McLaren on Friday admitted it is now “worried” about the pace of the new MP4-28 car.
Jenson Button was just ninth in opening practice in Melbourne, before lagging more than two seconds off the pace in the second ninety minute session. Team newcomer Sergio Perez was consistently even slower.
“I think we should be worried about the pace,” team boss Martin Whitmarsh told British broadcaster Sky. “It is a tough day in the office for everyone at the moment, we are lacking grip and there is a lot of head scratching at the moment,” he said.
While most top teams – notably continuing pacesetters Red Bull – simply evolved their 2012 cars for the final season of V8 regulations, McLaren unveiled a radical new car for this year, including novel pull-rod front suspension.
“I think we are still learning and there is a lot we still need to learn about this car,” Whitmarsh added, “but we have struggled frankly to quite understand how it is performing.”
Sporting director Sam Michael likened McLaren’s new struggles to Ferrari’s of early last year, when Fernando Alonso would ultimately go on to challenge for the title.
“By the fourth or fifth race they were there,” he said.
Lewis Hamilton has admitted he decided to leave McLaren at the end of last year because “something didn’t feel right”.
The 2008 world champion had been groomed by the Woking based team for F1 stardom from his McLaren-sponsored days in karting, but 2012 was his sixth consecutive season on the grid with the same outfit. Last year, he finished just fourth in the drivers’ standings, despite having what many believed was the very best car in the field at season’s end.
“I was thankful that I had a car in which I was able to compete with Sebastian (Vettel) and co,” he said in an interview with Germany’s Sport Bild. “But maybe I had just been with McLaren for too long.
“Anyway, I realised that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life there. At Mercedes, everything is new, also the challenge — which is huge. And I’m fine with that. I just needed a change of scenery.”
Specialist publications are reporting a secret of the apparent speed of Mercedes’ new W04 car — a system known in the German squad’s garage as ‘Fric’.
German television RTL is saying it probably stands for ‘front and rear interactive control’, or in other words a type of legal active suspension.
Electronically-active suspension is not allowed, but an hydraulically-controlled layout could be a key to Mercedes’ unmatched pace in the twisty middle sector at the final Barcelona test recently.
Auto Motor und Sport said the Brackley based team has been “tinkering with the system for three years”. The report said Sauber is also now working on a version.
Romain Grosjean has admitted the 2012 season took its toll.
Banned in Monza and written off as F1’s ‘first lap nutcase’ by Mark Webber, Grosjean admits he was relieved at the end of December, when Lotus decided he should be given another chance for 2013. With a 2013 seat secured, Frenchman Grosjean went on holiday.
“I think it was good to have a break, it did me good,” he told RMC Sport. “I was much more tired than I thought. It’s about realising just how much fatigue has accumulated, and knowing really what a full season of formula one is about, and that it is not so simple,” added Grosjean.
F1 teams will make do with a normal test programme early next year, despite the introduction of radical new engine regulations.
Some of the engine suppliers reportedly want either an earlier or an extended winter test period ahead of the 2014 season, as F1 switches from V8 to turbo V6 engines.
But the FIA’s Charlie Whiting is quoted in Melbourne by Russia’s f1news.ru: “We have been talking with the teams, and they do not want to increase the number of test days.”
Meanwhile, the German-language Spox quotes Briton Whiting as saying he is not expecting the outbreak of any new technical controversies, in the wake of the Renault engine mapping and Williams exhaust stories.
But “In the course of a year, you never know what is going to happen,” he smiled.
Robert Kubica is not willing to give up on a future return to Formula One, despite acknowledging he will not be ready for a comeback for some time.
The Pole, whose right arm was almost severed in an early 2011 rallying crash, is returning to full-time action this year with a programme in the second-tier world rally championship.
But he said he would “give everything” to be able to return to his first love; circuit racing.
Kubica, 28, told the Associated Press there are “tiny lights in the tunnel suggesting that – not in a year or two – but I will be able to race in F1 at a good pace”.
Pastor Maldonado has admitted he cannot be certain his F1 career will continue long after the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Sponsoring Williams via the state-controlled PDVSA oil company, Chavez died of cancer last week and Maldonado rushed back to his native country before Australia for his funeral.
Asked if the death will affect his career, Maldonado admitted in Melbourne: “Politically, I don’t know.
“I think many of you in the media have said everything is gone for me, but here I am. We’ll see.”
The 28-year-old backed Chavez’s controversial approach to ploughing state money into sports, Maldonado noting that, previously, “people only knew Venezuela for the oil and the girls”.
“I think it changed a lot with Chavez and now it can be worse. We’ve started and now we need to carry on.”
Meanwhile, technical boss Mike Coughlan is leading the Williams team in Melbourne, with team boss Frank Williams and his daughter Claire back in the UK in the wake of the death of wife and mother Ginny.
“We obviously have to move on, but I hope we do well this weekend in Ginny’s memory,” said Coughlan.
Kimi Raikkonen has hit back at claims only money motivates him to keep racing in F1.
After a two-year hiatus in world rallying in the wake of his Ferrari career, the phlegmatic Finn returned to the grid with Lotus last year, winning in Abu Dhabi and finishing a surprise third in the world championship.
He also made a lot of money, raking in millions after agreeing a modest retainer with lucrative bonuses for the swathe of points he ultimately scored.
“I’ve been paid well for my work,” Raikkonen is quoted as saying by Finland’s Turun Sanomat. “It has sometimes been a lot, sometimes not so much, but if money was the only motivation, I would not be in Formula One.
“Although it has become safer, there are also high risks.”
Lewis Hamilton has revved up his rivalry with former teammate Jenson Button by saying the idea of beating his countryman “doesn’t excite me”.
The Britons were paired together at McLaren between 2010 and last season, but Hamilton has switched camps over the winter to Mercedes.
Button seems happy with what most pundits are describing as ‘de-facto’ number 1 status alongside team newcomer and youngster Sergio Perez.
“It’s unbelievably different,” he beamed, according to the Guardian.
“I’m really loving my job at the moment.”
But over at Mercedes, Hamilton shrugged at the suggestion beating Button at the wheel of a different silver car is an exciting prospect.
“The rivalry between me and Fernando (Alonso) excites me more,” he is quoted by the Daily Mail.
“You also want to beat Seb(astian Vettel), as they are the ones with the most titles. But Alonso’s the fastest driver I can see.”
Whether Hamilton has the most respect for him or not, 33-year-old Button is happy with his lot, insisting he won’t be following Hamilton in the chase for a fresh challenge.
“I feel very at home. I feel like I’d like to end my career here,” he said.
Michael Schumacher has ruled out returning to the formula one paddock as a television pundit.
It is an occupation now enjoyed by a number of the seven time world champion’s rivals, like former teammates Martin Brundle and Johnny Herbert, and even his title nemesis Damon Hill.
But, although now returning to retirement after three final years with Mercedes, Schumacher is not coming back to occupy a microphone.
“That would not be my thing,” he told Bild newspaper. “First, things move so fast in formula one that even I am already a long way behind, and that is not my style,” said the 44-year-old legend.
“Secondly, once again I would be away from my family, and not even having the fun of driving.”
So, asked what he will be doing when the cars line up on the Melbourne grid without him next weekend, Schumacher answered: “At home, watching TV.”