Your comprehensive guide to Formula One preseason testing

10. March 2021

  • Lawrence Edmondson


F1 Publisher

– At ESPN since 2009

– F1 journalist accredited by the FIA since 2011

  • Nate Sanders.


F1 Deputy Editor

– He has previously worked in rugby and British Superbikes.

– Studied history at the University of Reading

– Member of ESPNF1 in February 2014

Formula One will hold a three-day pre-season test in Bahrain this weekend before the race starts on the 28th. In March, the Bahrain Grand Prix will take place.

From Friday to Sunday (12-14 March), 10 Formula One teams will take part in tests at the Bahrain International Circuit. Everyone’s main goal is to be as ready as possible for the start of the season, but it still gives you a chance to think about who is hot and who is not before the first race.

What has changed this year?

In recent years, Formula 1 has significantly reduced the length of pre-season testing. Eight days were planned for the 2019 preseason, but that was reduced to six last year. In 2020, it was held in Barcelona, Catalonia, just weeks before the KOVID-19 pandemic broke out and delayed the start of the 2020 season by four months.

The pandemic is still affecting decision-making 12 months later. The first race, which will take place two weeks after the test in Bahrain, is a logical choice and saves money at a time when finances are being hit hard.

The three days should also prove cost-effective, as the already limited travel time should not be further hampered by adverse weather conditions, which could be a detriment to the European trials in February.

The Bahrain Grand Prix has been a regular fixture on the Formula 1 calendar for several years. Dan Istitenet – Formula One with Getty Images

The rules also make it easier for teams to tolerate shorter track times. The pandemic has forced Formula One to postpone a planned revision of its technical regulations from 2021 to 2022 to save costs. As a result, this year’s teams will adopt most of last year’s cars, with the main non-aerodynamic changes limited to the submarker system.

Each team has two development tokens to spend and a shopping list that they can customize with these tokens. The exception applies to teams that buy transmission and rear suspension parts from a competitor and used one-year old parts last season. You can upgrade from 2019 spec parts to 2020 spec parts for free.

This only applies to Aston Martin, supplied by Mercedes, and AlphaTauri, supplied by Red Bull, and only Aston Martin took full advantage of the dominant force.

The new AMR21 will therefore feature Mercedes’ innovative folding rear suspension, which played a key role in Lewis Hamilton’s title win in the W11 last year, as well as a new chassis on which Aston Martin has spent its parts. Other teams, such as Ferrari and Alpine, on the other hand, had to spend two pennies to put in an improved gearbox and rear suspension.

AlphaTauri decided to keep the rear end used last year (from the 2019 Red Bull car), as this was the best approach – with the resources available – to achieve maximum performance during the winter.

Aston Martin is taking full advantage of the regulations for its comeback season. Aston Martin.

What will be the relevance of time?

At the end of each day, the time screen shows who moved the fastest and the slowest during that session. This can inevitably lead to very early conclusions, but the timing can also be misleading.

An infamous example in the recent past was in 2019, when Ferrari started the preseason as the heavy favourite, only to fail at the Australian Grand Prix two weeks later. In this case, it wasn’t so much the times, but the fact that Mercedes made a major upgrade in the second test, forcing the team to take a much steeper development curve than Ferrari, which wasn’t just obvious at times.

This does not mean that testing can be omitted completely. Usually it’s pretty obvious that one team is in trouble, and it also quickly becomes clear that one team has a clear advantage over the others.

How to determine who is fast and who is not

Mercedes hopes the W12 will be the benchmark car for the Bahrain Grand Prix on the 28th. March will be. Mercedes

Without knowing what each team is trying to achieve on the track, it’s hard to say if the car is fast or not. Sometimes a driver will leave the garage only to collect aerodynamic data or check systems, and the time gained is relatively insignificant.

But after just three days of testing this year, it should soon become clear that they are in the lap time race, and here are two key areas to watch…..


These are laps where the teams take some fuel out of the car and try to find a lap by changing the set-up. They are easy to spot as the riders alternate between hot and cold laps, creating an image on the time screen of fast, slow, fast, slow movements.

