Formula One testing gets back underway this week in Bahrain for the final three days of track running ahead of the first race. The test will take place on the same circuit that will host the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, meaning teams will have no excuse for turning up unprepared when the new season starts on March 20.
The focus of the teams will be on gaining as deep an understanding as possible about their cars, but that won’t stop observers from trying to piece together a competitive picture.
Below are five key things to look out for to understand who looks competitive and analyse whether F1’s new regulations have had the desired effect.
By the end of this week’s test there should be a clearer picture of who will be competitive at the opening races of the season. After the first test in Barcelona at the end of February, four teams emerged in good shape — Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes and McLaren — but that’s not to say they will all be in the fight for victory in Bahrain or that another team won’t be able to join them.
The outright fastest times from testing are rarely a reliable guide to true performance due to differing fuel loads, engine modes, tyre compounds and track conditions (AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda was second fastest by the end of testing last year), but look a little deeper into the data, and a more reliable picture emerges.
One way of removing the uncertainty over fuel loads is to look out for teams attempting “race simulations.” Typically, each driver will aim to complete at least one race simulation before going to the first race so that he can get a feel for how the car performs over a grand prix distance as the fuel runs down and the tyres wear out.
In order to complete a race distance without returning to the garage to refuel, cars will need to leave the pits at the start of the run with close to the maximum fuel load of 110kg. And once we know cars are starting on a comparable fuel load to complete the same number of laps, it makes it much easier to compare performance.
It’s not an exact science, as the time of day, track conditions and tyre strategies can skew the results, but as a general rule it is the best way to build a true picture of performance from testing.
Race simulations can be easily spotted by a series of slow but steady lap times over long runs that are interspersed by race-style pit stops. Alternatively, if a driver’s pit board is counting down from 57 laps (the length of a race at the Bahrain International Circuit) the chances are they are attempting a race sim.
By working out an average lap time — removing anomalies caused by traffic or red flags from the 57 laps which make up a Bahrain Grand Prix — it’s possible to get the best indication of how quick a car really is compared to its rivals. ESPN will provide full analysis of long runs and short runs to build a best guess at a competitive order by the end of testing.
The pace of development will be rapid this year as teams embark on a steep learning curve under Formula One’s new regulations. That’s good news for fans as the potential for big jumps in performance should mean the competitive order remains fluid for most of the season. As a result, even if a team finishes this week’s test off the pace, it could be back in the running in a few races time.
It also means that the order we saw emerge at the end of the last test, with Ferrari posting some of the most impressive times, could change again this week. Mercedes and Red Bull will both bring major updates to the second test and, if simulations at the teams’ factories are to be believed, they should both result in a significant steps in performance. Keep an eye on the Mercedes’ sidepods, which are expected to shrink in size on the latest iteration of the W13 as the world champions’ “true” 2022 car hits the track for the first time.
In 2019, Mercedes followed a similar development plan. At the first test the car looked uncompetitive and relatively unrefined, but by the second test almost all of the visible aerodynamic surfaces had changed and it quickly became the class of the field.
The idea behind the tactic is to allow as much development time as possible for the car ahead of the first race. A simplified version of the design can be signed off in advance of the opening test, in the knowledge that its main purpose will be to make sure the mechanical elements of the car are sound, and then focus can switch more to performance at the second test when a more extreme version of the same concept is rolled out after benefitting from as much time as possible in the wind tunnel.
But not all teams will roll out vastly upgraded cars at the second test. Ferrari, which appeared to have the fastest car at the opening test, has already made clear that no major upgrades are planned for Bahrain. Instead, the team will focus on extracting more performance from its existing package, which showed potential at the first test but was not without its problems.
It’s impossible to predict which approach is the correct one. Assuming Mercedes and Red Bull have got their sums right back the factory, the updates should provide a significant performance boost. But Ferrari has the advantage of gaining significant data on its car in Spain that will then help the team uncover more performance when it hits the track in Bahrain in different conditions.
Although it may not have been factored into the major upgrades planned before the first test, all teams will be hoping to eradicate the porpoising issues they faced in Barcelona. The unusual sight of cars bobbing down the pit straight became one of the main talking points from the first test as teams were caught out by a negative side effect of the return of ground effect aerodynamics.
This phenomenon has been dubbed porpoising as it described the movement of a porpoise as it travels through water.
Part of F1’s new regulations gives teams more freedom to use the underfloor of the cars to generate downforce. Look at a 2022 car from behind and you will see two tunnels running under the length of the floor, which are used to generate low pressure and suck the car to the track.
In theory, a lot of downforce can be gained by running the car close to the track surface, but if it gets too close or the floor hits the track, it has the potential to disrupt the air flowing under the car and result in a sudden loss of downforce. As that happens the car lifts back up on its suspension to a higher ride height, only for the flow of air to reattach under the car and push it back down towards the track surface as the downforce loads up again.
If this on/off switching of downforce happens over and over again, the car starts to bounce up and down, which is not only a problem for consistent downforce but also for the driver’s comfort, his visibility, and potential damage to the underside of the car.
One solution is to run a higher ride height, but that comes with a loss of performance. Instead, teams will be hoping to tweak their floor designs to make them less sensitive to the problem while retaining as much downforce as possible. As a result, keep an eye out for new flicks, holes and cuts in the floor edges to help condition a more reliable flow of air underneath the car.
As impressive as the 2022 cars look, the main purpose of the new regulations was to increase the chances of overtaking. Despite some positive noises from drivers who were able to run close to rival cars in Barcelona, it’s still not clear how much the situation has been improved and if it will result in more thrilling wheel-to-wheel action this season.
It’s unlikely there will be a definitive answer at the end of the second test either, but it should provide a few more hints. Bahrain has historically been a better circuit for overtaking than Barcelona, where the first test took place, with opportunities to pass into Turns 1 and 4 — as well as Turn 11 for anyone feeling brave.
However, one overtaking factor that may have lessened as a result of the new regulations is the power of the slipstream for the following car. Because the new cars are designed to create a smaller wake and throw turbulent air up high rather than at the car behind, there’s a theory that they no longer create such a big hole in the air on the straights to allow the car behind to experience a significant reduction in drag and close in.
With its long straights, Bahrain should be a better test of that theory, although the good news is that DRS can be used to artificially give the chasing car an advantage on the straights if the slipstream is less powerful this year. Either way, it seems unlikely the overtaking situation will worsen under the new regulations, and the potential to watch cars chase each other through high-speed corners will create some stunning visuals for fans watching on TV.
Another key factory in the quality of racing in recent years has been the tyres. Drivers have consistently criticised Pirelli for producing tyres that overheat too easily when their car enters wheel-to-wheel combat, with the overheating resulting in an irrecoverable drop in performance.
As a result, Pirelli’s new 18-inch low-profile tyres have been designed to address this problem by creating compounds and constructions that are less prone to overheating and are capable of recovering performance if they do. The early signs from the first test is that the tyres performed well in this regard, although that was in cool conditions and on a circuit that punishes the front tyres more than the rears.
Bahrain will offer a completely different challenge for Pirelli, with high temperatures, a rough track surface and a layout that consistently punishes the rear tyres adding up to a heavy workout for the new rubber. If the 2022 tyres can handle the heat and provide consistent performance even when following another car, it will bode well for racing throughout the season.