What really goes on in F1 testing – and how much can you tell from the lap times?
Like grizzly bears leaving their caves after a long winter’s hibernation the F1 teams have finally emerged into the dazzling light of another Formula One season.
The car launches all went swimmingly. Photos were taken of static cars and static drivers standing awkwardly next to even more awkward designers and team principles.
With the glaring exception of Lewis Hamilton, people in F1 hate posing for photos. Its not what they came to do. What they really want to do is get that car prepped and tested, to find out if all their theoretical work can be confirmed on a real race track, instead of in an anodyne simulator.
Valtteri Bottas, Toto Wolff and Lewis Hamilton pose with the new Mercedes
So as soon as the photos were snapped and the endless but obligatory questions swept away by glib non-committal answers, they were off to sunny Spain with hope in their hearts dreaming of glories to come.
But it would appear that some bears are reluctant to leave their cosy bed and join the hunt for grub. Williams kept us all guessing and speculating as their car stubbornly refused to turn up at the track. Two days went by with no sign of a car as Ferrari pounded the opposition into the dirt with 169 laps on the first day.
Given that the Spanish GP is only 66 laps that’s getting on for three grand prix distances on the first day! No problem there then. And they were fastest. So that’s it then. Just give him and Ferrari the trophy and lets move on, right? Not so fast, Cato – one swallow does not a summer make. This is ‘only’ testing.
By day three the press had turned into an angry lynch mob to remove the Williams team’s technical director, Paddy Lowe. But at least the car had made it as far as the garage – if not quite the track – to witness the Toro Rosso, of all things, in the hands of the Red Bull’s prodigal son, Daniil Kyvat, topping the times instead of the Ferrari.
But before you put a monkey on him to win the 2019 FIA World Drivers Championship (at 1000/1 on SkyBet) I had better explain what testing is really all about.
The reason there is so much anxiety about testing is that it is directly related to the amount of preparation that has gone into the creation of an F1 car. Given that an average budget of an F1 team is about £100m – give or take about £100m – and teams need anything from 300 to 1600 people to make two cars, and the work on a new car could have started as far back as May of the previous year, these initial forays onto asphalt are like moon landings for F1 teams.
You can do the math as much as you like, but until the pilot has said “She’s a beaut, shipmates!” or “the eagle has landed” (as appropriate), all is vanity. And that is why F1 is so fantastic. All these highly qualified extremely bright scientists can prove anything in theory, but until a spotty kid has says he likes it, it’s all academia.
Max Verstappen and Christian Horner discuss the latest Red Bull car in the garage at Barcelona (Pic: Red Bull Content Pool)
So how do we know if a car is good? There is an expression much used in motorsport because it’s a truism; ‘quick out of the box’. In other words, it is the overall design philosophy that determines the ultimate potential of a car. This fundamental fact means that you can test all you like, changing the set-up, the aero-balance of the car, the sponsors stickers, the seat position, the position of the tea urn in the garage, or anything else you can think of, but the car will be what it is. Either it is right, or it is wrong. Either the designers have got their sums right or they have messed up.
There are some caveats to this damning judgement, however. Sometimes the true potential is masked by an annoying issue, such as software glitches. With today’s cars the harmonising of the auxiliary power devices in the hybrid system with the piston engine and the ability to harvest the energy from the brakes, to put back into the battery without upsetting the driver, is extremely difficult to achieve. A small change to the computer software could unlock huge potential by making the driver able to deliver the full potential of the car.
These are changes that can be worked on during testing. Indeed, they need actual track time to properly tune these things. So, if you’re not quick out of the box, you need problems than can be fixed. The biggest problem is when you don’t have any problems, and the car feels great! Unless you are comfortably quickest, of course.
I have been fortunate to have driven the class of the field cars on quite a few occasions. It's a real privilege. You just do a few laps, look at the times, and smile. Your name here, at the top of the list. Easy.
However, I have also driven a car that was lovely to drive, well balanced, fun, predictable, but slow! Agh! So slow! Then you are really stuffed. Back to the drawing board, as the saying goes.
The other famous saying is ‘the stop watch never lies’, which is true. Sadly, people do lie. Just because you see a quick time does not mean you can predict the race form.
People do strange things under pressure. Maybe they need to attract a few more sponsors in time for Australia? Whatever it is, a team can do a few things to make their car look fast. Cars in testing are not scrutinised by the technical stewards as they are in competition, so they could be under the weight limit, or increasing fuel flow, or pulling a host of other stunts to deliver a headline grabbing time.
The competitive teams usually stick to the modesty option, quietly confident they have all the aces and not wanting to reveal too much. They can run more fuel as ballast to slow the car down. It's easy to calculate the potential of the car because Newton did it all for us about 350 years ago; 10kg of weight (fuel is measured in weight because volume changes with temperature) will slow a car down by as much as 0.3s, depending on the track style and length.
So the testing continues next week, as does the sand-bagging, and the miss-directing, and the show-boating.
Testing can be totally misleading if you look at the obvious indicators. However, there are some generally trust worthy indicators that cannot easily be fudged. Like actually turning up with a car and doing lots of laps. That is pretty fundamental.
The other is if everyone is smiling or mooching around the garage with their hands in their pockets looking glum. Williams has some catching up to do then! But they will. I still have faith.