Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi has now been to three pre-season tests in 2011 and, with just one more to go before the opening race of the season in Australia at the end of the month, has been reflecting on what he has learnt so far, and his expectations for the coming season.
The Japanese driver has driven all types and compounds of the new Pirelli tyres so far – although the tracks so far haven’t really been damp enough for the full wet tyre – and has noticed some key differences between the new rubber and that supplied last season by Bridgestone.
“First of all I think Pirelli has done a good job within a short period of time,” says Kobayashi. “The outcome are tyres which are different in almost every aspect compared to what we have been used to. The grip level is lower, the tyres don't last as long, and once you overdrive them the drop is dramatic and can be five seconds per lap. But these characteristics didn't occur by accident and they will produce a lot pit stops and exciting races.”
With such differences, it would have been handy for the teams to do some testing in a hot conditions before the season gets underway. Unfortunately, due to the recent troubles in Bahrain, the test there was cancelled, as was the race. With air temperatures upwards of 25 degrees Celsius at Albert Park in March, all of the teams will be stepping into the unknown as the season gets underway.
“Higher track temperatures definitely make a huge difference,” Kobayashi confirms. “So, yes, we will have that lack of experience when arriving in Melbourne. But this is the same for everybody, and we have to prepare ourselves as well as possible by considering how we can react and deal with what happens.”
In addition to the new tyres, drivers this season have other changes to accommodate. Two major examples are KERS and the adjustable rear wings, both of which will be operated by the driver with extra buttons adding to the already busy steering wheels. There has been much talk about whether the drivers are being expected to do too much but Kobayashi thinks that mastering the new systems is an important part of being competitive in 2011.
“The most important question is how you can improve lap times with the new systems and by how much,” he explains. “I am working to get used to the new systems. It is a driver task and people who are using it well will have an advantage compared to those who are using it less efficiently.
“It is a matter of concentration, that is true. I can definitely manage that. Regarding all the talk – well, we are race drivers and complaining sometimes can be part of the business.”
But does he think that the systems will actually lead to more overtaking? “At the moment I guess so,” he answers. “Although I don't believe the KERS will help because almost everybody has it. So it is only the rear wing and I'm not sure if the idea for the races of the one second gap to the car in front will really work.”
With Kobayashi proving himself a proficient passer in the past, he may have less to gain from the introduction of these new features. Will his talent be worth less if everybody can just push a button (or two)? “Maybe yes, especially in case it turns out overtaking really becomes much easier for everyone. But this is nothing to worry about because it is part of the rules.”
Also new for the 24-year-old in 2011 is a new team-mate in Mexican rookie Sergio Perez, and Kobayashi finds himself as the most experienced driver in the team, despite having only 21 starts to his name.
“I have to use my experience as best I can, and also have to work on the car, which is most important,” he says. “Compared to a rookie, one season of experience is a lot. I know quite well how it is for Sergio, as it is not easy and he needs time. During testing there is time and this is good. The first race weekends will be tough. Practice is limited and very quickly you have to qualify and race. Every rookie has to deal with that.”
Before the season gets started down under, the team returns to Barcelona for a final four day test. As Kobayashi says, the C30 that we see at the Circuit de Catalunya will be similar to the one that will start the season in Melbourne.
“It will be our start of the season package and relates to almost all the aero components on the car,” he explains. “I'm very much looking forward to testing them. The final winter test is always something very special with every team's cars close to what they will be at the first race, and everyone trying to find out where everyone else stands. What we all estimate may still be wrong, but it is exciting!”