The Formula 1 test season is well and truly upon us.
But what do we actually mean by testing? On the surface, it looks like all the teams are merely pounding round and round a cold and empty Spanish track to unearth problems and attempt to find a basic set-up that works for the car.
But, as with everything else in F1, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.
Under the current regulations F1’s entire pre-season testing programme has to be crammed into eight short days of group running at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Each team is allowed to run one car, and arrives in Spain intent on gaining as much knowledge as it possibly can before heading off to Australia a few days later for the first grand prix of the season.
The reign in Spain
Barcelona is F1’s testing track of choice for a variety of reasons. The geography makes for a climate likely to be warm and dry enough for meaningful running to take place.
Perhaps more importantly, the track is also sufficiently close to the bases of all the teams and with good enough transport links to ease the logistics challenge of cycling a constant stream of new parts to the track and used parts back to the factory for analysis. The facilities are excellent, which is an important factor for teams that are arriving at the circuit before dawn and leaving long after dusk and, most important of all, the track features everything you could want in a thorough examination of a Formula 1 car.
It has a long straight and a mix of corners ranging from the very high speed to the very low, with others in the mid-range. It demands good changes of direction, excellent traction and has a couple of kerbs that the cars can hit quite hard. It has (or had – see below) an abrasive surface capable of annihilating tyres and quickly highlighting any issues with setup. In short, it’s the track at which to test anything and everything.
This isn’t a testing season in the traditional sense. In the past, a dedicated testing team would have run 52 weeks of the year, sometimes with two cars at two different circuits.
For example, we averaged over 1000km a week in 2006, with Pedro de la Rosa completing 21,814km alone, which sounds unbelievable in today’s far more regulated clinate. That’s very definitely a relic of a bygone era – but through the use of advanced simulation tools and by maximising our limited track time, we’ll attempt to replicate it as closely as we can. McLaren’s run-plan is to complete 500km per day, every day in the new Renault-powered McLaren MCL34, weather and mechanical reliability permitting. If all goes according to plan the team will complete 4000km of running in Spain – roughly 860 laps – though it isn’t a case of simply turning up and pounding around until the sun goes down every day. The team arrives with a refined programme, tasked with finding answers to a long list of specific questions.
So, what do we have to do?
The start of testing tends to be a little disappointing for anyone who’s been starved of F1 action for 13 weeks. Cars don’t burst out of the garage at the green light to complete a race distance off the bat. The first hours of a test – especially the first test of the year – tend to be cautious. It begins with baby-steps, starting with installation laps or very short runs interspersed with long periods in the garage during which the team scrutinise the telemetry data generated but also strip the car down and carry-out a thorough physical inspection. Gradually, as confidence grows, the runs get longer and the driver pushes harder.
Quite how long this shakedown takes is often conditional on whether or not the car is genuinely making its debut. Many teams (including us, at the Navarra circuit, on Friday) may have already completed some running ahead of the official testing season at a filming day or other promotional event. The Sporting Regulations of F1 ban the testing of current cars outside of the stipulated group tests but do allow teams to run two of these promotional events per season. They’re limited to 100km and are run on Pirelli-supplied demo tyres and thus are designed to be essentially valueless in testing terms – but by happy accident they can get a team some way down the path to preparing their new car for the real work.
Thus, it is not uncommon for teams to get through the initial shakedown of their car on the first morning of a test relatively quickly and move swiftly on to ‘proper’ testing. Completing 100+ laps on the first day of testing has become something of a statement of intent in the modern era.
Alongside the installation checks there are a host of other physical checks that are carried out during testing. Every mechanical component on the car is carefully scrutinised but there are also checks to ensure the values expected from various components are being delivered. Using equipment ranging from the complex to the surprisingly mundane, the team will run tests on things like ride height and wing angles to ensure adjustment X or component Y affects the change it is supposed to affect.
The proscription on free testing has seen F1 teams develop their off-track tools at a fantastic rate, but the data generated digitally and in the wind tunnel is only useful if it corresponds to the results generated empirically. This is true for all types of simulation but especially for the correlation between a wind tunnel model and track running. The start of the testing season is an anxious time for aerodynamicists as they wait to find out if they have a good correlation between the car on track and their wind tunnel model. There’s relief if the car on track generates results that correlate well with those from the tunnel, whereas poor correlation can set the programme back months.
To gather this data the car will be running aero rakes (mechanical ‘cages’ that measure air-flow) attached in all sorts of places, festooned with an impressive array of pitot tubes and pressure taps. There may also be liberal use of flo-vis paint – basically a fluorescent powder suspended in light oil – that is sprayed onto a structure, to disperse in the airflow when the car runs on track. When it returns to the garage after a short run, the flo-vis pattern is photographed for analysis, and the car wiped clean. Often, for the sake of secrecy, the colouring is ultraviolet, meaning it only shows up under UV lighting.
