Rights and wrongs of the testing ban

The testing ban has robbed rookies like Grosjean of precious practice time

The testing ban has robbed rookies like Grosjean of precious practice time

F1 Fanantic guest writer and Vee8 author Duncan Stephen looks at the problems the testing ban has caused this year.

This year has seen several major changes in F1, but among the biggest has been the ban on in-season testing. As is usually the case with sweeping rule changes, it has brought more than its fair share of unintended consequences.

The most obvious problem with the testing ban is the fact that substitute drivers now have little or no way of winding themselves up for a race weekend. This wouldn’t have been much of a problem last year, when all 20 drivers competed in every Grand Prix – an unprecedented situation.

This weekend Kamui Kobayashi will become the fifth rookie to make his F1 debut this year only one of which – Sebastien Buemi – did so in the season-opener at Melbourne.

At the start of this season, the grid looked more or less identical to last season. The only change was Sebastian Vettel moving to Red Bull to replace David Coulthard who had retired, and Buemi taking Vettel’s place at Toro Rosso.

It is reasonable to suggest that a lot of the reason for this stability was due to the uncertainty surrounding the ability of rookies to get up to speed. That may explain why marginal cases, such as Nelson Piquet Jnr or Sebastien Bourdais, were given second chances when perhaps they did not deserve them.

But while the testing ban may have given Piquet and Bourdais a second chance, it also hastened their exit from that second chance. In another era, Piquet or Bourdais may have been allowed to see the season out with a modicum of dignity in tact. But the only way for Renault and Toro Rosso to find out if their replacements were any good was to just throw them straight into the car. In this case, waiting until the start of the 2010 season is no good – they want to know now so that the matter is out of the way by then.

But now we run into another problem. Both Romain Grosjean and Jaime Alguersuari, lacking experience of driving these cars, have noticeably struggled to get to grips. They have been thrown in at the deep end, and you cannot blame them if they have failed to cope with the situation.

You don’t have to be a rookie to be disadvantaged by the lack of testing. Luca Badoer couldn’t get up to speed in his Ferrari, although that may have been expected since he hadn’t raced in F1 for ten years. His replacement at Ferrari, Giancarlo Fisichella, has meandered around in the bottom half of the field. Fisichella is a competent driver who finished second in Belgium with a Force India he was familiar with. But Fisichella has not had the chance to acclimatise to the F60 properly. If he was allowed to test, he might be putting in some decent performances.

Not even a seven times world champion could avoid being adversely affected by the testing ban. Michael Schumacher clearly needed an opportunity to prepare for a potential race drive. This left him scrabbling around trying to test old chassis on GP2 tyres in an attempt to get round the ban while assessing if his neck could stand the stresses of driving an F1 car again. This weekend Kobayashi is the latest driver to be thrown in at the deep end, and it is only sheer fortune that he got two sessions’ running in Suzuka last week (albeit in the wet).

Surely it is not right for inexperienced or out-of-practice drivers to be expected to go into a race completely cold. It is just plain unfair on young drivers, or drivers recovering from injury. But more than that, it has real safety implications on the racetrack. It is no surprise to see rookies make mistakes. But would, for instance, the Toro Rosso drivers have had so many major crashes at Suzuka if they had been given more time to test? Possibly not.

Why the testing ban isn’t all bad

The testing ban is not all bad though. Clearly it exists for a reason, and that major reason is cost. This remains the biggest political issue in F1 today. Placing a ban on testing is a useful way to help reach the goal of making F1 more financially sustainable.

In this respect, the testing ban appears to have been a roaring success. According to James Allen writing in August, the testing ban seems in fact set to become even more severe. Clearly, the clamour to reduce costs outweighs any issues surrounding young drivers who are struggling to get a break now.

Also in favour of the testing ban is the fact that is does not appear to have prevented teams from developing their car. Some feared that there would be little change in cars’ performance throughout the season. Instead, we have had a highly unpredictable picture, with cars varying greatly in performance as the season has progressed.

