We have seen the first two pre-season test sessions take place, in Valencia and Jerez, and with only 3 weeks to go to the start of the new season, it is not clear how that opening race in Bahrain will go and who will be the team to beat.
With the next test session taking place in Barcelona, and the final test in Bahrain the week before the Grand Prix, that will give some indication as to what we could expect leading into the first few races of the season as these sessions are taking place on current Grand Prix race tracks.
Testing is not really about the lap times and who is fastest on each day. So what have we and the teams learnt so far from running around at two venues in Spain which are not used for racing?
One thing that these tests have allowed the teams to do is get their new cars on the track. With the rule changes in for 2011, we will see cars fitted with KERS again, DRS (Drag Reduction System), as well as the changes in aerodynamic rules, and the increased minimum weight limit, added to what could be the biggest change of the year, the switch of tyre manufacturers from Bridgestone to Pirelli.
Eight of the twelve teams brought their 2011 specification cars to the first test at the Circuit de Ricardo Tormo in Valencia, with only McLaren, Force India, Marussia Virgin Racing and Hispania Racing Team yet to show their latest challengers. These four teams brought their 2010 cars to the first test which would have allowed them to gain data on the new tyres either with interim packages (as McLaren chose to do), or allow their drivers more track time, especially with the rookies that are joining Force India and Virgin respectively.
The first test session is usually used by all the teams to run systems checks on their new cars, making sure that all elements of the new package are running without problem, rather than chasing lap times. Most teams confirmed they were carrying out checks on KERS and the moveable rear wings as well as understanding the Pirelli tyres on their new cars.
The teams would have starting to work on durability of the tyres in the second test at Jerez and to also make sure that they have the reliability heading in to the season. All but HRT attended this session with their 2011 cars, with the Spanish team choosing to send their 2010 car to Monza to carry out filming for Pirelli. Every team is still learning about the Pirelli tyres and with the limited testing days allowed now, they are trying to gain as much data as possible in order to understand how the tyres degrade so that they can make any changes to the car as needed to reduce the rate of wear of the tyres.
Most teams would have been carrying out long runs on heavy fuel loads to understand the degradation of the tyres. With teams having the option to run any of the tyres Pirelli brought to the track, and with each team running their own fuel loads, the times would not really show a clear picture of the true pace of the teams.
So far at all the tests, we have seen a different driver topping the times at the end of each day. Without knowing the circumstances of the runs that these drivers did their best laps on (new tyres, fuel loads) it is hard to judge the relative pace between the teams.
As we head in to the final two tests, we will see the teams run more race simulations and qualifying runs to start to chase performance. All the teams will look to bring some updates to their 2011 cars for the first race, so the benchmark will no doubt change after the final two tests and leading into the first race.
This for one makes testing confusing for the fans, who have been able to follow the preseason test sessions on a number of outlets on the internet as well as be able to attend the sessions, as the lap times would not really show which teams will be at the top come the Bahrain Grand Prix. The teams have their programs to run through to prepare for the start of the season, and will not be overly concerned about how their pace is seen by the public.
Borrowing an idea from MotoGP, it would be fan friendly to hold a similar event to the IRTA Qualifying Hour for the BMW Award. For those unfamiliar with this format, this is an hour test session (which has previously been televised live) where the riders are given unlimited laps in this hour to set the fastest time. The incentive of this session is that the rider at the top of the pile at the end of the hour wins a BMW.
Running this event in Formula 1 would be something for the fans to enjoy. It would increase the anticipation for the start of the season, and with fans able to attend it would draw the crowds in who would get to see cars running on the track and going for the fastest lap times. Televising this would also mean a first look at all the cars on track before the teams get to the first race for the Grand Prix weekend and allow the television companies around the world to use this session as part of their season build up.
It is rare to see all 24 cars going for pure lap times during the season. In qualifying 1 the fastest cars are usually just doing enough to get through to the next session so they are not really going flat out chasing a lap time. This ‘GP Zero’ (as the MotoGP version has been dubbed) is an idea purely for the fans enjoyment to lead into the new season and to see a true picture of the order of the cars before the start of the season.
Using race tracks that are not currently on the calendar for this session would also allow for more exposure in countries that currently do not hold a race, as the fans who attend would be able to see Formula 1 cars running and 24 drivers going flat out.
There are issues logistically, with the teams having to move a whole operation to a venue to run both cars for an hour session. Holding this hour session during one of the preseason tests is how MotoGP does this, with the teams going back to their testing programs once this hour session is over.
FOTA have made big strides in bringing F1 closer to the fans of the sport beyond just a race weekend. Group tests and allowing fans access has been a major step in this, following on from that, a travelling ‘GP Zero’ style qualifying hour would be a good step to bring Formula 1 to new areas, or areas that no longer get a chance to see Formula 1 cars running.
For the fans, this would allow them to clearly see what is happening on the track without having to endure any long analysis of tyre wear and fuel loads, and this would undoubtedly appeal more to the casual viewer. If this means more fans following Formula 1, then for the sport, that can only be a good thing.