Testing our Patience
Is it time to rethink a long standing cost-cutting measure?
Garth Tander wants more test days. He also wants more tyres to test with. His reasoning is that the lack of test days prevents teams from making gains.
He makes a good point. For several years, Supercars has been winding back the amount of test days each team has and reducing tyre allocation in an effort to save money. When testing restrictions were first introduced, it worked. There were teams that could afford to test almost every week and fly cars overseas during the off-season. Testing was the only effective way to develop a car, so the teams who could afford to do more of it were at an advantage. As Australia's first professional touring car driver, Allan Moffat was among the first to take testing very seriously. His Mustang Boss 302 and XB Falcon both underwent testing in the US before racing in Australia. Shipping Supercars overseas for anything other than Supercars rounds and media events is now strictly prohibited, much to the annoyance of DJR Team Penske.
In 1974 Allan Moffat went to the extreme of taking his Falcon to the US for testing
Things are different in 2018. For most of the 2000s, teams were allowed a maximum of four test days. That has since been reduced to three, one of which being the official pre-season test in February. Teams will usually use one test day during the mid season break in May/June, and the second before Bathurst. Rookie drivers get an extra test day and teams naturally opt to use that day in December or January. The tight testing restrictions have seen the large teams redirect their R&D budgets away from testing towards computer simulations and analysis that the smaller teams can't afford to do. For the smaller teams, the latest CAD, CFD and driving simulators used by teams at the pointy end of pit lane are out of reach. Track testing is relatively affordable.
We’ve reached a point where simply increasing the testing allowance would still benefit the big teams more, because they’ll still have the technical resources that the smaller teams don’t. A possible workaround is to allocate test days according to last year’s teams’ championship results. To do this, we’d first need to decide how to rank three and four car teams with multiple teams championship entries. You could either use the highest or lowest placed team, or an averaging driver points to give a two-car-equivalent result. Going off the highest would encourage larger teams to tank by splitting their best drivers. Using the lowest avoids this issue but would also give Triple 8, the second biggest team, more test days than all of the two and four car teams off the back of Autobarn Lowndes Racing. Average results it is then.
Four car teams like Kelly Racing would be ranked by average points
With the order sorted, test days need to be allocated. The easiest method is your finishing position is the number of test days you get. 1st gets one, 2nd two etc. This would be inclusive of the pre-season test, just as it is now. New models yet to undergo homologation would be exempt as they are now, and rookie drivers would still get an extra test day. If the championship standings stay the way they are, Team18 would wind up with 11 test days. Arguably that's more than they can afford to use, but it's a simple and equitable system. Alternatively, you could work off the following system:
1st: One day
3rd and 4th: five
5th - 7th: six
8th - 11th: seven
In either case, using them wouldn't be compulsory. If Matt Stone Racing, for example, can't afford to use all their test days they don't have to. But if you gave all the teams six test days, Triple 8 and Penske, along with Tickford, Kelly Racing and Walkinshaw Andretti United would go out and use all of them. The other teams would then have to use all of theirs to avoid falling behind too much. Under this proposal, smaller teams can do as much as they can afford, and still potentially test more than the bigger teams.
Tyre allocations should be increased too, even if testing is still limited to three days a year. Teams currently get 16 sets soft and 16 sets of supersoft tyres per car for practice and testing. 32 sets for 48 practice sessions and three test days. Beyond that, they need to use used tyres. Teams don't get much testing on new tyres. That goes some way to explaining why Penske and Triple 8 are especially dominant in qualifying. Other teams simply don't have the tyres to hone their qualifying setups.
The big teams would complain. Ryan Story would be the most vocal opponent, as usual. In his mind any rule that doesn't give Penske special privileges is unfair. What's really unfair is a set of testing regulations that prevent the smaller teams from catching up without a ground-up overhaul of the technical regulations. The big teams, meanwhile, have the resources to consistently run at the front, which in turn attracts more sponsorship, allowing them to continue to run at the front. If the smaller teams are given more test days, then they have the capacity to improve, attract more sponsors and grow into larger teams. Up until now, Supercars has taken the approach of making it easier for small teams to get by. What if instead, they made it easier for them to climb up the grid and take a bigger share of race wins and then sponsors?
Larger tyre allowances would go a long way
A finishing position-based testing allowance would have a similar, albeit less pronounced, effect to the AFL draft system. The bottom team from last gets first pick of the new players. 17th goes next, then 16th etc. If the last-placed team does especially poorly, they get the fourth pick as well. Wealthier teams can spend more to extract performance from the players they've got, but ultimately their dominance only lasts a few years before they fall to the bottom again. Similarly, a Supercars team would struggle to stay on top for too many years if they can only test once a year.
To save money, test days could be held the day after a race weekend. Teams could elect to use their allowance at any of the nine permanent circuits in Australia. MotoGP and F1 use a similar system. Testing after street rounds, Bathurst or New Zealand’s Pukekohe would be too difficult to organise.
While the intention behind testing restrictions is good, it's gone too far and started to backfire. Giving more test days to lower ranking teams could be an effective way to help them improve without adding too much financial pressure.
Image credits: Supercars, Shannons, LAT Images