Driving in Desert Rain
It's midnight, I'm walking back to my hotel from the Yas Marina circuit, and I feel drops of rain. I'm guessing that's pretty rare out here in what's basically the desert. And more than a little ironic because Pirelli have just spent the whole evening sending trucks round the track pouring 95,000 litres of water on the racing line.
Pirelli came out here, to Abu Dhabi, to test their wet weather tyres in temperatures more akin to those they'll find at Asian rounds and during the European summer than they'll currently find in, say, Valencia, where the F1 teams will get their first taste of the final Pirelli product ten days from now (February 1st).
But, more interestingly for the casual observer, this is the first time an F1 car has been driven in the wet at night.
Pedro de la Rosa has that privilege. Having got the boot from Sauber midway through last year, he's taken up office in the Toyota TF109, the last car to bare the Japanese manufacturer's name in the sport.
Rain is a real possibility in Singapore - a tropical climate and a grand prix held at night. Abu Dhabi too, I have now learned, is susceptible to a little precipitation now and then, and its race ends after the sun has gone down.
When Singapore first appeared on the calendar, many drivers voiced their concerns about the threat of rain. Combined with the powerful floodlights, there was a fear that 'lens flare' might obscure the driver's vision.
This week's test featured just one car, so it's still unknown how poor visibility would be when following in the spray of another driver. However, Pedro told me the conditions could be extremely hazardous.
"It was okay when you're running alone," said the Spaniard. "I'm sure when we're running with lots of cars the visibility would be reduced because of the spray. I looked in the mirrors and could hardly see anything - just a mass of white spray. Definitely, if we have a wet weather situation in Singapore it will be a lot more difficult for the drivers than a usual wet race... and it's never easy.
"With the floodlights reflecting off the surface it was very difficult to judge the depth of puddles. But this wasn't a big issue. The big issue will be when you're behind another car. You'll be completely blind. The spray coming from my own front tyres today was bad enough."
The dramatic sight of an F1 car piercing the darkness, its wake floodlit like an atomic cloud, wasn't lost on Pirelli's jovial motorsport director, Paul Hembery who described it as "an amazing sight that we will all remember for a very long time.
"This has been not only the first night test in the wet but also the first F1 wet test ever in the middle east. I can't imagine anyone else being mad enough to try it!
"Having the floodlights here was essential. You can go to hot tracks, but when you put the water down, the sun during the day will dry it up. The surface here has stayed constantly wet, and when you're wet weather testing that's very important in order to replicate trials with different products."
Having spent last weekend testing dry weather prototypes, to whittle the compounds down to the four the teams will use this season - super-soft, soft, medium and hard - Pirelli spent Monday on wets and Tuesday testing their intermediate tyre. That called for half the water on the track as they tried to simulate that knife's edge where drivers would want to make the switch from full wets to inters.
"It's a difficult point to find," agreed Hembery, a Brit who speaks fluent Italian which he learned on the job. "Yesterday, Pedro found that when the track began drying out, certain parts were bone dry and other parts were like a lake. He was driving like a rally driver, on opposite lock in a lot of corners."
Each day the tyre team tested 12 different variants, repeating their base compound between runs to note if there had been any characteristic changes in the track surface.
The Pirellis are likely to have a higher wear rate that last year's Bridgestone rubber, which will call for at least two-stop strategies rather than one-stoppers, thus promising to shake up races and add to the strategic challenge. Hembery says an important part of Pirelli's mission is to "assist the show, and give all our stakeholders what they want".
The tyres are being manufactured in Turkey, from where they will be flown direct to Bahrain for the first race. But for European rounds, the tyres will be driven from Didcot in Oxfordshire, Pirelli's F1 logistics and technical support centre.
The biggest challenge has been time. "It was June when we were told we had the job," confirms Hembery (who worked at Michelin in Clermont-Ferrand in the late 80s before making the switch to Pirelli "because Michelin asked me to move back to Stoke-on-Trent").
"We've been testing since August and to come up with six different compounds in that time has been a huge challenge. The reality is that you're going to 20 different circuits, 20 different conditions, 20 different surfaces, temperature ranges that are different. And then you start working with 12 different chassis, there's potentially a lot of complication. The challenge is not a small one."
But the good news is that Pirelli will win the first race, I reassure him. In fact they'll win every race, and the world championship. That must take the pressure off!
"Our last Pirelli F1 champion was in 1957. It was Fangio in a Maserati," he confirms. "Yes, after nine months of hard work we'll enjoy joining in the celebrations in Bahrain and at the end of the year we'll know the identity of the next Pirelli world champion."