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 – and whether they used a KERS boost on their fastest laps.
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
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.
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?