Are pre-season F1 testing times any use in predicting form for 2009?

Felipe Massa testing the 2009 Ferrari F60 at Mugello

Felipe Massa testing the 2009 Ferrari F60 at Mugello

With the launch of Ferrari?s F60 on Monday and the Toyota TF109 and McLaren MP4/24 to follow before the week is out, we?ll get our first impressions of 2009 F1 cars side-by-side very soon.

But how much can we really tell about how good the new cars are from watching testing? Would we all be better off ignoring the pre-season build-up until the first race at Melbourne arrives?

Why testing times can be misleading

We?re all familiar with how testing works each year: a bunch of teams head out to Catalunya or Jerez or somewhere else, and pound around covering as much as a Grand Prix weekend?s testing in a single day.

The little information we fans can glean from these test sessions is usually a bland PR quote from one the drivers (which they’ve probably never seen) and a simple ranking of the best times of the day. But often the importance attached to these statistics vastly outweighs how useful they actually are. Here?s why:

Different stages of development

As we get closer to the start of the season more teams will be running their completed 2009 cars. But at first we?re likely to see a mix of early 2009 and hybrid 2008/2009 machines. Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Force India won?t be running their ?09 cars until next month (nor will The Team Formerly Known As Honda, of course).

The cars raced at Melbourne usually have entirely different aerodynamic packages from those launched in January. And this year we have the added complication of who is and who isn?t running without KERS ?ǣ and whether they used a KERS boost on their fastest laps.

The unknowns

When you look at a list of testing times, think of how little it actually tells you about the test.

Who set their times early in the day, and who did the low-fuel glory run five minutes before the end of the session? Who lapped when the track was at its best, and who only went out after the oil had been dropped at turn seven and the sun was behind a cloud?

During practice sessions at Grands Prix complete lists of all the lap times for each car is available. But it seems no one is able or willing to provide the same thing for off-season testing.

Also teams often head off to different tracks, making side-by-side comparisons impossible. Ferrari and Toyota, for example, have begun conducting more of their off-season testing at Bahrain. As well as being a Grand Prix venue (unlike Jerez or Portimao) fewer teams means fewer failures and fewer red flag interruptions.

What we can learn from testing

Reliability

When a car judders to a smoky halt there?s no mistaking it?s suffered a mechanical failure. With new KERS technology on the cars this year reliability will be especially crucial going into the 2009 season.

Unlike in practice sessions during Grand Prix weekends, if a car stops on track during a test, proceedings are halted with red flags while the car is recovered. That makes it rather easy to spot who?s got a problem.

However sophisticated data monitoring techniques means teams are increasingly well-equipped to sense failures before they happen, and bring their cars into the pits before the smoke and flames start.

Pecking order

It would be unwise to look at a single day?s testing and conclude that team X is 0.05s slower than team Y, and driver A beat driver B by a tenth of a second. But taking several test sessions together we can form a rough impression of which teams will be fighting for wins and which ones will be a lap down before the first advert break.

But even these general assumptions should be handled with care. Rememer BAR?s tradition of showing promising times in the winter then under-delivering in the championship.

Also, keep an eye out for the team that unlocks the potential of their new car late in the day. BMW took a while to get a handle on their F1.08 last year, but once they did they were flying. And Ferrari?s F2004 was transformed when the team tried out new-specification Bridgestone tyres at one Imola test five years ago.

Do you bother following off-season testing? How useful is it for understanding how well the teams are doing?

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22 comments on Are pre-season F1 testing times any use in predicting form for 2009?

  1. From viewers perspective, pre-season tests can’t be taken for anything! They can’t be indicative unless the teams reveal the complete nature of the test. All we can know is the reliability of the car (to certain extent), but with respect to speed nothing can be said from the results!

  2. I follow pre-season testing because there’s no other F1 action to follow. It’s nice to see new cars and new developments, rookie driver et cetera. But I don’t read too much into session times, though.

  3. keepF1technical said on 14th January 2009, 8:12

    i remember being at the silverstone tyre tests back in the 90′s. We were looking on at the last section of the track. The williams were flying and in general they always backed off significantly at the end of the lap. The lap time glory was going elsewhere but no other team was backing off. So i dont pay any attention to lap times during the off season. Especially since BAR played silly buggers, using PR and spin rather than engineering.

    the intrigue and politics is far more interesting at this stage..

