Your comprehensive guide to F1’s preseason testing

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MONTMELO, Spain — The first race of the new F1 season is still over three weeks away, but on-track action officially gets underway on Feb. 23 at the opening pre-season test in Spain. It will be the first chance to see all 10 teams on track together and the first time the cars have run away from private filming days.

In recent years, F1 testing has generated huge excitement among fans wanting to see their favourite drivers back on track ahead of the new season, but the timesheets at the end of the day can be misleading and confusing. Below is a guide to what testing is all about and how much you should be reading into the headline grabbing lap times from the upcoming track action.

When and where are the tests?

There are two three-day preseason tests this year. The opening test at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya has been branded as a “shakedown” by F1 and the second test in Bahrain is the “official” pre-season test.

Only the Bahrain test will be televised (although that will depend where in the world you are watching) and it is rumoured the desert kingdom has paid extra to host the only “official preseason test” this year. But its best to ignore the marketing spin as both tests are essentially the same thing, with all 10 teams on track over three days with the aim of getting a better understanding of their new cars.

First test — Barcelona, Spain — Feb. 23-25

Second test — Sakhir, Bahrain — March 10-12

Why does F1 go testing?

They may looks meticulously designed, and they are, but F1 cars are still 200 mph science experiments. While a great deal of work has gone into the theory of making a new car go fast, there’s still the potential that the wheels come off (both figuratively and literally, as Fernando Alonso found out in his McLaren in 2018) when the car leaves the garage for the first time. As a result, a new F1 car has to be debugged before it can be driven in anger, and the opening morning of the preseason is often spent running system checks to make sure everything is operating as it should. In race spec, an F1 car carries over 300 sensors to ensure tolerances are not breached, but in testing that number is significantly higher to gain extra data that can then be compared with the simulations each team’s engineers have been running in the factory for the past year.

If the simulations match up with the reality on track, a team is already several steps closer to extracting the true potential of the car. If something different comes back, then teams may have to alter or even redesign some components to ensure reliability and performance. Sensors are sometimes too small to spot, but when it comes to understanding a car’s aerodynamics they are of10impossible to miss. Big metal fences (known as rakes) are attached to the cars behind sensitive areas of airflow to measure pressures and understand what is happening to the flow structures around the car. The rakes are made up of a series of ‘pitot tubes’ and, again, their readings are compared with the work the teams have been conducting over the winter in the wind tunnel and with CFD.

Feedback from the driver is also key. Simple things such as the seating position of 10 need to be adjusted, and long days in the cockpit are the best way to find out what’s comfortable and what’s not. Steering feedback and brake feel are also early boxes to tick, although it can take over half a season before a driver is truly happy with the finer details.

Once it’s been established that the fundamentals of the car are operating as they should, teams turn their attention to setup and extracting performance. Getting the right car setup is crucial to unlocking its performance and knowing how a car will react to certain setup changes is essential to unlocking that performance on different circuits and in different conditions.

Engineers will spend large parts of testing working through different setup combinations to find out what works and what doesn’t across different fuel loads and tyre compounds. Gaining as much knowledge as possible at this stage of the year can pay dividends later on in the heat of competition.

Then comes pure performance. Don’t be surprised if some drivers don’t bother with qualifying style laps in the first week of testing or if some smaller teams appear further up the order than expected. Having said that, at some point before the first race teams will aim to get a feeling for the true performance of the car relative to its rivals. Trying to read into the times from the outside can be a fool’s errand, but piecing together the clues of who’s quick and who’s slow is all part fun of testing, and by the end of the second test we should had a rough picture of who looks competitive and who is struggling.

Although they might not admit it, teams are all interested in the performance of their rivals but the main focus is on being as well prepared as possible for the first race. A reliable car that responds well to set-up changes is the aim by the final day of preseason, along with reams of data that can help inform the next steps in the development of the car.

What’s new in 2022?

It’s probably easier to list what hasn’t changed this season. A complete overhaul of the technical regulations means the cars are genuinely new designs rather than evolutions of the previous year’s car. At its launch last week, Mercedes admitted that the steering wheel was the only component carried over from last year’s constructors’ championship-winning car.

The primary objective of the new rules is to increase the chances of overtaking, but they have also resulted in cleaner looking cars with more curved surfaces and less aerodynamic clutter.

The new cars have been in development since at least 2019 and were originally supposed to race in 2021 before the introduction of the new rules was postponed due to the pandemic. They feature a number of big changes from the last set of regulations, including the return of ground-effect aerodynamics and the introduction of low-profile tyres on 18-inch rims.

The tyres, although still made by Pirelli, are a significant change and a lot of track time will be devoted to understanding them during the two tests. The new compounds are designed to be less susceptible to overheating, which was of 10 cited as a barrier to overtaking by drivers in recent years, while the stiffer, low-profile constructions should be easier for teams to model in CFD.

Underneath the bodywork there has also been a change, with V6 turbo engines now running on E10 fuel made of 10% ethanol to reduce carbon emissions. Initially the switch was said to cost engine manufacturers as much as 50 bhp, but engineers have been working hard behind the scenes to claim back the deficit. Work on the engines over the winter has also been important as performance development is set to be frozen later this year.

How to spot who’s quick and who’s not…

Performance runs

These are the laps when teams take some fuel out of the car and try to find one-lap performance by working through set-up changes. They are easy to spot as the drivers will alternate between ‘hot laps’ and ‘cool-down laps’, creating a tell-tale pattern of fast, slow, fast, slow on the timing screens.

Drivers have to intersperse their fast laps with slower ones to allow the tyres to recover after being pushed hard and to recharge the battery in the car’s hybrid system, which will use up all of power on a qualifying-style lap.

