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To test or not to test - the in-season testing debate unravelled 02 Aug 2011

Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, Hungarian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Budapest, Hungary, Friday, 29 July 2011 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 11 March 2011 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari 150° Italia.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 11 March 2011 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) Team Lotus T128.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 11 March 2011 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Williams FW33.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 11 March 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, 9 March 2011 Jerome d'Ambrosio (BEL) Marussia Virgin Racing VR-02.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 10 March 2011 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02 leads Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F150 ?.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 10 March 2011 Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB7.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 10 March 2011 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) Williams FW33 and lollipop.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 10 March 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4/26.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, 9 March 2011 Jarno Trulli (ITA) Team Lotus T128.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 10 March 2011 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB7.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

From team principals to drivers, from engineers to fans, Formula One racing is a sport of obsessives. And from the careful construction of a motorhome menu to polishing a car after it’s left parc ferme, painstaking preparation is par for the course. It’s surprising then to find that in this bastion of minutiae most car upgrades only make it out on track for the first time during race weekends.

Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. If you rewind just five years, testing was king and test programmes were massive logistical exercises. Teams ran through lap after lap at the track, steadily evolving their cars and tweaking tiny details and set-up, with multiple test drivers (and entirely separate ‘test teams’) often drafted in to lessen the burden on the drivers and team members attending races. Throughout the year parts were evaluated, tyres tested, set-up options judged and young drivers assessed. It was a colossal operation which ran in chorus with the calendar.

But conscious of escalating costs, which more often than not resulted in developments that were imperceptible to even the most dedicated fans, the FIA began to impose increasingly stringent testing restrictions. In 2008, the regulations were amended to limit each constructor to 30,000 kilometres of testing per season. And in 2009 that was slashed again to 15,000 kilometres.

With in-season testing also banned - ‘in-season’ being the week preceding the first Grand Prix to December 31 - teams were effectively limited to just a handful of pre-season tests in February and March, although a small number of straight-line tests were (and) are permitted. Young driver training (one three-day test per year) and promotional events also don’t count towards the tally.

To put this shift into sharper focus, back in 2005 Ferrari racked up almost 75,000 test kilometres over 155 test days, whilst this year the Italian team have completed just 15 days and 7,000 kilometres. Meanwhile, Michael Schumacher - a big fan of testing - ran almost 17,000 test kilometres for Ferrari in 2006 (he raced just over 5,200 kilometres for the Scuderia that year). This season Schumacher has managed just 3,200 kilometres with Mercedes.

One direct result of the ban has been that the three hours of practice on Grand Prix Fridays have become highly valuable track time. As the teams’ only real opportunity to track test in-season developments, there’s been more running, more high-vis aero paint and more young drivers in evidence than ever before. A treat indeed for any fans venturing to the track on the weekend’s opening day of action.

Cost-wise, the reduction has also been of great benefit to the teams too. However, the recent off-throttle exhaust-blowing regulation changes shed light on the inconvenience of such a stringent ban, with teams unable to track test any of the modifications they made before the Silverstone weekend. Wind-tunnel testing can only help so much, and it’s worth remembering that that too has been significantly restricted.

Testing also used to be a great proving ground for young drivers, but nowadays restrictions mean that test and reserve drivers often get very little running in their team’s car. While some outfits - often further down the pecking order - have opted to give their reserve drivers Fridays outings, others don’t feel they can afford to do the same.

It’s already caused headaches this season, most notably when Sauber opted to replace an injured Sergio Perez at the Canadian race with McLaren reserve (and former Sauber driver) Pedro de la Rosa. Sauber’s inexperienced reserve driver Esteban Gutierrez had to sit back and watch.

But lately a change seems to be in the air. And if the headlines are to be believed, team chiefs may well be spending much of the summer break mulling over the pros and cons of a possible relaxation of the restrictions, which have been in force over the last three years, and a return of limited in-season testing next season.

The first murmurings about possibly relaxing the rules came courtesy of FIA President Jean Todt back at May’s Turkish Grand Prix. And as other more pressing concerns, like the new 2014 engine formula, have been resolved it’s fast becoming one of the hottest topics of discussion in the paddock, with the Sporting Working Group leading the dialogue between the teams.

In a recent Vodafone McLaren Mercedes phone-in, McLaren’s managing director Jonathan Neale summarised his and the team’s standpoint on a possible shift. Revealing that whilst some limited mid-season test time would be welcomed, he made it clear that costs cannot spiral out of control again and, given that most teams disbanded their separate test squads a few years back, thought must be given to the pressures already exerted on those travelling as part of the race team.

“I think, cautiously, yes (we would be in support),” he said. “However we don’t want to lurch from one part of the regulations to the next. We brought in restricted testing as part of the resource restriction agreement between the teams and the FIA, to be able to restrain some of the runaway costs. We reshaped the organisation and did away with some of the test team.

“That has other effects in that it’s more difficult to test out and try some of the younger engineers or mechanics and the pressure at the other end - for the race team, those travelling - is enormous. I think we are getting towards breaking point, as Ross Brawn has said in previous interviews. We have to be very mindful about the travelling community - those employees and their families.”

While it can be assumed that nobody would welcome a return to the cost-heavy, test-happy days often seen years ago, it seems there is significant support in the pit lane for limited in-season testing, with some even suggesting cutting the amount of pre-season work in order to release a few days for mid-season work.

“I think if the point is to share the workload and give a development opportunity to young drivers and mechanics then I’m in favour of it,” concluded Neale. “But if we get back into unbridled tyre testing and runaway costs then it would be counterproductive to the good work that we’ve done in the past.”

With plenty of details still under consideration, it seems likely the discussion could well continue for some months to come. Watch this space…

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