This is probably most notable in the case of McLaren. Arguably they had the slowest car at the start of the season. But come Hungary it was a proven race winner. For me, this achievement – made with almost nothing in the way of testing – is awe-inspiring. McLaren deserve plaudits for this amazing comeback in an adverse situation.

It could be the case that testing actually proved a distraction to the teams. I remember during one of his commentaries this year, the ever-opinionated Ian Phillips from Force India scoffed at the idea that the testing ban prevented development. It appeared as though he was implying that test teams liked to go testing at circuits in exotic parts of the world at their employers’ expense for a bit of a jolly, not because they wanted to make the car faster.

Despite his team’s demonstration of engineering excellence, McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen remains a critic of the testing ban. For him, “the season has been a bit silly, up and down.”

Silly or not, the up and down nature of this season has been its saving grace in my view. It is hardly as if the racing has been scintillating this year.

Overall, my feeling is that the testing ban is a good thing. But something needs to be done to allow inexperienced drivers a better chance to build up their skills and familiarity with their car.

The issue of quite how you do this is another that is fraught with difficulty. A nice idea might be for each team to bring a third driver to each race, and they can participate in a sprint race on Friday using spare cars. But this in itself would probably be expensive. The teams may resent the distraction from the more important business of their actual race drivers. And Bernie Ecclestone probably wouldn’t like it because it could detract from GP2 and GP3.

The testing ban is good in principle and may have helped spice up this season. But the problem of how to give young drivers experience in a convenient and low-cost way is a puzzle that is proving difficult to solve.

One idea put forward on this site two months ago was to bring back testing as an event prior to Grands Prix at different (but nearby) venues. Ecclestone has proposed something similar, suggesting teams could stay at Grand Prix venues an extra day and test on Mondays.

Could either of these ideas work? Have your say in the comments.

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44 comments on Rights and wrongs of the testing ban

  1. Ethnic_Tension said on 12th October 2009, 7:48

    I believe that the testing ban this year has gone too far. F1 needs to adopt the MotoGP practice where testing is done after a race weekend on the track just used. If this was done in F1 it would provide testing with reduced costs, provide for a good benchmark to test against (the previous day’s race) and allow rookies a chance to drive and learn.

    This is not to say that it should happen every race weekend, rather limit it to only a few. The track could charge a small amount for spectators to further help cover costs.

    • Prisoner Monkeys said on 12th October 2009, 11:26

      Bernie Ecclestone has suggested just that: teams would be able to do limited testing at selected venues on the Monday after race day.

    • Ned Flanders said on 12th October 2009, 11:28

      That would make sense. Why spend millions of pounds sending equipment all over Europe to test when it’s all at the circuit already?

      • Nitpicker said on 12th October 2009, 13:29

        It might cause a few logistics problems with back-to-back races though. Limiting the Monday testing to other race weekends would remedy that.

  2. Gazzaguru said on 12th October 2009, 7:52

    I think the biggest problem with F1 currently is that not enough thought goes into rule changes. Most rule changes seem to have been knee jerk reactions to cost cutting.
    However if you look at how this year has played out – the legal costs of Liar-gate, Diffuser-gate & Crash-gate, the extra development costs for 7 teams to re-develop their diffusers (following the outcome of Diffuser-gate). The cost to develop KERS and it’s inability to spice up the racing – other than for Lewis, Kimi and Felipe at a very few select races and only really the start.
    The cost saving of not doing any in season testing is far outweighed by the additional costs incurred by the F1 teams for the items mentioned above.

    As far as I’m aware all other racing categories have in season testing days. To have no in season testing is farcical for the supposed pinnacle of motosport. As this article has mentioned the main purpose of testing is to indentify and nuture new and exciting drivers, as well as improve the performance of the car. ie testing focuses on the racing aspect of F1 not the political and egotistical mashinations of the FIA, FOM and FOTA.

    The fact that F1 should be all about the exciting spectical of racing is something most of the people involved with the running of F1 have seemingly sadly forgotten about.

