Qualified - Testing Frustrates The Hell Outta Me
I feel like this article today is going to end up being a review of the first three days of F1 preseason testing. I'll try to keep as far clear of that as possible though because I have a much more important point to make today about preseason testing, though I will delve into results explanations a bit. That's only to give this all context.
Anyway, I made the mistake of hitting the Facebook feed this morning when I woke up. The first thing I saw was an article from Australian sports media outlet Fox Sports (no longer affiliated with Fox TV or Sky I'm told since a merger last year). The article was titled "'I'm keen to get stuck in': Daniel Ricciardo's fighting words after surprising turnaround". Funnily enough the first thing I did after reading the title of that article is venture away from Fox Sports and go to Formula 1's proprietary web page. Where I see the title of the headline article "Toro Rosso 'to my liking' says Kvyat after topping test times". Venturing into that article I find that Formula 1 in all their might have posted said test times with the absence, again after the first two test days, of tyre compounds and fuel loads.
Now see Formula 1 is an extremely complicated sport at times. Not just that but it's extremely three dimensional and often requires either explanation or interpretation. This is where testing becomes extremely frustrating, because NO-ONE is explaining or interpreting the data correctly. The closest I've gotten to the correct amount of data is ESPN's Formula 1 arm, but even that lacks interpretation. At least they're recording and reporting tyre compounds.
I digress, let me explain why the times during testing are totally pointless on their own and why comparative data during testing is key. There are multiple aspects to strategy and car build during any testing session in Formula 1. These include: fuel loads, tyre compounds, ambient temperature, track temperature, tyre / chassis / engine synergy, car setup, air density, altitude, humidity, lap amounts and finally track times. All of these together make up the big picture of consistent lap times during a Formula 1 race and even one lap times during qualifying.
I'll give you a practical example to help you figure that one out. Today's testing session (day 3 in Barcelona) was topped in time by Daniil Kvyat from Toro Rosso, a team that normally sits in the mid-field and was seconded by Raikonnen from Alfa Romeo, another mid-field team. Formula 1 and Fox Sports aren't reporting that those times were set later in the day, with low fuel loads on C5 tyre compounds (ultra-soft) after about 10-20 laps. This is important because the ambient temperature at the track yesterday was 15 degrees but with sun, making it quite a dry day. With cars lapping the track all day it would've raised the track temperature to around 22-25 degrees and with a bit of wear on the ultra-soft tyre compounds the track becomes perfect conditions to set a flying, qualifying like lap.
On the other hand Daniel Ricciardo in the Renault was on a C4 tyre compound (super soft) and Sebastian Vettel was on a C3 (soft). So what does this tell us overall? Well when you compare average times from the past three days you'll find that a softer tyre compound gives you about a .6-1 second advantage depending on the car running. Ricciardo and Vettel sat at around .3 seconds in margin. That means that the Renault sits at around .5 of a second behind the Ferrari in 1 lap pace. However Verstappen behind the Ferrari sat at around .8 of a second behind Ricciardo on C3 tyre compounds (soft). Taking the margin between the Ferrari and Red Bull into account that means that Verstappen too sits at around .5 of a second behind the Ferrari however on one lap pace he sits at about the same as Ricciardo in the Renault (that would ruffle some feathers).
Problematically again because Kvyat and Raikonnen were using C5 compounds that puts them at a 2 second disadvantage to Sebastian Vettel on the same compound (1 second margin). That means that the Toro Rosso and the Alfa Romeo are still sitting in the mid-field. The next problem with all of this though is we don't know what the fuel loads are. Worse still fuel loads equal around .2 of a second per liter. Which is a lot.
Anyway based on all of the above context, it paints a very different picture for testing day 3 to the one being reported by media. And this is where social media comes in. The amount of people who are believing the total cr*p being served by these outlets is astounding. Worse still the amount of people who are trumpeting a World Championship Win for Sebastian Vettel and a mid-field result at best for the Mercedes is alarming. And then there's the Verstappen effect. I saw that many orange army fans posting how much better the Honda engine is after two days and how the Renault engine is going nowhere I felt like the dutch had invaded planet earth, or at least the one where Max Verstappen was reigning World Champion.
Here's the thing, for the first two days, Renault was running identical tyre compounds to Mercedes. They were also running similar periods of the day on track. They were also well within .8 of a second of each other at all times. They were also both at the bottom of the field. Let's be frank for a minute, Mercedes AMG are not going to be at the bottom of the field during the entire 2019 season. It's highly likely in fact that they won't be at the bottom of the field during the Australian Grand Prix. So it's ridiculously obvious that they're sandbagging Ferrari (purposely not setting flying lap times). I would be confident in saying Mercedes know what their qualifying time is for their car. I would also be confident in saying that in the final two days next week Mercedes will sit a couple of those flying laps. I would lastly be confident that having set those laps so late in the piece doesn't allow Ferrari to collect data and change their own car set up to either match or better those lap times, meaning they have to wait until FP1 and FP2 in Melbourne to start tinkering and comparing.
My other presumption is that Renault have purposely done the same with Red Bull. Ricciardo has been fast, but he hasn't been really that fast and he's been alternating with the Hulk every single day. I'd say Renault too have a very good idea what their flying lap time is. I'd also say that as a result they're sandbagging Red Bull who have consistently either tested this year on either C3 or C4 compounds and have been doing big lap stints with flying runs towards the end of the day (much alike to qualifying or the last laps of a race). That became extremely evident to me when they put Ricciardo out this afternoon on C4 tyres whilst Red Bull were running C3s and got him to set a flying lap time (emphasis on a).
Anyway my point is, as always, context. If the media and social media in general were serious about creating the story and even the drama for Formula 1? They'd delve a bit deeper into the data and tell the full story about testing. Which also coincidentally paints a clearer picture for the season opener in Melbourne.
Right now though? We're stuck with the 2019 World Champion Daniil Kvyat, or wait was it Sebastian Vettel? I can't remember, unfortunately the times change to much to remember who's the World Champion favourite at this minute.