F1 winter testing: Are we being fooled every year?

17-02-2020 15:20
by Nicolás Quarles van Ufford
General
F1 winter testing: Are we being fooled every year?

Next Wednesday the winter tests in Barcelona are set to take place again as we're only a month away from the new Formula 1 season. People always over-analyse the data coming out of the testing days, but what do we actually learn from F1 winter tests?

For Ferrari fans, winter testing is always a source of hope for the upcoming season. In 2019, the SF90 logged the quickest lap time out of every car and the data seemed to suggest Mercedes and Red Bull Racing weren't up to scratch, even if they were sandbagging. Then, once Melbourne rolled around, Mercedes locked out the front row and finished one-two as they eventually cruised to their sixth straight double championship.

That in itself could be enough reason to completely disregard winter testing results, but it's not that black-and-white. In 2019, Lewis Hamilton was only three-thousandths of a second slower than Sebastian Vettel in the second week of testing. 

Mercedes in the midfield

That wasn't the case in 2018, however. While Hamilton won 11 Grands Prix and won his fifth title, that wasn't seen back in Barcelona before the season kicked off. Mercedes finished with the seventh quickest time, around a full second behind Ferrari.

Ferrari have actually been the quickest team in Barcelona for the past four years. It goes without saying this never translated into a title.

Getting mileage

It's become apparent Mercedes simply don't focus on one-lap pace at the Circuit de Catalunya. While Ferrari grab all the attention setting the fastest laps, Mercedes simply gather as much data as possible and focus on long-runs.

In 2018, interestingly, Mercedes actually covered the most distance at pre-season out of all teams, logging 1,040 laps compared to Ferrari's 929 and Red Bull's 783. The same goes for 2017, when Mercedes did 1,096 laps while Ferrari 'only' did 956 and Red Bull 684.

With the great distance they cover, Mercedes seemingly prefer working on reliability over performance. Management will know by now they have a quick engine, but the only way of testing reliability is to simply go out on track and start driving. Not entirely coincidental, perhaps, Mercedes always have the most reliable car.

What we learn from F1 winter testing

So, can we learn absolutely nothing from a winter test?

We can, but you have to look behind the numbers. While the fastest laps from the top teams are mostly to be discarded, the mileage and long-run pace are definitely noteworthy. Teams can use the data to further develop the car and prepare it as well as they can ahead of the Australian Grand Prix. 

And while the times top teams log aren't representative, you can make loose predictions about the midfield. McLaren, for example, had clearly made a big leap last season as they were right up there with Renault, the then-benchmark for midfield constructors. Keep in mind, however, that the track itself can play a part as well - as Haas have shown. So, don't throw out the baby with the bath when it comes to data from winter testing, but take it with a grain of salt.

Read more about: Formula 1

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