  3. Steph90 said on 12th October 2009, 8:04

    What really infuriates is that in the name of safety there are a million chicances ruining tracks but then rookies with no experience are just thrown into a race. I think this year’s batch haven’t been too bad, I don’t mind how old they are but I just don’t see anyone new doing that well with the ban.
    It may reduce costs but the devlopment race is still ongoing, Mclaren’s massive improvement must have made their accountants cringe and I wonder how much is being spent on a random area and then finding out their is no improvement and therefore a waste?
    I do think the test ban is a (sort-of) good thing overall, mainly as we don’t know which team will be where, but perhaps the rookies need to be able to get some mileage in the cars for, even just say, a couple of days or a day and that would be a big help.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 12th October 2009, 9:08

      in the name of safety there are a million chicances ruining tracks but then rookies with no experience are just thrown into a race.

      That’s a good point. It’s a similar thing with driving standards. We have HANS and cars that can withstand 200mph crashes, but drivers are allowed to push each other off the road…

      • Nitpicker said on 12th October 2009, 13:31

        …and complaints about the incoming ban on tyre warmers in the name of safety. Rookie preparation doesn’t seem to have been considered.

  4. DGR-F1 said on 12th October 2009, 8:27

    Maybe this is also leading up to an announcement of three car teams, the third car being the rookie ‘testing’ car?
    We have speculated about this before, but as far as I can see, the only way the teams would benefit from a testing ban would be to allow for a third car in some races (and maybe a restriction on how many too).
    I would much rather see either Free Practice opened up into a proper testing session before each race, or the suggested test-time after a race. Although some development can be achieved during the race, I don’t see how that works to the advantage of the drivers, who are there to be winners, and not test mules…..

  5. Patrickl said on 12th October 2009, 8:30

    Cheaper forms of Motorsport have in season testing too. It seems ludicrous that F1 cannot afford it.

    How much money does it safe really? There are direct benefits that they can scrap their test drivers and test team and that their are no logistics moving the cars to and from a test.

    I’d assume there are extra costs too. Not being able to replace a driver for instance. How much money does Ferrari lose because they cannot properly replace Massa and keep 3rd place in the championship? How much money did the teams lose to install double decker diffusers in a development process hindered by lack of proper testing? How much does Brawn lose by not being able to get their car back on the development track during their mid season slump?

    I doubt you’d come with a positive savings for many of the teams. Probably only the smaller teams benefitted since they have been able to keep up with the bigger teams while they are wasting money on their innefective firday test sessions.

    Testing was a good way to develop new drivers. That’s missing now too. teams have to make do with poorly educated rookies. As the article states, they are forced to put them in mid season because it’s the only way they have to evaluate them. That’s dangerous, expensive and bad for the sport.

    I’d say the monday test sessions would be a great idea. It shouldn’t cost too much. It allows rookies to test and reserve drivers to keep their skills up.

    • Hakka said on 12th October 2009, 12:30

      I’d assume there are extra costs too. Not being able to replace a driver for instance. How much money does Ferrari lose because they cannot properly replace Massa and keep 3rd place in the championship? How much money did the teams lose to install double decker diffusers in a development process hindered by lack of proper testing? How much does Brawn lose by not being able to get their car back on the development track during their mid season slump?

      There’s a logical fallacy here.

      Once the money comes in for FOM through their commercial rights and other revenue, the money going to the teams is fixed, so the teams are all in a zero-sum game.

      The total money is just redistributed between teams (which you touch on in your next paragraph, but downplay the small teams for some reason). So any money that Ferrari “lost” (sic) because they couldn’t replace Massa with a competent driver goes to another team(s). Any money that was “lost” (sic) because some teams didn’t have DDDs goes to the teams that did.

      So there was no net cost to the teams or F1 because of the reasons you bring up.

      Agree with the rest of your points regarding rookies.

      • Patrickl said on 12th October 2009, 14:55

        Don’t see how is there a logical fallacy in my argument when I’m questioning the original claim that not testing would save money. I just point out one direction why it could be wrong and you propose another.