While teams will use tests to practice their qualifying skills, by far the more important task during testing is race simulation. The team will plan to do a variety of long-run tests in which the car carries a heavy fuel load, and the race simulation is a subset of this. It is exactly what it sounds like: a 200-mile/300km run, often starting with a launch [from the pit exit line] and encompassing a number of pitstops, ending when a race distance has been completed.
Race sims have varying degrees of faithfulness: teams may run a race sim exactly as they would wish to race – doing the correct number of laps (66 in Barcelona) with an optimal tyre strategy – but the definition can be somewhat looser: they might run the sim on the same sort of tyre, or halt it midway through for setup changes – it very much depends on the goals for the day. They fulfil many functions: providing good data on tyre usage across a representative stint and engine performance across a race distance, while testing the durability of all the other mechanical components.
While there are all manner of bench-tests that can simulate track running, nothing provides quite the level of authenticity that a team gets from hammering around a test track. It’s often the little things: for instance, there isn’t a chassis dyno in existence that simulates what happens when discarded tyre rubber (‘marbles’) flick up and stick in the slats of the wing louvres.
It’s also a useful work-out for the drivers. While F1 drivers are fitter than they have ever been, gym work and cardio training are no substitute for time in the car. Doing a race distance – about one hour and 40 minutes around Barcelona – toughens the drivers up. They tend to step out pretty sore and bruised after their first race distance of the year – but after three or four, they’ll go to Australia for the first race properly ‘match-fit’.
Red flags are a pretty common sight during testing but if they happen a few minutes before the lunch break or the close of the day’s running, there’s a good chance the car that’s stopped out on track has simply run out of fuel.
Fuel in an F1 tank is measured by weight (because volume is a variable according to temperature). In the garage fuel is stored in a bowser. That bowser is very precisely calibrated to contain a certain weight of fuel, and programmable to deliver (or remove) Xkg to/from the car. Teams will use the testing season to find out exactly how far they can travel on a kilo of fuel in a variety of different engine modes. This has become of greater significance since race fuel usage was capped and margins have grown tighter. Even if a team hasn’t changed engine supplier over the winter, and the engine itself hasn’t been altered dramatically, it’s still likely that new fuels will be available for which data doesn’t yet exist.
Running the tank down to empty is a common test, (which is also used to check the efficiency of pumps and the fuelling system). It can sometimes leave the car stranded on track. Quite rightly, it isn’t considered good manners to do this in the middle of a session…
There’s a strong argument that says the most crucial part of any F1 race is the first five seconds. It’s here, in the run to the first corner, that the majority of overtaking takes place. With launch aids either banned or heavily prescribed, the physical act of launching the car from a standing start rests with the drivers’ fine hand control on the clutch lever and ability to feel the level of grip – but there’s also a lot of calibration work that goes on before the car leaves the garage.
Opportunities to test this in-season are limited, so it’s common to have extended periods during testing where the car is pitting every lap, for the purpose of trundling down to the end of the pit-lane and practicing a launch off the line. Sometimes, as the car is coming into the pit-lane anyway, this can be combined with a fairly intense pit-stop practice.
During winter testing, it isn’t only the car that gets tested. New garage apparatus, pit-box equipment and operating procedures will get their first run out, and the crew will also get to practice pitstops. There may be new members of the pitstop crew, or veterans may have changed roles since the previous year – but even in the unlikely event the same 20 crew members are doing exactly the same jobs as they were the previous season, there’s still some winter cobwebs to blow away.
The crew will have been practicing pitstops at the factory. This is very useful to build up muscle memory – but it really isn’t the same thing as having a hot car barrelling towards the box at 80km/h. The team will practice pitstops as part of the normal testing programme – but will also set aside time specifically for extended practice with the full crew, the car coming into the box lap after lap after lap. The crew will practice this with both drivers – because it’s as useful for the driver as it is for the crew – and in addition to standard stops, will also practice things like changing a nose box, lifting the car on side jacks, late calls, etc. The one thing that’s impossible to test properly is the dreaded ‘double shuffle’ where both cars pit line astern. The crew will practice a variant of this, however, by getting two sets of tyres ready and running back-to-back changes on the same car.
The team will do qualifying runs during testing but also qualifying simulations. These aren’t quite the same thing. A qualifying run will look at one lap pace and the best way to extract it from the car via tyre preparation and setup. A qualifying sim, on the other hand, will include this but also have the crew practice their procedures for the entire qualifying hour.
A full qualifying sim (in which we happily always make it to Q3) will incorporate simulated runs in each of the qualifying sessions. The race engineers will get the car out into clean air, and with the performance engineers they’ll make set-up tweaks between the runs. The crews will practice their quali turnaround skills, aiming to pull the car back into the garage, refuel and fit new tyres in around 40 seconds, and possibly also practice half-crew pitstops in the box (because the other half of the crew may be working on the other car in a real qualifying situation). The tyre technicians will practice having a full range of tyres ready in their blankets with temperatures peaking at the right times, fuel techs will practice filling and emptying the tank, lap traces will be produced for the driver to study, monitors will be lifted onto and off the forward bulkhead. The choreography of moving people, equipment and tyre stacks around an enclosed space will be practiced. It all feels slightly unreal without an actual qualifying session – but it’s the only way to prepare for the real thing.
