Why no team wants to be top of the timesheet in F1 pre-season testing
Pre-season testing is the time of year when Formula 1 most resembles cricket, a sport normally at the opposite end of the speed spectrum.
Days can be drawn out and boring, only occasionally punctuated by moments of genuine drama and curiosity that suddenly make the long periods of nothingness seem worth it all along.
The fortunes of teams and individuals rise and fall from day to day, sometimes session to session, as the picture of the new season is formed piece by piece.
The key to success is scoring hundreds – 100-plus laps a day keeps the media glare away – and at the halfway point of each day’s action they pack everything away for an hour to have a spot of lunch.
It is a unique part of the F1 season, when hope springs eternal or for as long as your team isn’t the one that’s just caused the latest red flag stoppage.
For outside observers, the golden rule of testing is constantly repeated and always ignored.
Don’t read too much into the headline times.
Don’t read too much into the headline times because the teams, in their determination to keep secrets, cannot be trusted.
There are just too many variables in play – fuel loads, tyre compounds, track conditions and, in the days testing took place in Barcelona, wind – to make accurate assessments.
Better instead, the magazines would have you believe, to convert each team’s fastest lap into a percentage – which is nowhere near as confusing (yeah, right…) and twice as pointless.
Just because we are strongly advised against jumping to conclusions during testing, though, it does not mean we are going to stop trying.
If there was a moment for the façade of testing to fade forevermore, it surely came and went in 2019 when Ferrari, with the striking matte-red SF90 car, seemed to have the world at their feet.
Of the eight days of testing at Barcelona under an unseasonably warm February sun, Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc were fastest for half of them with Ferrari judged by most seasoned observers – including Lewis Hamilton – to have a raw pace advantage in the region of half a second.
Forza Ferrari? Not quite.
When the season finally started in Australia, the Scuderia were seven tenths off pole and not even on the podium, finishing almost a minute behind Valtteri Bottas who commenced a run of 10 victories from the first 12 races for Mercedes.
As Hamilton – with only Bottas to beat for the first half of the season – eased to his sixth World Championship, Ferrari were forced to wait until Spa in August for the SF90 to finally become a winner, the power unit later the subject of a controversial arrangement with the FIA that would leave the team in the competitive wilderness for two full seasons.
Mercedes had been accused of sandbagging over the winter in the aftermath of their resounding one-two in Melbourne, but the eagle-eyed would have spotted a deceptively quick lap set by Hamilton – good enough for only P10 on the second-hardest tyre compound in a heavily upgraded W10 – on the penultimate day in Barcelona.
Another clue, in hindsight, was the fact that the only other teams to finish a day of testing fastest that winter were Toro Rosso (sixth in the 2019 standings), Renault (fifth) and McLaren (fourth) – proof that testing can be and often is anyone’s game.
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Sandbagging is a term often associated with F1 testing yet the practice has evolved over recent years.
Where it would once refer to a team filling a car full of fuel – waiting for the moment, usually the first qualifying session of the year, to strike the opposition between the eyes – these days you are far more likely to find drivers backing off towards the end of breathtakingly fast laps to conceal their true pace.
The great irony is that in their attempts to downplay expectations and resist the temptation to light up the timing screens, the drivers reveal an inner confidence in their car and the team behind them.
That was the approach Vettel adopted at the beginning of another Ferrari resurgence in 2017, when after two winless seasons in three it was becoming increasingly clear that F1’s most famous team were back in contention.
On the penultimate day of testing and his final day in the car before the opening race, Vettel set the fastest time of the winter up to that point despite coasting to the line, the Prancing Horse not just rising again but positively purring.
Vettel’s faith in the SF70H was transmitted into the start of the season as he won three of the first six races, finishing no lower than second, yet car, team and driver were ultimately less agile and versatile than the formidable Hamilton/Mercedes combination over the season itself once the Silver Arrows’ infamous diva traits had been brought under control.
Max Verstappen’s belief in Red Bull was also slightly misplaced in 2020 when, as the time ticked towards the end of the final day of winter testing, he backed off in the final sector of laps on each of the two softest tyre compounds in Barcelona.
There was a feeling within Red Bull, as Covid came over the horizon, that the team finally had what was required to bring down the might of Mercedes in 2020, but when the shortened season finally commenced it quickly transpired that their confidence was 12 months ahead of schedule as Verstappen went on to win just twice.
Instead, a better indication of the frustrating campaign to come came via the eye test, specifically the footage from trackside of Verstappen and team-mate Alex Albon being repeatedly caught out by the unpredictable rear end of the RB16 – the characteristic that would effectively bury Albon’s Red Bull career.
It is preferable to refer to the evidence of your own eyes rather than the lap times during testing, yet there are moments when even that can be deceiving.
Indeed, this year marks a decade since McLaren shot to the top of the times in testing at Jerez, seemingly proving that there was life after Lewis who had made bold – and, most agreed, mindless – decision to switch to Mercedes over the winter.
It soon emerged, however, that McLaren’s standard-setting pace was a result of a suspension component being fitted the wrong way around when the car was assembled, leaving the car running at an unrealistically low ride height.
When the car was built as per the instructions the MP4-28 – a major departure from the highly competitive car of the previous season despite 2013 being the final year of the V8 regulations – never came close to hitting the same heights again.
That season, McLaren’s first without a podium since 1980, cost team principal Martin Whitmarsh his job and accelerated the competitive slide from which the team (Daniel Ricciardo’s Monza 2021 victory notwithstanding) are yet to fully emerge.
Perhaps the tale of the upside-down suspension of 2013 should be treated as a measure by which all teams should be judged in pre-season.
The best teams in testing are the efficient ones – the ones who quietly go about their business and always seem to have everything under control, who check each and every component once, twice, three times before sending the car onto the track.
The ones who go chasing the headline times, who make it their mission to win the winter war?
You’ll often find that they’re the ones with something to hide. They’re the ones with most to worry about.
They’re the ones most likely to let you down.
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