The Crucial Role Of F1 Pre-Season Testing: Pit To Podium


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Formula 1 cars are intricately designed and meticulously constructed, but ahead of the season's inaugural race, they also serve as 200 mph scientific experiments. Despite a significant investment of time and resources in ensuring a new F1 car's speed in winter simulations, there always exists the possibility of malfunctioning once it exits the garage for the first time in real life. Therefore, F1 teams undertake a thorough debugging and fine-tuning process with their cars prior to the first race to ensure maximum speed and reliability. This process used to span over ten days of pre-season testing in Spain. However, to reduce costs, the number of test days has been cut down to three, occurring just a week before the first race at the same venue.


Reasons Behind F1 Testing

The first morning of testing usually involves running system checks on the car to ensure everything functions correctly. Despite having sophisticated test benches at their factories and likely completing a 200-kilometer shakedown prior to arriving in Bahrain, nothing can compare to running the car all day under the harsh desert sun. Early checks on the cooling, hydraulic, brake systems, and electrical systems on the first day are crucial to identify any potential reliability issues. In its race specification, an F1 car carries more than 300 sensors generating up to 90MB of data per lap, but during testing, these numbers increase to collect as much real-world data as possible.


Sensors on F1 cars, often too small to spot and usually placed under the bodywork, measure temperature, inertia, and loads. However, for understanding a car's aerodynamics, the sensors are often clearly visible. Large metal fences, known as rakes, are attached to the cars behind areas of airflow to measure air pressure and understand the flow structures around the car. These rakes comprise a series of pitot tubes, and their readings are compared with the teams' winter wind tunnel and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) work. If the real-world data aligns with the simulations, a team is already several steps closer to unleashing the car's true potential at the first race. If it doesn't, the team is already at a disadvantage.


Flow-Vis Paint Helps to Find Out Real-World Airflow

Another approach to understanding real-world airflow around a car's surfaces is to douse it in "flow-vis" paint and observe how the colorful water-based liquid spreads across the bodywork at speed. This surprisingly simple method allows engineers to determine if the aerodynamic surfaces are influencing the airflow as intended. Driver feedback is also crucial for understanding a new car. Small details like the seating position often need adjustments, and long days in the cockpit are the best way to determine what's comfortable and what's not. Steering feedback and brake feel are also early boxes to tick, although it can take more than half a season before a driver is truly satisfied with the finer details. More experienced drivers can also help engineers pinpoint where lap time is lost by describing the car's behavior through corners.


Once it has been established that the car's fundamentals are functioning as they should, teams focus on setup. Finding the right setup is key to unlocking performance, and understanding how a car will react to different ride heights, wing angles, and suspension settings helps engineers develop a toolbox of solutions to utilize in different situations later in the season. Engineers will dedicate large portions of testing to go through different setup combinations to determine what works and what doesn't across different fuel loads and tire compounds. Gaining as much knowledge as possible at this stage of the year can prove beneficial later in the season when handling issues that arise during competition. The goal by the final day of pre-season is to have a reliable car that responds well to setup changes, along with a wealth of data to inform the next steps of car development back at the factory.


Methods to Find Out Who Is the Fastest

F1 2024 Pre-Season Testing

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Lap times, as they appear on the timing screens, are rarely an accurate picture of the competitive order. A light fuel load and fresh soft tires can make an average car appear faster than the most competitive car on high fuel and used hard tires. Therefore, the order at the end of each day should be treated with caution. The teams having a difficult time in testing are easier to spot, as the most evident sign that a new car is struggling is a lack of mileage. While that usually indicates a reliability issue, it also means the team is not advancing with the car's performance simply because it is not getting the track time or data to progress.


Assuming the car is reliable, the vibe around a team during testing can also suggest where it stands. Engineers and drivers are always eager to downplay expectations at this time of year, but within the close-knit F1 paddock, confidence levels become increasingly easy to gauge after a few days at the track. Despite the fastest times for each team being potentially misleading, it is still possible to piece together a vague picture of who's quick and who's not by delving deeper into the available data. By recognizing certain patterns in the lap times, you can gain a better understanding of what's really happening and start making predictions about who has made the most significant performance leap over the winter.


Performance Runs are Very Helpful

F1 rankings after pre-season testing: Red Bull a class apart

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The performance runs during Formula 1 testing sessions involve teams meticulously evaluating their car's capabilities over a single lap. This process is discernible by the alternating pattern of "hot laps" and "cool-down laps" performed by drivers, as displayed on timing screens. Interspersing fast laps with slower ones is necessary to allow tire recovery and hybrid system recharging. Pirelli provides five tire compounds numbered C1 to C5, with softer compounds offering better performance but reduced durability. Temperature fluctuations throughout the day affect track conditions, with optimal conditions typically occurring after sunset. Fuel load significantly impacts lap times, with every 10 kilograms adding approximately 0.3 seconds. Determining a car's fuel load from the outside is impossible, leading to speculation and strategic secrecy among teams.


Long Runs are Also Vital, But Not Timesheets

Analyzing GPS traces of rival cars provides valuable insights into cornering and straight-line speeds, aiding in understanding true performance. Race simulations, where cars complete a full race distance without refueling, help mitigate uncertainties surrounding fuel loads. However, factors like track conditions and tire strategies influence results. Despite the importance of lap times, testing primarily serves to gather data and understand the car, making it crucial to interpret timesheets with caution due to varying conditions and strategic considerations like sandbagging.



While everyone is keen to be fast, the primary focus here is on gathering data and understanding the car, not setting blistering lap times. And while seeing who consistently clocks competitive times can give hints about potential frontrunners, it is important to remember that these times don't tell the full story. Teams test with different fuel loads and different tire compounds. Also, keep in mind that some teams might be sandbagging, which means they intentionally hold back their true pace and performance until the real action begins.  While some kind of order usually emerges from testing, it's not always representative of the first race. This year, the sole preseason test and the first race were held at the same venue, Bahrain, improving the chances of an accurate prediction.




Who are the drivers involved in the testing?

All twenty F1 drivers participated in the 2024 pre-season testing, with well-known drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, in addition to emerging talents like Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri.


Where was it broadcasted?

You could have viewed the F1 pre-season testing through multiple broadcasting channels, including Sky Sports F1 in the UK, F1 TV Pro globally, and various local networks depending on your region.


What was the 2024 F1 testing schedule?

The 2024 F1 testing was scheduled to occur at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir from the 21st to the 23rd of February, with each day's events taking place from 7 am to 10 pm local time.