        To be honest I don’t see where you are coming from. There is no fixed amount of money. Team budgets are not fixed on FOM money.

        For instance, I really wonder what Red Bulls budget has been for this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were right up there with the bigger teams.

        • Hakka said on 12th October 2009, 17:48

          Let’s take a specific case:

          How much money does Ferrari lose because they cannot properly replace Massa and keep 3rd place in the championship?

          Sounds like you’re saying Ferrari will make more money if they get someone who’ll help them secure 3rd place. You are right.

          My point is that this extra money will have to come from some other teams allocation (perhaps McLaren) – Ferrari winning 3rd place will not increase the net revenue for Formula 1 as a whole or the fraction that gets divvied up between the teams.

          So allowing teams to spend more may end up benefiting certain teams more than others (those who have more need for the extra resources, or those who spend it extra wisely), but the total money going into F1 or the teams will not change simply by allowing more testing.

          Not testing does in fact save money. You need to look at it in a macro sense, not on a per team basis, and it’ll become obvious.

        • What Hakka meant was that your examples all focus on money lost from losing position/performance, which is prize/position money from FOM. This amount is fixed, so if I ‘lose money’ from losing my position, some other team gets it so no money is lost when performance is affected due to the test ban.

          He;’s not against qyestioning test ban benefits – just your examples. :)

  6. I’m all for the testing ban. If you want to test new developments, do it on the Friday and Saturday of a Grand Prix weekend, in front of the paying folks in the grandstands.

    However, new drivers who haven’t done, say, 5 GPs in the last 2 or 3 seasons, should be allowed a certain amount of mileage — 150-200 kms? — prior to their mid-season debut.

    On the other hand, should testing be re-introduced, FOTA and the FIA should introduce 2 in-season testing sessions at Grand Prix circuits, after the race weekend, like MotoGP does.

    Alternatively, those in-season sessions should be held at locations where there’s currently no Grand Prix. E.g. at the Algarve circuit after the Spanish GP, or at Indianapolis after the Canada race.

  7. I don’t agree with bringing back testing in any form. Clearly, the ban hasn’t worked in preventing teams buying their way out of trouble, i.e. McLaren – it just lengthened the process a little. And of course, any “Bernie likes the idea” comment smells like a cash cow to me.

    Also, the real problem, of inexperienced rookies, would hardly be helped by just one more day on the weekend, if after three races they’re still not up to speed. The fact that Alguesuari is still having problems shows how that would at most be a drop in the ocean. The guy has only driven an F1 car for 18 days (3-day weekends over 5 races) remember, and Day 18 (regardless of his position and ultimate result) hardly looked that much better than day 12, so I don’t see why an extra 6 days would have massively helped him. And don’t forget, only 6 of those have been race distances raced in anger, something an extra test day can’t compensate for.

    I think then, the answer is to bring in third cars. They would run in FP1 (perhaps on their own) and then race later in the day after FP2, in which only the two main cars would be allowed. Only the 10 (soon to be 13) third cars would race, and would have their own mini-championship. The teams could then use the set-up data going into FP3 on a Saturday. This, or some other combination (such as racing them after FP3 instead), would not only give them testing and racing experience, but would in any case lay extra rubber on the track, which would be beneficial in places like Singapore and Valencia.

    Either this, or merge the third car with the as-now fairly redundant Formula two series. F1 teams would have technical partnership with a maximum of one F2 team, their rookie drivers would take one of their seats, and the series would be run closer to F1 specifications so the F1 teams could test their parts and drivers on them.

    • Steph90 said on 12th October 2009, 9:39

      Extra time for rookie before a gp would mean their first time in a car wouldn’t be when other driver’s were out on track too. It wouldn’t get them up to speed, unless given a fair amount of time but it would perhaps ease safety concerns slightly

  8. m0tion said on 12th October 2009, 9:23

    2 monday runs a year should do it. More risk taken on technology turning up is good for mixing it up and engineering ingenuity & vision like Keith says but it is hurting the 2nd drivers who often get only the baseline car. Nobody has 3rd cars on Fri/Sat so there is no solution to that and fans need to appreciate that some teams aren’t spending the same cash and effort on their second drivers.

