Williams test driver Nico Hulkenberg battles the weather in the new FW31 car
The first multi-team Formula One test of 2009, under way at the Algarve Motor Park, is proving to be testing in every sense of the word.
By Sarah Holt
At the Algarve Motor Park, Portugal
With just over two months to go before the season starts in Melbourne, McLaren, Renault, Toyota, Toro Rosso and Williams arrived in Portugal intent on getting to grips with huge rule changes governing several major parts of the cars.
Instead, they were given a lengthy lesson in driving in the wet.
On Monday the teams were met with lashing rain and by Tuesday this had turned to hail (though only on Turns 1-16, according to the official timing system).
The grim weather had already seen off Ferrari, who took the forecast so seriously last weekend they decided to relocate to their regular test circuit in Maranello, away from the prying eyes of their rivals.
The Ferrari has a few illegal features
Toyota technical director
That left five teams to clock up a series of times which were rendered almost completely meaningless by the adverse conditions.
Testing rarely gives outside observers any clues to a car's true performance but the wet weather in Portugal meant gathering any sense of relative pace was difficult even for the teams.
Renault's technical director Bob Bell, whose new car was unveiled on Monday, was at least able to muster some wry humour out of the situation.
"I was absolutely thrilled to bits with the car," he said. "It turns corners, it accelerates, it changes gear, that's most of it isn't it?"
Nelson Piquet Jr, who was charged with driving the R29, struggled to offer further insight.
"It's very difficult to feel anything because the track is so slippery, there is a lot of oil - and obviously it's raining," he said.
Italy's Jarno Trulli is feeling good in Toyota's TF109 car
The fact that rookie Sebastien Buemi drove last season's Toro Rosso to the top of the timesheets on the first two days only confused the issue further.
The inconclusive sessions at the Algarve's undulating circuit served to underline the consensus that F1 is entering unknown territory in 2009.
At the top of the list of nagging uncertainties among the rival teams is the optional introduction of kinetic energy recovery systems (Kers).
This novelty harnesses energy that would have been lost during braking and allows the driver to reapply it during acceleration.
It is feared any potential benefits from the extra boost of 80bhp for up to six seconds each lap will initially be negated by the system's weight (on average 35kg) and its knock-on effect on balance, weight distribution and reliability, not to mention the cost and anxiety over its safety.
Of the five teams running in Portugal, only Toyota installed Kers over the first two days - although even the company whose Prius car leads the road-car market place in "hybrid" cars employing similar systems cannot guarantee they will run it in the season opener in Australia on 29 March.
"It's OK to have a system that works," explained Toyota's technical director Pascal Vasselon. "But first we have to be certain that there is a performance gain."
Winter testing is more crucial now than in any other season before
Williams, Ferrari and BMW Sauber are also doubtful about starting the season with Kers in place, while McLaren could only confirm the system was not causing them any problems.
Only Renault said it definitely intends to use Kers in Australia - despite team boss Flavio Briatore branding it "terrible".
The rule changes introduce a number of novelties that have never been used in F1 before - notably a front wing that a driver can adjust a limited number of times a lap in an attempt to make overtaking easier.
The pressure to trial that, Kers, and slick tyres - which are back after 11 years on grooved rubber - is being cranked up by the ban on in-season testing.
Germany's Nico Rosberg gives the Williams car FW31 a run
Once the teams have rolled out of the Algarve, they have just four tests left to run new developments on the track.
Once the season starts, testing upgrades will have to be squeezed into Friday practice sessions at races.
"Winter testing is more crucial now than in any other season before," warned Toyota driver Jarno Trulli, who completed just 30 laps in Tuesday's rain-hit session.
"We have to get it right straight away."
Renault's double world champion Fernando Alonso agreed: "If you don't have everything under control in the final test of winter there is no time left.
"[For example,] if Kers is still not working in the last test it's better if you remove Kers and race without it."
There is speculation, however, that some teams are already lagging behind.
McLaren, who plan to unveil a massive upgrade package next month, are already perceived to be nosing ahead of rivals Ferrari, who still have work to do on the new F60.
"The Ferrari has a few illegal features, like the (exposed) exhaust pipe," commented Vasselon provocatively. "We expect that to change as it is outside the regulations.
"We are expecting to see lots of major changes in the next few weeks. If you look at the different cars, some of them look quite agricultural."
A shrinking timeframe in which to get the cars up to speed with next season's specification is also sparking debate on just how competitive the 2009 season will be.
"I really think it will take five or six races to see where everyone is," predicted Williams technical director Sam Michael.
"When it's sorted Kers will be quite powerful along with the active front-wing flap and by mid-season those two things should have the most effect."
But Toyota president John Howett warned: "The one question we are all concerned about is whether the field will be strung out.
"Historically when there has been a massive regulation change in F1, there has tended to be a bigger dispersion of performance between cars."
As darkness put an end to drawing comparisons on a damp, second day in the Algarve, more than one voice was heard condemning the exercise as "a complete waste of time".
With just 18 days left to hone their challenges before the start of the season, these are testing times indeed for F1's teams.