Jason Barlow10 February 2012

TopGear.com in the pits at Jerez

Jason Barlow reports back from the first week of F1 testing, with Kimi on good form …

Kimi in Jerez

There’s nothing quite like being in the team garage when an all-new F1 car is fired up for the first time, particularly if said car has the returning Kimi Raikkonen at the wheel.

‘Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting,’ Steve McQueen once said. That could just as easily be Kimi’s mantra, possibly uttered after a refreshing vodka at the end of a long day.

As anyone in the pit-lane will confirm, he’s an almost impossible person to coax a decent quote out of, and prefers to express himself where it really counts: on the track. Fair enough, really. Watching him from the pitwall it’s immediately clear he’s on it, and really wants it again, after seemingly falling out of love with F1 and its attendant pressures and distractions.

Gallery: Lotus F1 testing at Jerez

Kimi’s commitment at this first test bodes very well for the 2012 season. To be honest, even if he’d been mental enough to sign for HRT, topgear.com would have cheered him on. But after dallying with the Williams squad, he did a last-minute deal with the Lotus F1 team – formerly Lotus-Renault and Renault before that – and by the end of the third day of testing at Jerez, it looks like he might have backed the right horse: Kimi was fastest at the end of day one in the Lotus E20, while team-mate Romain Grosjean, current GP2 champion and picking up where he prematurely left off with the team after an unhappy 2009 season, was fastest in the 2012-spec cars on Thursday on a 1.18.4.

Yes, yes, we know that pre-season testing is notoriously inconclusive and we won’t know for sure how things are really to going to be until that first Saturday afternoon in Melbourne. But I reckon these two will be top six, and in the hunt for a podium in the race… After that, well, it’s anyone’s guess, but with rumours of a trick new front wing from Mercedes – whose new car will be unveiled in Barcelona in a few weeks – and blown diffusers banned, there’s the promise of a reshuffled pack. That said, both Red Bull drivers have looked ominously competitive this week.

But back to Kimi, and that elusive quote. I did manage to tease something out of him. ‘Formula One is the highest form of racing in the world, and has the fastest cars, the most downforce, the biggest g-forces,’ he told me on Monday. ‘It takes a bit of time getting used to being back in an F1 car, but it’s normal for me, so it’s difficult to explain. I immediately got a good feeling from the car – which hasn’t always been the case in my Formula One career – so that’s a good starting point.’

Grosjean, who is enjoying that rare thing in F1 – a second chance – is easier company. ‘F1 cars are just such fantastic things to drive, you want to spend as much time as possible in them,’ he says. ‘It’s genuinely difficult to explain the sensations of driving one to somebody who has never experienced it, but all I can say is that it’s like having a little fire inside your body, and when the engine starts the flames get bigger…’

Hmm, fire. An interesting analogy for F1, but we get the picture. Don’t bet against the Frenchman keeping Kimi properly honest this year, either.

Jenson Button looked happy enough after his first installation laps on Monday. McLaren has shunned the boxer’s broken nose that the rest of the cars on the grid will have, prompting a typically relaxed response from JB on what is the best looking car by a country mile. ‘You know McLaren, we’ve got to have a pretty car…’ he tells me with a smile, before adding, ‘I don’t know, we’ve either got the jump on everyone else or we’ve messed up. It looks much better than Ferrari’s Lego car, that’s for sure. It feels pretty good so far. Let’s put it this way, I’m not thinking, ‘oh s**t, we’ve got to fix that, we need to work on that.’ It feels good.’

Obviously, there’s a long, long way to go. Two further tests are due to take place in Barcelona, between 21st and 24th February, and 1st and 4th March, before the Australian GP weekend kicks off on 16th March. We are officially very excited.

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