Jenson Button’s future as a Formula One driver got its biggest boost since the Honda crisis broke today as he took to the track in a newly-branded Brawn GP car and topped the standings for the morning session.
Today’s test saw 10 Formula One teams line up on track at the same time for the first time since the season decider at Interlagos in November.
The session, held at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona on a cool but sunny day, saw Button’s triumphant return to the track in his new car – even though it was whispered that maybe the white, black and lime-green-trimmed machine was running on fumes for effect.
And that wasn’t the only talking point. Scuderia Toro Rosso unveiled its new car, the STR4, before sending it on its first track outing.
Top of the standings was BMW’s Nick Heidfeld, kicking off the team’s final week of testing before the season starts, and putting in an unofficial fastest lap of 1:20.339.
Close behind him was Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, also starting off his team’s last testing session, on 1:20.908 – a time that continued a consistently fast performance demonstrated throughout the Jerez test.
In third place was Toyota’s Jarno Trulli on 1:20.937 while Button finally took the fourth spot on the timesheet with a fastest lap of 1:21.140 – roughly eight-tenths of a second behind the leader Heidfeld.
He said: “We have enjoyed a positive opening day of running at our first test and achieved a total of 82 laps, which we are all very pleased with.
“We did experience a problem with the gearbox late in the day but we knew we might face some reliability issues in view of our lack of testing. Fortunately, it’s a minor problem that is easily addressed.
“It’s early days yet but generally it has been a positive start to our pre-season preparations.”
The team also spoke of the “encouraging reliability” of the new car and said its testing programme had been carefully planned to make the most of limited time between now and the first race.
Next in line was Nelson A Piquet, wringing a better performance out of his Renault R60 than he managed in Jerez, with a best lap of 1:21.662.
Sebastien Bourdais, in the new Toro Rosso, must have been nearly as relieved as Jenson Button to get his hands on his new car and he celebrated with a fastest time of 1:22.158, beating Mark Webber’s time in the Red Bull RB5 by a few hundredths of a second.
In eighth and ninth places were Adrian Sutil’s Force India on 1:22.452 and Kazuki Nakajima’s Williams on 1:22.813.
However the final talking point of the day was the poor performance of Heikki Kovalainen’s McLaren which recorded the slowest time on the field and set tongues wagging.
The spectacle of a McLaren running some 2.5 seconds slower than the leading runner was not what most F1 fans expected – and explanations for it have ranged from the team failing to come to terms with the 2009 regulations, deliberately ‘sandbagging’ or – most intriguing of all – devising a programme that seeks to overcome the in-season testing ban by running parts needed for races months ahead.
McLaren chairman Ron Dennis has said that he is ‘certain’ McLaren will be a title contender in 2009 and the team highlighted the unusual move of fitting a new floor and aero package to the car during the afternoon session.
It said of the test: “The morning session was spent focusing on longer runs using an existing bodywork package in order to establish an accurate baseline ahead of the evaluation of new parts in the afternoon.
“During the lunchbreak, MP4-24 was fitted with a new front wing, floor and top body and the programme continued – on identical fuel-loads – throughout the afternoon.
“The team now turns its focus towards tuning the set-up in order to fully exploit the characteristics of the new aero kit.”
Day one test times:
- Nick Heidfeld, BMW Sauber: 1:20.339 (92 laps)
- Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari: 1:20.908 (80 laps)
- Jarno Trulli, Toyota: 1:20.937 (118 laps)
- Jenson Button, Brawn GP: 1:21.140 (82 laps)
- Nelson A Piquet, Renault: 1:21.662 (124)
- Sebastien Bourdais, Toro Rosso: 1:22.158 (96 laps)
- Mark Webber, Red Bull: 1:22.246 (115 laps)
- Adrian Sutil, Force India: 1:22.452 (127 laps)
- Kazuki Nakajima, Williams: 1:22.813 (111 laps)
- Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren: 1:22.948 (87 laps)