Tyre compounds are key to one-lap performance and Pirelli offers all five of its compounds to the teams during testing. The compounds are numbered C1, C2, C3, C4 and C5, with C1 being the hardest and C5 being the softest.

Softer rubber provides more performance but that performance drops off at a faster rate, meaning the softest compound may only be good for a single lap before it loses its peak performance. The fastest times are likely to be set on the softest tyres in testing, but if a car using C2s is only 0.1s off a car on C5s, it’s safe to assume the car on the harder compound has a significant pace advantage.

The Circuit de Catalunya punishes tyres, especially the front left through the high-speed right-hand corners. Temperatures can also fluctuate significantly throughout the day, from close to zero in the morning to above 20C by lunchtime. As a result, a time set on C5s at midday is not comparable with a time set on the same compound first thing in the morning when it is much harder to generate tyre temperature.

These are all factors that need to be taken into account when looking at the fastest laps each day. But even if you know the tyre compound and the time of day at which the lap was set, you still know less than half the story. A car’s fuel load is another key factor in performance and as little as 10kg can add 0.4s to a lap around the Circuit de Catalunya. Unlike tyre compounds, there is no way of knowing how much fuel a car has on board from the outside and the teams are not obliged to hand out figures.

As a result, the most impressive lap times in testing are of 10 disguised by teams running with as much as 40kg of fuel in the tank, while a slower car can look surprisingly competitive by running on fumes. Running heavy is of 10 referred to as “sandbagging” — F1-speak for a team hiding its performance — but the truth is that heavier fuel loads are of 10 used by engineers to give a more practical baseline to work from rather than to hide a car’s true pace.

Unfortunately, the most useful tool to cut through the secrecy and make sense of lap times isn’t available to fans and the media. Teams closely monitor GPS traces of rival cars to gather data on both corner speeds and straight-line speed, allowing them to build a clearer picture of car performance.

The speed at which a car accelerates and brakes is useful to guesstimate both its engine mode and fuel load and, at the click of a mouse, data can be cross-referenced with previous years’ test sessions or races to identify trends and spot anomalies. What’s more, F1 teams are creatures of habit and will of 10 stick with a set fuel load for testing from one year to the next. As staff move from team to team over seasons, it doesn’t take long for an experienced engineer to build up a bank of data and knowledge to help sift through the times popping up on the timing screens and pick out the true star performers.

Race sims

One way of removing the uncertainty over fuel loads is to look out for teams attempting ‘race simulations’. Typically, each driver will aim to complete at least one race simulation before going to the first race so that he can get a feel for how the car performs over a grand prix distance and his engineers can gather data that could ultimately increase their points haul at the first race.

In order to complete a race distance without returning to the garage to refuel, cars will need to leave the pits at the start the run with close to the maximum fuel load of 110kg. And once we know cars are all starting out with the same fuel load to complete the same number of laps makes, it makes it much easier to compare performance.

It’s not an exact science, as the time of day, track conditions, engine modes and tyre strategies can skew the results, but as a general rule it is the best way to build a true picture of performance from testing. Race sims can be easily spotted by a series of slow but steady lap times over long runs that are interspersed by race-style pit stops. Alternatively, if you spot that a driver’s pit board is counting down from 66 laps (the length of a race at the Circuit de Catalunya) the chances are they are attempting a race sim.

By working out an average lap time — removing anomalies caused by traffic or red flag stoppages from the race distance — it’s possible to get the best indication of how quick a car really is compared to its rivals. However, race sims are of 10 among the last tasks on a team’s job list for testing, so it’s possible we won’t see many drivers complete one until the second test in Bahrain.

Add a pinch of salt

While a clear order usually emerges from testing, it’s not always representative of the first race. This year, the second test and the first race are being held at the same venue, in Bahrain, improving the chances of an accurate prediction, but even so a lot can change in two weeks.

Most teams will be looking to develop rapidly at the start of this season as they gain an on-track understanding of their all new cars to compare with simulation data generated over the winter. The cars that run in testing this week may look surprisingly basic or underdeveloped when we look back at them at the end of the year, and all teams are expecting a variety of development avenues to open up as they fully explore the potential of their cars under the new regulations.

It’s not unusual for teams to bring major aero upgrades between testing and the first race, and with such sweeping regulation changes this year there will be a steep development curve for every car. Fortunately, we won’t have long to wait between the final day of testing in Bahrain and the first race one week later to get a clearer picture of who will be the front runners in 2022.

What are the rules at testing?

With the exception of passing crash tests prior to running and obeying marshal flags, there are no real rules governing testing. Running is unlimited between 9am and 6pm, although tyre allocations do put a practical limit on how many laps can be completed over the three days.

There is no scrutineering and teams could, in theory, test parts that are illegal under the regulations (although there would be little long-term advantage by doing so). In 2013, Caterham and Williams ran small bits of bodywork to divert exhaust gasses towards the diffuser, which would have been illegal under the regulations but allowed them to gain a better understanding of how other teams were benefiting from doing it within the regulations. It’s possible some teams experiment with such devices this year if one or two rival teams come up with ideas that catch the rest off guard.

In 2o20, Mercedes caused a stir by trailing its innovative, but controversial, Dual Axis Steering (DAS) system during preseason. It was a system the FIA was aware of and had already moved to outlaw for 2021 but was technically still legal under the 2020 regulations. After studying its use throughout testing, rivals Red Bull protested DAS at the first race of the season in the hope of proving it was illegal (or perhaps just finding out more information about how it worked) leading to an official ruling from the FIA that it was indeed legal. Testing is of 10 the first chance teams get to see what their rivals have built for the new season.

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