Drivers must alternate their fast laps with slower ones to give the tyres a chance to recover from a hard crash and charge the hybrid system, which uses up all the energy in the battery during a qualifying lap.

Tyre compounds play a key role in the performance of the individual tyres, and Pirelli offers all five compounds to the teams during testing. The joints are numbered C1, C2, C3, C4 and C5, with C1 being the hardest and C5 the softest.

Softer tyres give better performance, but that performance degrades more quickly, meaning the softest tyre may only be good for one lap before it loses its peak performance. The fastest times during testing are likely to be set on the softer tyres, but if a car on C2 tyres has just 0.1 second advantage over C5 tyres, then you can expect a car on a harder compound to have a significant speed advantage.

The different tyre compounds are identified by different markings on the sidewalls, and Pirelli supplies the compound that each rider uses for their fastest lap at the end of the day.

The Bahrain International Circuit is particularly hard on the rear tyres, so the C5 set of tyres can struggle towards the end of a lap, especially in the heat of the desert sun. As a result, the times achieved on the C5s in the afternoon cannot be compared to the times achieved on the same track when the sun goes down and the track gets faster in the evening. All factors must be considered.

But even if you know the tire composition and lap times, you only know half the story. The car’s fuel supply is another important performance factor, and just 10 kg of fuel can increase a car’s lap time by 0.5 seconds. Unlike the composition of the tyres, it is not possible to know how much fuel a car has on board at any given time and the teams are not obliged to disclose the figures.

As a result, the most impressive lap times in practice are often masked by teams driving with extra pounds of fuel in the tank, while a slower car can look surprisingly competitive in the race through the smoke.

Heavy driving is often seen as sandbagging – F1 jargon for a team hiding its performance – but the truth is that heavier fuel loads are often used by engineers to create a more practical basis for performance, not to hide the car’s actual speed.

Unfortunately, the most useful tool to unravel the mystery is not available to fans and the media.

The teams closely monitor the GPS tracks of the competing cars and collect data on speed in corners and on straights to get a more accurate picture of the car’s performance. The speed at which the car accelerates and decelerates is useful for estimating engine operation and fuel load. With a mouse click, the data can be compared to the previous year’s competition to identify trends and anomalies.

Furthermore, F1 teams are creatures of habit and often stick to a certain amount of fuel from year to year during testing. Since personnel change from team to team during the season, it doesn’t take an experienced technician much time to put together a database and knowledge base to search the times on the time sheets and select the true stars.

Max Verstappen will participate in the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2020. Dan Istitenet – Formula 1 via Getty Image

Racing simulators

One way to deal with the uncertainty of fuel supply is to watch how teams try to run race simulations. Normally every driver tries to do at least one race simulation before their first race to get an idea of how the car will perform on the Grand Prix circuit.

To be able to complete the race distance without returning to the pits for refueling, cars must leave the pits at the start with a maximum amount of fuel of 110 kg. And when you know that all cars start with the same amount of fuel to complete the same number of laps, it’s much easier to compare performance.

It’s not an exact science, as the time of day, road conditions and tire strategies can affect the results, but overall it’s the best way to get a true picture of test performance.

Racing simulators are easily identified by a series of slow but steady laps over long distances, punctuated by race-like pit stops. If you also see the driver’s pit board counting down from 57 laps (the duration of the race at the Bahrain International Circuit), it’s possible he’s trying to run a racing simulation.

By averaging lap times – and eliminating anomalies due to traffic or red flags on lap 57 – you get a better idea of the car’s actual speed compared to its competitors.

Add a pinch of salt

Although a clear order usually emerges during practice, it is not always representative of the first race. This year, practice and the first race take place at the same location, which increases the chances of an accurate prediction, but still, a lot can change in two weeks.

Most teams will want to develop their cars quickly this season to focus their attention on 2022 as soon as possible. It is not unusual for teams to make significant changes to air navigation rules between practice and the first race. With the subtle but significant changes to the air traffic rules this year, the development curve could still be steep for a number of teams.

