Red Bull continued their strong showing in Abu Dhabi even after Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber had left the Middle East to visit their colleagues in Salzburg and Milton Keynes.
Daniel Ricciardo, the runner-up of this year’s Formula Renault 3.5 series, was in the F1 title-winning RB6 for the young drivers’ test on Tuesday and Wednesday, topping the timesheets both days.
The team, like their rivals, took the opportunity to test some new parts for 2011 whilst their rookie driver got valuable experience behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car.
“It was cool to do this test and great to get so close to the big boys times from the weekend!” exclaimed Ricciardo after his two successful days in the cockpit. “It's very rare to get a perfect car, but I have to say this is very close. It's a pleasure to drive it, you brake and you turn and the car does everything as you imagine it would.
“I think I got most of my nerves out of the way before last year's test, so I was more relaxed this time, although you are always a little nervous getting into the car on day one. We did more long runs today (day two), which went well – it's been a great two days and it would be fantastic to get the chance to drive in Formula One full-time.”
There were some faces which will be slightly more familiar to F1 fans making an appearance over the two days. Jerome D’Ambrosio, who competed in Friday practice sessions towards the end of the season for Virgin Racing, was in attendance. On Tuesday he was in the familiar surrounding of the Virgin garage, but on Wednesday tested for Renault, and finished the day as the second fastest driver.
Gary Paffett, the regular McLaren test driver, was in the MP4-25 on the second day, but English GP2 driver Oliver Turvey drove for the Woking-based team on Tuesday, finishing the day second fastest. Another familiar face, Force India reserve driver Paul di Resta, who has featured throughout the season in Friday practices, drove on both days, finishing eighth and then seventh. The Scot was partnered by Antonio Felix di Costa on the Tuesday – who finished third in the standings, and Yelmer Buurman on the Wednesday, who finished tenth.
Antonio Felix di Costa was particularly delighted with his experience. The Portuguese driver claimed that Tuesday was “the happiest day of my life as a professional driver.
“I loved the car and the team, I felt very comfortable and welcome from the first minute and throughout the day all of this was reflected,” added the rookie champion of the F3 Euroseries. “The Force India team is fantastic, showing great ambition in a competition that includes very strong and well equipped teams. I hope this was just the first of many days in Formula 1. It was indeed a perfect and surely inforgettable day.”
GP2 driver Sam Bird drove for Mercedes on both test days. The man from Roehampton was third fastest on the Wednesday and hopes that he will have another chance to get behind the wheel of a silver arrow: “I have thoroughly enjoyed myself and I would like to thank everyone at [Mercedes] for making me feel so welcome, both here in Abu Dhabi and at the factory prior to the test, and for a memorable two days. I hope we will be able to work together again in the future.”
Ross Brawn obviously feels that Bird has prospects of a future in Formula 1, congratulating the rookie on both his temperament and his performance over the two days of testing.
“Sam has worked very well with his engineers and the team over the course of the two-day test, proving himself to be professional and disciplined in the car, with an excellent grasp of our procedures and our requirements from the test programme,” said the Mercedes team principal. “I have been very impressed with his performance and it has been a very useful two days for the team and Sam. I am sure that this experience, both working with the team and driving the car, will prove very useful for the development of Sam’s career.”
Ferrari chose French GP2 driver Jules Bianchi to drive for them in these test sessions, although fifth fastest on the Wednesday was his best result.
The test also provided F1 fans with the chance to look at some drivers that will be on the starting grid in Bahrain next March as the 2011 season. Sergio Perez will partner Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber next season and the Mexican was sixth fastest for his new team on Wednesday.
“I am very happy to have completed my first day of testing with my new team,” said the runner-up of this seasons’ GP2 series. “I think in the course of the day I got closer to the limit. I was very happy with the way we worked. Today I tested different parts of the car and in general I really learned a lot about all the procedures, which are quite different to what I'm used to from GP2. I'm very much looking forward to getting into the car again on Saturday afternoon!”
Williams are expected to announce GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado as their replacement for the outgoing Nico Hulkenberg before the end of the year, and had the Venezuelan in their car on Wednesday. Maldonado joined Hispania for testing duties on the previous day, finishing ahead of Bianchi in the Ferrari.
Speaking after his day in the FW32, Maldonado said that he is becoming more confident with driving an F1 car after a busy couple of days in Abu Dhabi. ï»¿“Today was another great experience,” he said. “We had to do a lot of slower speed aero set-up work today so I couldn't really push it, and I didn't get a run of the soft tyre either, but I'm pleased with the work I've done. I'm getting lots of track time this week, which is improving my confidence in the car.”
Formula 3 champion Jean-Eric Vergne was Toro Rosso‘s driver of choice for both days of the test. The French driver had to finish early on the Wednesday so he could head to practice for the end-of-season F3 race in Macau, but still managed to be ninth fastest, three tenths of a second off Maldonado’s best time.
“These have been two special days for me, having my first drive in a Formula 1 car,” said Vergne. “My first run yesterday is something I will remember, with the high speeds being particularly impressive, especially through the corners thanks to the amount of aero downforce you have.
“It took me a couple of runs to adapt to my new surroundings before we actually started working through a test programme aimed at next year's car. I was pleased that the first day also went well from my side in that I did not go off the track and there were no difficulties with my physical condition. I also got to do a long run which was an interesting experience, driving with such a heavy fuel load on board.
“It's been a very hectic but enjoyable time and now I head to Macau where I start free practice tomorrow morning.”
Other GP2 drivers were testing for the new teams over the two days including Bulgarian Vladimir Arabadzhiev (for Lotus), Venezuelan Rodolfo GonzÃ¡lez (also Lotus), Italian Davide Valsecchi (Hispania), Czech driver Josef KrÃ¡l (Hispania again), and Brazilian Luiz Razia (Virgin). GP3 driver Rio Hyranto also tested for Virgin Racing on the Tuesday, owing to their links with Hyranto’s Manor Racing team.
Mike Gascoyne, the Lotus Chief Technical Officer, said that his GP2 pairing had done all that was expected from them over the two days. “Firstly we would like to thank both Rodolfo and Vladimir for doing such a good job for us in their first time in a Formula One car,” he said. “Their input with the team has been exactly what we wanted and they have both done a fantastic job working exactly to the programme we set them. Most importantly neither driver made any mistakes and they both gave us very impressive feedback which is what we need from them in this type of test.”
Friday and Saturday sees the return of more established drivers – including newly crowned World Champion Sebastian Vettel – to Abu Dhabi for the Pirelli test.