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Testing, Testing, Testing... 10 Aug 2006

Jose Maria Lopez (ARG) Renault Formula 1 Testing, Day Two, Jerez, Spain. 20th July 2006. World ©  Patching/Sutton. Pedro de la Rosa (ESP) McLaren Mercedes MP4/21 Formula 1 Testing, Day Two, Jerez, Spain. 20th July 2006. World ©  Patching/Sutton. Robert Kubica (POL) BMW Sauber and Nick Heidfeld (GER) BMW Sauber. Formula 1 Testing, Day One, Jerez, Spain. 19th July 2006. World ©  Patching/Sutton. Neel Jani (AUT) Scuderia Torro Rosso Formula 1 Testing, Day One, Jerez, Spain. 19th July 2006. World © Patching/Sutton.

When it comes to safety and technology, nothing is left to chance in Formula One racing - there is far too much at stake for the teams. To maximise the safety of new parts and materials and to push forward the development of the tyres, teams invest a huge amount of time and money on testing all year round.

Even in the 1980s, it was only possible to cope with the testing needs of the Formula One teams with separate specialist test teams. The main issue was not only the technology, but increasingly the safety of the cars. Even though computer technology has since developed extremely quickly, and engineers can now use powerful simulation programmes to test entire cars in the wind tunnel, there has been no reduction in the testing work out on the track itself. On the contrary: even the most powerful computers have difficulties with two of the most important factors dictating the performance of a race car - the tyres and the driver.

“If the handling of the car is not good, the driver can compensate by choosing a different line and can still get a good lap time,” explained Williams engineer Frank Dernie to team sponsor Allianz. “The computer doesn’t know how to do that.”

With tyres too, the engineers can only achieve so much with simulation programmes alone. The performance of the tyres, which by their very nature play a decisive role in the safety of Formula One racing, simply depends on too many different factors. However much information you collect about the aerodynamics of your car in the wind tunnel, the findings will not produce the desired results unless you can predict exactly what effect these different factors will have on the tyres. No wonder most of the teams’ testing time is dedicated to the tyres.

But aside from enhancing the tyres, Formula One teams pursue two main aims with their tests: on the one hand, they check the performance and set-up of the cars and, on the other they search for reliability. That is becoming more and more important as in the future an increasing number of components will have to be used for longer periods, not least in order to save costs. So the tests - the teams have agreed a total of 36 test days for 2006 - also represent an essential safety factor.

The driver plays a key role in the test team, which includes about 40 people in the case of Williams. The pressure is extremely high, and young rookies often find it hard to cope, so the top teams decided many years ago to give this job to drivers who can compete with the race drivers in terms of experience and speed. For instance, Alexander Wurz, who joined Williams as a test driver this year, has already driven 53 Grands Prix.

“Basically, you want to achieve exactly the same in the tests as in the race - to be as quick as possible,” says Wurz. For the engineers, his impressions and feedback are the key to improving the performance and the safety of the car, but that only works with total commitment: “When you’re testing, 100 percent of the time you are driving at the limit,” says Wurz. “There are no tactical games. Whenever you leave the pit lane, you give absolutely everything to register the fastest possible lap time.”

Advanced communication channels are used to exchange information between the test team, the factory and the race team. For example if the Williams team is testing somewhere in the world, Frank Dernie is informed live in his office about every completed lap via a laptop and dedicated line.