  9. Ronman said on 12th October 2009, 9:47

    I like Ecclestone’s Monday idea… this way rookies get the time, teams get the development, but most important of all, the development will not give a team a definite advantage because it’s run after the race on that specific circuit.

    so just in case the engineers messed up with a wing, the team wont be penalized in terms of another team getting it right…

    it makes sense i think.

  10. Bullfrog said on 12th October 2009, 9:50

    Monday would just be a damp squib for me. No point developing your Monza wings after the race.
    An extra half-day or day’s testing on the Thursday before selected races would do it:

    - Young drivers would feature in the build-up
    - Their feedback on new parts would be vital for the racers
    - People would pay to watch. And eat and stay in hotels etc (maybe not in Turkey though)

    Only drivers not on the entry list could take part, so each team could run 2 cars if they wish, Ferrari could run 3 or 4…

  11. Limited running in a Monday is all that’s needed. Perfect example is mclaren who has no testing yet was still able to come up the grid. Fair enough it may have hit there wallet a
    slap but that was money saved from going testing 5 times a year.

    If your a rookie who comes in, races as niks points out to jamie a, and doesn’t improve over the course of the season then you should be out on your ****. These gus get paid millions if ya can’t do the job out ye go.

  12. sumedh said on 12th October 2009, 10:15

    Excellent article :). I am all for the testing ban as well.

    If critics say there is no point racing in empty grandstands of the Middle eastern tracks, I don’t see the justification of doing the same at Barcelona or Jerez.

    Clearly, testing ban hasn’t hurt the teams much. A team with huge resources – Mclaren – and one with minimal resources – Force India – both have made significant strides.

    About test drivers, I think its a bit premature to put the blame of poor performances by rookies on the testing ban.

    Luizzi in Force India has clearly not been affected (OK, he is not a rookie, but he hasn’t raced since end of 2007, I think).

    Fisichella turned from hero to zero inspite of so much driving experience.

    I think, the real reason is substandard rookies AND testing ban together, not just either. But in current economic climate, the welfare of rookies should obviously be secondary to the welfare of the teams.

  13. VitaRedux said on 12th October 2009, 10:22

    I disagree with the testing ban. I think the inexperience of some drivers is dangerous. Buemi is still relatively inexperienced but ruined qualifying at Suzuka. It wont take long for one of them to cause a serious accident.

    My vote would be for a limited number of testing weekends in the calendar.

  14. GeeMac said on 12th October 2009, 10:43

    The testing ban does need to be looked at again. In it’s current form it isn’t quite right.

    I like the idea of a MotoGP style test day (at a venue which isn’t hosting a race) for F1. It should be a 2 day test, with unlimited running. This would allow us all to see what the public’s appetite for F1 is a country instead of giving them a race and having no one show up.

    As far as the format of these test weekends goes, I think that there should be three of these weekends a year. You could have the first one after the first third of the season has been complteed, the second after the second third of the season has been completed and one about 1 month prior to the new season starting. All teams should be allowed to run three cars. This would allow teams which have made a bad start to catch up, teams which have started well to consolidate their position and allow teams in a mid year slum to recover. And would give a reserve driver track time in case he or she has to stand in for a race driver. Any comments?

    If a new driver has to come in he or she should be allowed to run a race distance (i.e a maximum of 200 miles) in the car which was driven at the last race by the driver he or she replaces. This would allow the driver to have track time in the car and prevent the team testing new parts. I can’t see other teams being happy about it, but what the heck! ;-)

  15. Testing on a Monday after a Grand Prix weekend could be a viable idea. While it would obviously make some adjustments in logistical schedules necessary, the additional costs could be manageable. Also, the teams would have recent, accurate reference data for the car on the track under comparable conditions, which would make such a post-race test both a good opportunity to reanalyse some things that might have been noticed on race weekend and give young drivers, rookies, or drivers returning to racing for some reason conditions where it’s possible to analyse and assess their performance.

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