F1 has become highly adept with its simulation tools but tyre testing is the one area where there really isn’t anything like a workable substitute for putting a real car on a real circuit. Last season’s move to wider tyres gave teams the headache of having to come to terms with new profiles, compounds and constructions: this year the work will focus on Pirelli’s expanded range of compounds, which move softer than those used last year. It’s still a big job.
The team will develop a programme to gain an understanding of each compound, studying how it behaves with the car in various setup configurations, studying characteristics such as wear, degradation and graining. The goal is to understand how best to maximise the life of the tyre – but also what can be done to extend its useful life or the consequences of pushing it hard at various points in a long run. The team will also want to know how best to get it into a working window for qualifying – for example whether it responds well to an aggressive out-lap or works best if brought up to temperature slowly. They will also investigate pressures, camber and blanket settings.
“We’ve got to learn about the tyres,” says Chief Technical Officer – Chassis, Tim Goss. “We obviously tested them in Abu Dhabi [at the end of the 2017 season] but that’s one circuit with fairly hot conditions. We’ve got to learn more about those tyres at different circuits. Also, the gaps in compound performance aren’t necessarily all even: there may be a bigger gap there and then two tyres that are close together.”
Barcelona has traditionally been an excellent venue for tyre testing as the tarmac is one of the most abrasive on the calendar and combines with a layout that pushes tyres hard. A wrinkle for this year is that the track surface has been re-laid since last year, so comparisons with data from previous years won’t be as useful. Drivers have already reported that the new surface could be as much as two seconds faster than the old Tarmac.
Proofing the engine is a task finalised on track in Spain, though much of the work has been done already with our gearbox, mated to a Renault power unit, completing thousands of bench-testing kilometres on dynamometers at Renault HQ in Viry-Châtillon.
There is still a lot of data to gather on track, however: fuel, oil, water and hydraulic systems are all studied to make sure they are all functioning properly, while the electronic interfaces between the various parts of the power unit, the gearbox, and cockpit controls are given a full work-up to ensure everything is talking to everything else.
Getting the driver comfortable in the car is not a straightforward task. This is not so much a case of physical ease (though that is important) as it is of ensuring the driver has the right feel in the cockpit. With a settled driver line-up, seats and pedals will likely be carried over from the previous year, as will personal preferences such as steering wheel grips and pedal positions. The car, however, will have changed, so fine-tuning a steering rack to the driver’s liking can be a big issue (depending on the driver – some care, some don’t), as can the feel of the brakes – both in terms of the materials used for the discs and pads, and the actual feeling of the callipers themselves.
Another factor for driver comfort is visibility. Only when the physical car is on a real track, with all the attendant vibration, will the driver be able to offer feedback on the position of his mirrors. This year also there is the added factor of the halo to consider. While it has been designed to ensure the driver’s vision is not occluded while racing, factors such as seeing trackside signals, gantry lights, or even gestures from the number one mechanic standing in front of the car during fire-up and waving it out into pit-lane traffic may affect positioning in the cockpit.
There isn’t going to be a specific part of the programme that deals with these issues – rather they will occur naturally during the programme and form a significant part of the debriefing operation during the early days of running.
What else do we do?
Not everything in testing is a big-ticket item – but pretty much everything the car does has to be tested before it goes off to the first race. With good luck the car won’t need to engage reverse gear all year – but nevertheless this will be tested; the turning circle of the steering rack needs to be checked (in some of the tighter pitlanes it’s tough to drive the car out of the garage). The team will practice things like having the car repeatedly fired-up from the ERS, or via an external starter. They’ll test how long it can safely sit with the engine running, and measure how often the engine needs to be fired-up to maintain working temperatures on the grid. The radio systems will be tested to ensure drivers and engineers can hear each other correctly (they’ll possibly change some of their phrasing to increase clarity). It’s not information that confers any sort of competitive advantage but you can’t reasonably run an F1 team without it.
There is a notion of teams deliberately hiding their true performance during winter testing. In reality, ‘sandbagging’ doesn’t particularly serve any useful purpose. What you may see, however, is teams leaving particularly innovative bodywork off the car until the last few days of testing – if they are confident and keen to minimise the ability of rivals to replicate it during the testing window.
The other grey area that’s sometimes inhabited is the use of regulation-stretching components. Cars are homologated (i.e. have passed all of their crash tests) before being allowed to run – but aside from the safety structures, teams don’t have to test in a race-legal specification. The FIA technical department attend tests and their opinions will often be sought on the legality of various systems. Sometimes a component will be run to gauge a reaction. It’s also not unknown to see teams test a component they believe to be illegal, in order to extract a technical directive from the FIA clearing up an ambiguity in the regulations.
This, however, is a rarity in the modern era when time is short, resources are stretched, and the first race is looming large in the calendar.