Monday, August 15, 2011

A Return to In-Season Testing is close

I love testing in Formula One. In it's most elemental form it is just practice, but given the level of technology and connections teams have to aerospace companies it is akin to NASA doing research and development projects. I guess only complete nerds would get satisfaction of looking at test times, test programs, analyzing test photos looking for new components on the car. When F1 became more standardized with restriction on designs, engine development being frozen and continuation of a single tire supplier, they also saw the need to put mileage restrictions for on-track testing in an effort for reduce cost.

In 2009, there was an in-season testing ban put into effect. Gone were the days of teams doing 40,000 miles of testing. Since then teams are only allowed to test before and after the season during designated test sessions(6 tests in 2010 and 5 in 2011). In response, teams moved more aggressively to highly advanced simulators to supplement the development work they do with computational fluid dynamics (CFD), wind tunnels and shaker rigs. The teams seem pretty content with the current arrangement as it did reduce cost and freed up resources. Teams no longer have designated test squads and working conditions are more reasonable relatively speaking.

However, there are side effects of no in season testing. Young drivers have no way of building up F1 experience other than simulator work, reserve drivers young and old could not stay sharp and teams could properly evaluate drivers. Luca Badoer in 2009 subbing for an injured Felipe Massa gave embarrassing performances not in line with his ability, but he hadn't been in the racecar in 10 months. It was the same for Michael Schumacher when he could not test current machinery to see if he could be Massa's substitute. In 2011, drivers like Bruno Senna, Jules Bianchi, Esteban Gutierrez and Nico Hulkenberg deserve a good evaluation.

This year there seems to be a real effort and possibility that in-season testing returns to F1 as FIA president, Jean Todt and Pirelli are very much in favor of the idea. Todt thinks the ban has been a failure and silly that teams can not run during the season and for the side effects mentioned above. Pirelli are keen to have it return because they are feeling the tire development squeeze in that they only gain data and experiment at the Grand Prix and essentially use a 2 year old ex-Toyota F1 chassis to carry out further development work.

Proposals on the table are a good compromise for allowing young drivers to gain experience and teams in general to get data to improve their cars; and it is safe to say that Pirelli will take any opportunity to run current cars. The proposal that appears to be most workable for teams is the idea of a single three-day test that will take place after the "fly-away" races, late April/early May 2012. But if the FIA and teams can not agree on the terms for 2012, Todt is on record saying that he will push through a provision for in-season testing for 2013 regardless, but clearly is looking for consensus.

In any case, it certainly will be nice for F1 nerds everywhere to pullout their spreadsheets, go to their live timing websites and chronicle test programs during the season.

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