F1 testing used to be an all together different affair to the rare, restricted and highly limited phenomenon we have today.
When I began my Formula One career at the turn of the century, I joined McLaren’s test team as a number two mechanic. There’s the first difference to today, a ‘test team’.
Almost all of the teams in the pitlane had, back then, a dedicated crew of guys, sizable in number and kitted out with enough equipment to run two cars at any test. Pretty much all of the kit you see teams filling their garages with today, was replicated by their test teams. At McLaren we had our own shiny trucks, three of them, Mercedes had their own ‘test’ truck too. We had ten mechanics, five dedicated to each of our two ‘test’ cars, truckies, engineers, all of the tools and equipment the race team had and an all year round schedule to keep us going.
We’d go to a group test with most teams in the week preceding every Grand Prix week and run two cars round for three or four days. Our job would be to relentlessly evaluate setups, tyres and development parts before sending them directly from there to the race team where they were bolted onto the race cars for the GP.
If we had something a bit secret to try out, it wasn’t at all uncommon to hire out an entire circuit exclusively for a week. We’d set up our garage as normal in the pitlane, circuit security would prevent anyone else from setting foot inside the perimeter fences and there were certainly no photographers on site. It was always a slightly strange occasion, not having anyone else around, but for the team there were no interruptions and at a time where the rules were a little more ‘bendable’ and open to interpretation than they perhaps are today, new, occasionally ‘controversial’ concepts could be developed in private. Back then, more so than now, teams would put enormous effort and resource into keeping something secret which they knew might be protested and quickly banned, if it meant they could race it and gain advantage for just one event.
Of course all this testing and test team business cost a absolute fortune. When tobacco companies were forced to take their cash elsewhere and Formula One suddenly realised that the good life it’d enjoyed for so long wasn’t actual reality, they had to take a good hard look at the way they operated.
The old testing model simply couldn’t be sustained and, to cut a long story very short, we arrived at the place we’re in today.
This week marks the first test of the 2013 season and is one of only three, one car tests the teams will take part in before heading off to Australia in a few weeks time, stark contrast to the eight weeks or so with two cars, completed pre season in years gone by.
This week in Jerez will be about shaking the car down initially, although some will have already run briefly for filming days before Tuesday, some will also have significant upgrades already from their launch configurations only a few days earlier.
When the track first goes green we’ll see everyone completing installation laps before a thorough inspection by the mechanics, looking for any obvious signs of problems. With it being the first occasion the car’s run, it’s the first real opportunity to find out if brake ducts rub on wheel rims or tyres as they flex under load, or if bodywork sits too close to exhausts and overheats. The drivers will find out for the first time just how comfortable their new seats are, how effective the mirrors are and if their new pedal setups are all ok.
Engine technicians will monitor their units in the various cars, they’ve all done many miles on dynos, but each new car has it’s own peculiar resonance which may not always work in harmony with that of the power plant or it’s ancillaries. Each team, even if with the same engine, has a very different installation in their car and the routing of pipework, cabling, sensors and exhaust solutions etc, can all pose difficulties in the beginning.
An installation lap, as well as giving the technicians physical evidence of the car in it’s dynamic state, produces a wealth of valuable data for the engineers to pore over. With the car back in the garage, driver out and mechanics crawling across it looking for issues, it’s not uncommon for a data engineer to pop a head round the garage wall and point out that a sensor’s failed or a hydraulic suspension link’s not operating as it should, before anyone’s found the problem on the car itself.
After the initial flurry of installation laps, there’ll be the inevitable lull in proceedings as everyone checks, adjusts and checks again. Some will find problems, some more serious than others and for those, the solutions and redesigns will begin to be sketched and thought up immediately. Factories will have photos sent back within minutes of the car stopping and trackside engineers will be on the phone to designers talking over the successes or failures of their drawn components.
Once everyone’s happy that everything’s ok, teams will think about returning to the track. The first day’s about getting mileage onto the car rather than laptime, so whereas normally track conditions would play a more significant role in when to go out, as long as there’s no danger foreseen, it’ll be back out for a slightly longer run.
After that it’s more of the same, checking, adjusting, listening to feedback from the driver about his visibility, seating position, aero buffeting on his crash helmet, steering feelings, throttle response, brake warm up, any launches he’s done, gear changes etc etc. Only once the driver, engineers, data analysts, mechanics and everybody have built up confidence in the new kit, will they start to tentatively push things into longer and faster runs.
No matter what the time sheets say at the end of the three days, only the teams themselves will know how happy they are with their cars and even then they’ll be naturally cautious in not knowing what everyone else’s thinking about their own. Within hours of hitting the circuit, each team’ll have a stack of hi-res photos of key components of everyone else’s car and the analysis and evaluation begins. The game of secrecy and espionage isn’t quite what it used to be in Formula One, but it certainly still exists.
Between now and the first race, some cars will morph dramatically as the various options they already have in the pipeline prove successful or not, or any which have proved obviously successful on other cars can be successfully transferred. I clearly remember arriving at the first race one year with a front wing on the car coded ‘FW13’ as it was the thirteenth significant upgrade from the original one produced back in January.
The in depth analysis across the internet and beyond this week of the 2013 cars released into the public domain, may need seriously re-writing come mid March.