cliente programme, which offers wealthy clients the chance to use a selection of 200 former Ferrari racing cars
I cant see how any other team would have gotten away with running such testing, although they technically may not have broken the rules, they do seem to have broken the spirit of them. It was a terrible accident that Felipe went though, and I am sure virtually everyone watching has some sympathy for the team. Unlike Torro Rosso they are not replacing their driver by choice; however it is important F1 has a stable set of rules, and that they are universally applied.
If running testing, even of an old car when your factory is supposed to be shut down is questionable, than Ferrari’s subsequent request to allow Schumacher the chance to do a limited test was pushing it. To do this they would need to approach the FIA with unanimous consent from all the teams. Some FOTA members were amenable to this idea, with goodwill from Massa’s accident as well as the teams trying to keep the unity the organisation needs to survive
This plan however did not get off the ground, firstly blocked by suspended FOTA member Williams who didn’t see any reason to break the regulations, and also by the red bull teams, who presumably didn’t want to an extend a luxury their new driver did not have to a rival team. The fact that they also asked for permission to test him and were denied by the other teams is interesting. Did Ferrari make a big noise about the request hoping the publicity would barge it though, or perhaps they knew it wouldn’t be granted but thought they had nothing to loose by asking.
In any case this summer has thrown up a number of driver changes, as Nelson Piquet’s empty seat driver continues a summer of changes on the grid. Perhaps this will highlight the need for the teams to look again at the testing ban. It will be interesting to see if the 3 new teams entering F1 next year are allowed to test whilst this season is still progressing. With news that Ferrari were testing parts for their 2010 car a the Nubergring, and a certain amount of carry over due to stability in the technical regulations, it is hard to see how the new teams wont be at a disadvantage if they cant run at least a few tests ahead of when the current teams return to testing.