    • balls of steel said on 14th January 2009, 10:05

      The Wallys were not backing off towards the end of the lap!!!!……they was breaking down!!!! :)

  4. following the off-season testing definitely helps fighting the abstinentia ;-)

  5. How can a real fanatic, like we all are, not watch it.
    It is like asking a lion, not to eat meat.
    Do not lie. We all watch it.

  6. Adrian said on 14th January 2009, 9:57

    I love it, seeing the new cars, looking out for new developments, new liveries…fantastic…

    The times, don’t mean much, reliability will be interesting this year though.

  7. In a word no, pre-season testing times have never given any true idea about form for the new season so why should it start now.

  8. We can hardly see the pecking order in the practice sessions ahead of each GP, so testing will definitely not say much. I’ll be looking out for reliability, and perhaps which teams have done anything radical with car design. Ferrari’s aero package may have made some strides, but then again, these change drastically before Melbourne usually. I’m just getting excited thinking about the tests. Can’t wait for McLaren’s, BMW’s and Renault’s launches.

  9. Good article, Keith.

    I think that simulation facilities could have a real impact on this season too. This is why McLaren could rise as the team to beat this year. With the lack of track tests, the team that has better simulation facilities could get a real advantage.

    Grand Prix HAVE TODAY a short & interesting article exploring the matter:

    “McLaren is believed to be the only F1 currently using a dynamic simulator at the moment, but teams are incredibly secretive about what they are doing and the Woking team will not even confirm this. The team is believed to have spent as much as $40m on this and worked with British Aerospace engineers. The driver sits in a full-size F1 monocoque, in front of a large, curved plasma screen on which are projected images of the race tracks. The whole unit is mounted on a device called a hexapod, which is a motion platform which features six independently-actuated legs, the lengths of which change in order to orient the platform. Sound and imagery add to the environment created. Some of the simulators induce sickness because of a discrepancy between the perception of visual motion and the corresponding motion cues experienced by the human body. This has led engineers to develop dynamic simulators, which have the entire hexapod moving around to meet the body’s need for the sensation of real motion. This means that a simulator is about the size of a professional basketball court with the simulation unit moving around inside it. This is so effective that drivers are able to establish car set-ups before teams ever go near to the race tracks involved.”

  10. …And with you want to go further inside the virtual thing, they had another one HERE.

  11. Pete Walker said on 14th January 2009, 13:54

    I remember one time, around the turn of the century, when the Prost team set a time in winter testing that made everybody else look pedestrian. The trouble with testing is there is no scrutineering to check the legality of the cars and if your team is chasing down some sponsorship, lets face it, you’re going to go for a glory run.

    I’m with Jose on this one. I follow testing very closely. You should never read too much into the times set, but you do get interesting information, such has BMW Sauber’s F1.08 being very hard to drive in the early stages of its development. It just heightens anticipation ahead of the season. :)

  12. NDINYO said on 14th January 2009, 15:03

    what choice do i have? we are like flies on crap …

  13. In addition to this site, I like to listen to what the commentators like Brundle have to say, because one feels he has been privy to perhaps a little more inside information and he knows how to sift through all these variable and data…

  14. Boyce said on 14th January 2009, 15:34

    Usually pre-season times don’t give you a very accurate picture, but I remember everyone knew the McLaren was brutally fast before Australia 1998.

  15. Captain Caveman said on 14th January 2009, 15:39

    At the end of the day we are all addicted to it..

    What I tend to follow is obviously developments of the car which gives me something to talk about etc, but I find that even though the testing is limited in comparison to other cars and teams, I have felt that the testing seems to be more accurate and relevant in comparing drivers from the same team. Weber versus Buemi, etc

    This I find intriguing, plus the amount of time each driver has in the seat during the next few months, very much highlights to me a number of issues (or at least potentially) who does the team trust most for feedback, who is the car really being designed for, who is the better engineer/driver and not just driver in each team etc

    Come on …. just another 71 days to go

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