Pre-Season Tests and the Relationship Between Practice and Race Pace

Fraser MasefieldContributor IJanuary 30, 2014

JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA, SPAIN - JANUARY 30:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and McLaren drives during day three of Formula One Winter Testing at the Circuito de Jerez on January 30, 2014 in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)
Andrew Hone/Getty Images

Never before in the history of Formula One has there been so much importance attached to pre-season testing before the start of a new season.

The radical regulation changes put in place for the 2014 season means that every team on the grid is entering into the relative unknown as far as engine development is concerned.

The switch from normally-aspirated 2.4-litre V8 engines to 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 power units puts a huge onus on cooling the large Energy Reduction Unit (ERS) and turbocharger units that throw out an extra 160 bhp.

It means that there is a greater onus on reliability than ever before with Red Bull boss Christian Horner predicting in a recent interview with Bloomberg TV (via Autosport) that as many as half of the field could retire in the season opener.

So it has been borne out so far during the first pre-season test session of the season in Jerez, with several teams' cars grinding to a halt with engine-related issues after only a handful of laps. Renault in particular has struggled, its teams completing only 38 laps over the opening two days due to problems related to its battery energy stores, as reported by Autosport.

During previous pre-season testing sessions, teams knew more or less what was going to happen. The format had changed little barring a few aerodynamic regulation changes and new Pirelli tyre compounds, with the engine rules remaining stable.

Most cars were merely an evolution of the previous season’s machines with much of the work already carried out towards the end of the previous season. As such, testing evolved into a game of chess between teams. None knew what fuel loads or settings the others were running and you would often see parts of cars veiled or shielded from the prying eyes of competitors.

Little or nothing could be read into respective lap times because each team was running their own particular programme. So before the first flyaway races in Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain, nobody really knew what was going to happen.

The practice of running a car overweight in testing to shield its true pace from the opposition is a tactic known in the F1 trade as "sandbagging".

But because every team is in the same boat with the major engine and aerodynamic overhaul, Renault’s deputy managing director Rob White told Autosport that there will be little time to play such games this time:

When everybody is more or less in same place, at more or less the same time doing more or less the same thing there will be straightaway some signs about whether there are small problems that have been disruptive, or big problems that are extremely difficult to tackle, or whether it is a more controlled situation and things are running smoothly.

In terms of the outright performance of the different cars and teams, I think getting a true picture of the starting point of everybody will be quite difficult. And probably it is not that interesting as it is inevitable that the learning rate will be very steep and the starting point is probably less predictive than it would normally be. But I don't think sandbagging is going to be an option for anybody.

Last season, McLaren was the only team to tear up the rule book, as it were, and opt for a complete design overhaul of the previous season’s car. We know now that this approach met with disastrous results, but during pre-season testing, McLaren was often near the front of the lap times, so there was little inkling of what was to follow.

After only two days of testing so far, Jenson Button is of the opinion that McLaren are in a stronger position this time around, as he told Autosport:

Our first day last year was quick, but our car had its flaws and we could see that on day one. We had issues that were not going to be easy to solve and at this moment in time we definitely don't have those. There's no horrible issues with the car itself, no big issues with the power unit in terms of how it delivers.

The basic car is where we want it to be. How much we're going to add to this car, aerodynamically and in terms of the engine, is massive so having a good base is important. The great thing is I know exactly what they are and how we can improve the car.

Button’s words are certainly cause for optimism for McLaren fans, but at this current moment in time, that’s all they are.

And that’s the beauty of trying to judge a car’s race pace through its pre-season testing form. You just can’t. And with this season in particular, nobody will know the true nature of how the grid may develop until the first handful of races are out of the way.

Even after then, the engine reliability issue may throw up a few unlikely surprises. Seeing a Caterham or a Marussia in the points may happen sooner than you expect.