Rights and wrongs of the testing ban

Posted on | Author Duncan Stephen

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.