I have been guilty as much as anyone of reading too much into what happens at the F1 test sessions before the season begins. It is the very first time that the teams reveal their new cars and we get to compare them against the performance of the other teams. This is also when each driver begins his battle against his teammate, with each trying to be seen as the lead or better driver. However, this year more than ever, we must be very careful about what we interpret from what happens at the tests.
Teams don’t truly reveal their hand at these test sessions and a lot of the time they are genuinely learning about how best to set up their brand new car and what areas they need to improve and develop for the first race and beyond. The team or driver that produces has the fastest lap(s) is not necessarily the best F1 package and likely to win at Bahrain. Small differences in times between teams and drivers reveals nothing, it is only when there are large differences in performance that we might infer something.
For example, in 2009 the F1 testing before the season began revealed very little in how the teams would fair for the season, except for two points. Firstly, McLaren were significantly off the pace (i.e. over 2 seconds) at each testing session and secondly, when Brawn arrived for the first time at the final pre-season testing session, they were immediately quicker than all other teams. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how these points precipitated their comparative performances throughout the season.
However! Be warned, we will not know the true form of the teams for a race or three. In fact, the expected closeness of the teams this season means there may never be such a thing as the ‘in form’ team. Although they were slow in pre-season testing last year, McLaren actually did quite well at the first race in Australia and if hadn’t been for Hamilton and his team’s ‘indiscretion’ he would have finished 3rd. BMW had been fast in pre-season testing and looked very quick in Australia with Kubica seemingly likely to get 2nd and challenge for 1st if he had not had the coming together with Vettel. Unfortunately, BMW went downhill from there.
The 2010 pre-season testing will be even harder to read due to the new rule changes, in particular the banning of refuelling. Teams will be concentrating on being quick, consistent and not using up their tyres on a heavy fuel load. They will be less concerned with producing a quick lap on low fuel. At each race teams and drivers will have to cope with up to 3 times as much fuel as they did last year for up two-thirds of the race. As we won’t know how much fuel each driver will be running at the tests, it will be hard to assess the comparative long run pace of each team and driver.
We should be able to compare the relative performance of the drivers within in a team, but even then we will not know if they will be carrying the same levels of fuel? Teams will be concentrating on getting the best performance out of their cars, which will be a balance of quick lap times with minimal tyre wear. We won’t be provided this combination of information, it will only be provided by paddock gossip and speculation.
There are 4 official tests, all taking place in February in Spain. The first official F1 pre-season test will run from 1st-3rd of Feb at the Valencia track. Not all teams will be in attendance, most noticeably the Red Bull team. The second official test will take place a week later on the 10th-13th of February at Jerez, with the third test at Jerez again on 17th -20th Feb. The fourth and final test takes place at Barcelona (Catalunya circuit) from 25th – 28th February. After that, the teams have a fortnight to make changes and develop their car before the first race of the season at Bahrain on 14th of March.
Therefore, be very careful about you read into the relative performances of the F1 teams at the official tests in Spain. We all have our favourite teams and drivers, but it will be very hard to tell which one is actually in the best position at the beginning of the season. However, we may be able to tell which teams or drivers are struggling (poor times, spins, etc.).