Hopefully we won’t have to wait long between the final day of testing on Sunday and the first race two weeks later to get a clearer picture of who will be winning races regularly in 2021.

What are the rules of the test?

Aside from passing pre-race crash tests and respecting Marshall flags, there are no real rules for testing. Mileage is unlimited from 9am to 6pm, although the tyre allowance puts a practical limit on the number of laps you can do in three days.

There are no strict tests, and groups can theoretically test parts that are illegal under the rules (though this has little long-term benefit). In 2013, Caterham and Williams introduced small bodies to direct exhaust gases to the diffuser. This would have been illegal under the rules, but gave them a better understanding of how other teams playing by the rules were abusing it.

Last year Mercedes caused a stir by using the innovative but controversial Dual Axis Steering (DAS) system in pre-season. This system was known to the FIA and had already been banned in 2021, but is still technically legal under the 2020 regulations. After Red Bull’s competitors studied its use during tests, they protested against DAS during the first race of the season in hopes of proving it was illegal (or maybe just to learn more about how it worked), leading to the FIA’s official ruling that it was indeed legal. Tests are often the first opportunity for teams to see what their opponents have built for the new season.

Let’s take the example of Mercedes again: The world champions have released the car for 2021 with some notable changes – such as re-profiled side coasters and a bulge in the bonnet – but technical director James Ellison said the team still has some secrets to reveal. All eyes will be on the Mercedes car to see what other innovations it will present when it leaves the garage Friday morning.

Lewis Hamilton says an eighth title this year is not his main motivation. Mercedes

Will the cars be different this year?

You have to look at the photos very closely to see the biggest changes, but if you know where to look, you’ll see some very obvious areas of development.

This year the FIA changed the aerodynamic rules to reduce downforce and make the cars slower. Last year, there were concerns that the angular load created would put dangerous pressure on the structure of Pirelli tyres, leading to retirements at the British Grand Prix and reliability problems at a number of other races.

As a result, the rules were changed regarding the shape of the floor plate, the details of the rear brake ducts and the length of the tabs on the diffuser to reduce downforce. On their own, each change is relatively insignificant, but if you roughly applied them all to a 2020 car, they would reduce downforce to early 2019 load levels, negating two years of performance development.

The actual downforce figures are likely to be much closer to those of the 2020 cars, as teams have had time to adjust their aero packages to the new winter rules. The main points of effectiveness will be the floor itself, which now tapers from top to bottom, limiting the downforce it can generate and making it harder to control airflow around the sensitive area for the rear tires.

The teams were very careful not to show any details of this area during the launch. Red Bull only released photos of the front end of what appeared to be a very underdeveloped car, and Mercedes placed a dummy ceiling on the W12 at launch.

But the aerodynamics at the rear of the car don’t work in isolation from those at the front, and upstream changes are expected, particularly in the area of the bars – between the front wheel and the start of the floor – to manipulate the rearward-driving airflow. This will also be an important area of development for the teams this year.

Has anything changed?

It is important for every team to understand the new Pirelli tyre compounds. JOSEP LAGO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Perhaps the most important change for 2021 is in the tires. The four pieces of rubber on each corner of the car may not be the most interesting to analyze, but they are the only ones responsible for transferring the car’s power to the road.

Pirelli seemed unconvinced that reducing the downforce would be enough to protect its tyres, and responded by strengthening the tyre construction for the new season. Last year’s Pirelli’s were already a holdover from 2019 (a decision made when F1 was still expecting to switch to low profile tyres in 2021 rather than 2022), so they were never designed for last year’s downforce loads.

The 2021 Harder model is 2.5 kg heavier per set and about a second slower per revolution in terms of power. Unsurprisingly, this combination was criticised by drivers during initial testing last year, but it is important to remember that they were testing with a car optimised for a different tyre design, which resulted in unbalanced handling.

Finding the usual smooth balance will be one of the main objectives for all drivers over the next three days, while it will be crucial for all teams to understand how the new tyres will perform over the race distance ahead of the first race.

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