F1 pre-season testing: how the first chapter of the 2021 season will be written

F1’s 2021 pre-season test will take place in Bahrain over the next three days ahead of the Bahrain GP later in the month, after Covid restrictions caused the Australian GP to be postponed. Testing can be revealing and controversial, and although no-one will be stood on the top step of the podium come the end of the weekend, that does not mean that there will not be winners and losers.

An intense three-day test will put the teams under extreme pressure.

Testing has always been an important part of F1, however, it has evolved over the course of F1’s history, and the 2021 test will be the shortest-ever, with teams having just three days to understand and optimise their cars.

In stark contrast to this three-day test, unlimited private testing was allowed until 2007. Teams could complete as much running as they wanted, rigorously examining every inch of the cars. Ferrari even went as far as building Fiorano, their own private racetrack, in 1972, giving them complete freedom to assess every detail of their cars whenever they wished.

Following the 2007 restrictions, private testing was banned outright for the 2009 season onwards in an effort to cut costs and reduce the financial strain on F1’s smaller teams in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Restrictions were also introduced on the teams’ wind tunnel and CFD simulation capacities which have become increasingly important in guiding car development. Again this was to further reduce costs.

So what actually happens during testing? Cars lap the track, all the while the teams gather data about their car, gauging its performance and reliability. Teams will follow a precise testing schedule to learn about specific elements of their car. Drivers and teams experiment with car set-up to get the most out of the car, with the aim of eventually achieving the perfect balance for the driver so that they are best able to extract the lap time from the car.

While this eureka moment may not happen during testing, it is critical that the teams learn enough from testing to progress them towards this goal, so that they arrive at the first race of the season with a much clearer idea of how to set up the car. A trial-and-error approach during a race weekend runs the risk of costing points, hence the need to make the most of testing, where there is some margin for error.

Valtteri Bottas, pictured testing his Mercedes W11 in Barcelona, 2020, with aero rakes mounted to the side of the car.

With such restricted on-track testing, CFD and wind tunnel simulations increasingly guide the aerodynamic development of the cars, making it vital that the teams ensure that data from back at the factory correlates with the on-track data. To do this, teams use aero rakes (pictured) and Flow-Vis paint to assess how the air moves around the car.

Correlation issues can be an enormous headache for the teams, who then have to spend hours investigating the issue, diverting time and energy away from the testing schedule. They can also obscure the significance of the data gathered during testing, further compounding the issue. The relentless progress of F1 teams is incredible, and as such, teams that are not moving forwards will soon finding themselves losing ground on their rivals.

Reliability is also a key factor in testing. Teams with chronic reliability problems rarely shake them off immediately, meaning that those same issues will likely blight the rest of their season. McLaren’s season of poor reliability in 2017 began in pre-season testing, where they covered less than half of Mercedes’s testing distance due to mechanical failures. Moreover, time spent fixing these issues will slash the time planned for the team’s testing programmes, meaning that they fail to gain all the data they need to optimise performance. This effect will be magnified in 2021, as a delay of just two and half hours would represent more than a ten percent reduction in overall testing time. This illustrates the pressure that the teams will be under to deliver a trouble-free testing programme.

Pre-season testing is also significant for the individual drivers. The rookie pairing of Mazepin and Schumacher at Haas, along with F1 debutant Tsunoda at Alpha Tauri, will need to get used to how both the team and the car operates, and getting the most out of such slender running time will require incredible focus. The Haas drivers could find this especially difficult, as they are without a more senior driver to learn from in terms of car set-up and the overall functioning of the team.

Equally, testing will be important for those drivers who are changing teams for 2021. Ferrari’s Sainz, Red Bull’s Perez, McLaren’s Ricciardo, and Aston Martin’s Vettel will all need to get up to speed with how to get the most out of their new machinery and the people around them. Even the vastly experienced Alonso, returning to F1 with Alpine for 2021 after a break from the sport in 2019 and 2020, will need to adjust to his new machinery. All drivers will be eager to learn from testing, in preparation for hitting their number-one objective: beating their teammate.

Testing will be a unique physical test for the drivers. In 2020, Charles Leclerc notched up an impressive 181 laps of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya during testing, nearly three times the Spanish GP race distance. The repeated g-forces the drivers will be subjected to will stack up, as they did in 2020 testing, when a number of drivers experienced considerable neck fatigue.

Robert Kubica, pictured testing the 2019 Williams FW42, which arrived in Barcelona two days late.

Although factors such as engine settings and fuel loads can obscure the outright pace of the cars, testing will give a rough running order. The slowest team in pre-season testing will never take pole position in the first race, although I would love to be proved wrong. Ferrari’s lack of pace during 2020 testing foretold the dismal campaign that the Prancing Horse would experience. The team’s poor speed trap figures in testing even gave an insight into what would be the team’s main weakness in 2020: a lack of straight-line speed.

It is common for teams that realise they are ahead of the opposition to hide this success so as to not show their hand too soon. However, shortcomings cannot be hidden so easily. When Williams missed the first two of the eight days of testing altogether in 2019 due to missed deadlines in car production, this set the tone for the rest of their year, as the nine-times constructors’ world champions were comfortably the slowest team throughout the season.

In 2021, new technical regulations will alter the design of the rear floors of the cars in a bid to reduce the downforce the cars generate, meaning that the teams could gain or lose ground depending on how they have altered the aerodynamics of their car in response to these changes.

Teams will also need to adjust to the new 2021 Pirelli tyres. Failure to understand how to keep the tyres in their optimum temperature window can severely hold teams back, as was the case for Haas in 2019, as their cars would drop down the order due to tyre management issues during races, despite showing impressive qualifying pace at times.

Testing, despite the lack of actual competition seen in the races, can be full of controversy, as it was in 2020. The legality of the Racing Point was called into question as it bore a striking resemblance to the 2019 Mercedes, with accusations of outright copying leading to the nicknames ‘Pink Mercedes’ and ‘Tracing Point.’ This story which emerged in pre-season testing was decisive for the season as a whole, as Racing Point’s eventual fifteen-point penalty for copying Mercedes in the design of their rear brake ducts cost them third position in the championship to rivals McLaren.

Mercedes’s DAS (Dual-Axis Steering) system caught the entire paddock off guard in 2020, as their drivers could be seen pushing or pulling the steering wheel in a trombone-like motion to adjust the front wheel toe angle, helping the driver to control those all-important tyre temperatures.

This is just the latest in a series of extraordinary technical innovations that have emerged throughout F1’s history, and although there has not been much talk of such innovations this year, it would be wrong to underestimate the creative might of F1 teams as they strive for every possible performance gain. What the best and brightest in F1 have come up with this year may yet surprise us.

There are a number of questions to be answered in Bahrain over the next three days. How will McLaren fare after switching from Renault to Mercedes power for 2021, needing to integrate an entirely new power unit layout into their chassis? Will Red Bull close the gap to Mercedes? Their secretive car launch could hint at innovations they do not want their rivals catching wind of. Will Ferrari be able to recover from a torrid 2020? Their speed trap figures, along with those of Alfa Romeo and Haas who also use Ferrari engines, will soon indicate whether the rumours of an improved power unit are true.

The first chapter of the 2021 F1 story is about to be written, and although it will by no means determine the outcome of the season, it will certainly set the tone. Nothing will be won in pre-season testing, but much can be lost, and such a short and intense three-day test will turn the heat up on the teams.

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