Will Gray

Tech Talk: Can a testing return work?

Will Gray

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Formula One teams are tentatively discussing a return to
in-season testing next year - but with the current cost-cutting focus how will
it take shape and can it really work?

Since the ban on in-season testing in 2009, which was
introduced to reduce costs, cut down on manpower requirements and limit
non-lucrative 'behind closed doors' running, the last few seasons have seen
teams frantically trying to test new parts during the Friday of a Grand Prix
weekend while also trying to work on set-up for the weekend ahead.

If a new part doesn't work or takes more time to test
than expected, teams risk not having the time to understand the complexities of
the new tyres and set-up requirements for that particular circuit in time, and
that can play havoc for qualifying and the race.

In a way, it means the teams that get their car right
first off have the advantage through the season as everyone else is spending
more valuable time on a Friday playing catch-up than chasing set-up.

Now, however, it appears teams are keen to find a happy
medium where they can do some in-season testing away from the races - and the
FIA boss Jean Todt has declared himself open to discussion on this, stating he
will "push for a few days of free testing during the season as soon as
possible but by respecting the rules."


The heyday of in-circuit testing was 2005, when there were
just over 250 days of testing (in some instances several tests were run in
different places on the same day). Some 144 of those test days were run during
the season, between early March and late September.

In that year, Ferrari even tested on the weekend of the
opening race of the season and by the year end they had completed almost
75,000km of running, with dedicated test driver Luca Badoer doing almost
30,000km of that himself. In total, the 10 teams on the grid that year did
almost 400,000km of testing.

In dramatic comparison, last year there was just 19 days
and just under 80,000km of running amongst the 12 teams, with no testing taking
place during the season.

It was not a sudden cut to testing but more of a slow
phase-out, which was instigated as the teams began to crumble under increasing
costs and manufacturers began to pull out.

A natural decrease saw the number of testing days reduced
to below 200 in 2006 and in 2007 it was under 100. With running already in
decline, each team was limited to 30,000km of testing in 2008 and in 2009 in-season
testing was banned and testing was limited to 15,000km out-of-season, allowing
for just a handful of pre-season test days and one post-season young driver


The reduction in testing has not only reduced running
costs and personnel and kerbed the excesses spent on the car development in
recent years, however, it has also limited driver development.

Interestingly, 2005 saw 65 different drivers participate
in some form of testing, with a large number of those getting behind the wheel
of an F1 car for the first time - including eventual world champions Lewis
Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

Aside from those two, however, very few of those drivers
ended up in F1 and many runs were promotional opportunities, prize drives or
the chance for the smaller teams to sell places to get some extra cash.

That said, the chance of regular testing paid off for
Nico Rosberg and Heikki Kovalainen, who gained valuable time that year before
their F1 race debuts, and Hamilton and Vettel both also went on to more regular
and beneficial testing in 2006 before their first Grands Prix.

Now, the young driver test aims to offer that testing
opportunity for rookies and, indeed, there were 44 different drivers who took
part in testing last year - but it is much more limited running than before,
and the days of having thousands of kilometres under the belt before a race are
long gone.


Todt's comments seem to suggest the push for more
in-season testing is focused on expanding that young driver concept by adding
an extra young drivers' test during the summer.

If so, will that really be enough to please the teams?
Probably not - because young driver testing is not actually very beneficial for
either car or driver.

Running is so limited the driver cannot get truly
valuable experience in the car and, even with pre-test simulator work, they are
not able to learn quickly enough to be of benefit to the team in terms of car
development. Even if there is another in the middle of the season, that situation
will remain the same.

Also, having just one additional test will be potentially
unfair because the benefit derived from that test depends on what stage of
development a team is at - and at worst it could force the teams to all develop
major upgrades at the same time, negating the opportunities we currently have
of varying relative competitiveness depending on when new developments are

The best solution, perhaps, would be for four tests
sessions across the year, each taking place at an F1 circuit in the days after
the Grand Prix, with each team having to run young drivers in two of those
sessions, depending on which stages of the season are less important for their
car development.

So while the impetus is there for change, whether the actual
plan goes ahead will be very much down to the detail...

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