Will Gray

Tech Talk: To test or not to test…

Will Gray

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This month sees a crucial period of pre-season preparation for the 2010 World Championship - and teams must work out which tasks should be prioritised to best to make every second count.

There is a lot to fit in before Bahrain kicks off the season in March, and a lot of decisions to be made. New designs to finalise, new cars to build and crash test, new systems to check, new drivers to bed in and new engineering personnel to hone and perfect.

It is a pressured time for the current teams, let alone the new outfits with limited experience of the vital timelines ahead of the opening race.

This has, of course, led to New Year rumours of troubles for some of the less vocal new outfits, with claims that some to-do lists have been stacking up a bit too high. Both Campos and USF1 have been forced to make statements declaring their commitment to making the grid in nine weekends' time, while Virgin Racing has undergone a rather strange management change at what is a crucial time for team stability.

None of the new teams will make the opening test on February 1. Lotus say they will be ready for a systems check on February 5 and USF1 claim to be expecting to run at a US circuit around that time too, but all four teams do hope to make it to Spain before the four scheduled pre-season tests come to an end.

If any of them happen to miss a deadline that forces them to skip the test, they will be harder hit than any current teams that miss the tests because on top of their new cars they have new teams of people to pull together.

On-track time is vital for the newcomers, who are just aiming to get on to the grid, but for the F1 regulars competing at the front of the pack there is a more delicate trade-off to consider.

From a chassis point of view, the big question is when to stop working on aerodynamic development and fix the design to get it built in time for on-track testing.

The crucial decision is choosing when the major parts - such as chassis, floor and sidepods - must be finalised in the wind tunnel and put into production.

The chassis is rarely changed during the season due to complexity and expense, so once its design is finalised there will be limited future development a team can make on it; floor and sidepods, meanwhile, can be changed more easily but still involve significant cost and time to develop and the knock-on effect on packaging of the car means that once the design is fixed it will not be changed for at least a few races.

This season, teams will likely launch their new cars in a spec that will last for the first four fly-away races then revise it for the start of the European season, so the later the design can be finalised the better it is.

There are two sets of pre-season tests available, the first in early February and the second in late February, and while most of the front-running teams are assumed to be aiming for the first - Mercedes and Ferrari will both be launching in late January - Red Bull has recently admitted it will not be attending and will not begin running their new car until the second set of tests.

This is not an oversight on their part, of course, it is a conscious decision that allowed technical head Adrian Newey and his design team extra time to hone their design as much as possible before a later cut-off point than their rivals, which was chosen to still give them what they believe is enough track time to complete systems checks and shake out any problems before the opening race.

A crucial factor in this decision is that Red Bull is confident in the abilities of its high-tech simulators in their Milton Keynes base, which can be used to test new parts and new ideas away from the track.

As Red Bull's rivals are pounding the tracks for real in the first pre-season test, those simulators will no doubt continue to work hard on testing new parts 'virtually' on the 2009 chassis while the new chassis, sidepods and floor go through their construction phase.

Red Bull boss Christian Horner believes this approach - the same approach they used before the 2009 season - has given Newey's team an extra nine days in the design process. And in F1, nine days is a lot of time... 

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