The date circled on the calendar is February 27th. That's when the first winter test of 2017 begins at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya – which means we're now into the final month of preparation before the RB13 is unveiled to the world. These are exciting times in Milton Keynes.
Or perhaps exciting is the wrong word. Busy might be better. The modern approach to car design is to take things right up to the limit. 'Aggressively late' is the popular phrase, signing off the launch design at the last possible instant in a bid to not leave any lap time on the table. After that comes a furious manufacturing effort and build process in which the new car is fully assembled and fired up for the first time a few minutes before being shuffled into a transporter and sent off to Spain.
The race team aren't idle during this time: they're consulting on the design, learning the build process, assembling new garage kit and practicing pit stops like there's no tomorrow – but getting a driver in the car and the car onto the track is a milestone everyone looks forward to. A lot of work goes into making sure we can hit the ground running (because there isn't any time to waste) and, as far as operating the car goes, that's generally a smooth process but, just as there's a difference between fit and match-fit, so there's a difference between ready and race-ready. It's not just the car that gets a shakedown during testing.
It doesn't stop there either. Here are a few of the other things the crew has to prepare for.
It's not exactly tropical in MK at the moment but the race bays have the advantage of being inside. The last time the race team ran a car on track it was 40°C outside and the tarmac was melting. Barcelona won't be like that. There's a mistaken belief that teams test in Spain because it's warm. We don't. We test in Spain because there's less chance of it being wet. We might pack specialist heaters to keep the car up to temperature but for the human element it's time to dig out the beanies, fingerless gloves and thermal long-johns.
A SNAG LIST
It's no lie to say that F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport and one of the world's most technologically advanced industries. On the other hand, what we're building are prototypes, and, with the current F1 rules that massively restrict testing, the first winter test is also the first time these cars have run. In truth the cars are never perfect but they're even less perfect at the start of winter testing, and thus there's often the need for a practical quick fix, whether that's grinding off a millimetre of bodywork to make a panel fit or employing the more brutal services of a 4lb persuader. Suffice to say cable ties, tank tape and glue feature pretty prominently during testing.
Science* has proven three months sleeping in your own bed can induce a peculiar form of travel amnesia which causes the average race team member to forget he or she is a seasoned traveller who knows exactly what to pack. Thus, the first test of the season sees massive over-compensation, with everyone ramming twice as much kit into their luggage as they're going to need. By Australia that 15-piece set of travel adapters, the spare tablet and the neck pillow will be safely returned to gather dust in the back of the closet where they belong.
This one is more for the engineers and designers to contend with than the mechanics and garage techs. Over the last three months the new car has been largely an intellectual exercise where good and bad are represented by numerical values. That changes with a driver in the car and real rubber on actual asphalt. A driver's backside strapped into the seat is a better judge of performance than any simulation programme – it just isn't quite so easy to interrogate.
We've focussed on ourselves for three months. In theory testing should be more of the same – but everyone's curious about what the opposition are doing. With a big shift in aerodynamic regulations it's fascinating to see what everyone's done – even if everyone's done the same thing. It's a bit of a shock remembering it isn't all about you.
*not real science obviously.