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Since 2010 pre-season tests have been very tightly controlled, with only 12 days of testing allowed before the first race of the year at predefined circuits and times.  This has meant it is likely that most if not all of the teams will be present (even though they are restricted to running only one car).  As a result there is greater press coverage of the tests and this has helped build up excitement prior to the first race.

Before this, testing was unlimited and uncontrolled.  There was no need to run cars to the regulations (they certainly didn’t need to pass any crash tests before running), and many teams hired a circuit on their own to get some running away from the gaze of the other teams.  This made comparisons between teams difficult to make, because it was rare to find the top teams running on the same circuit at the same time.  However there were advantages, it was common for teams to put their new engine in an old chassis to get experience with the new engine / gearbox when they changed engine suppliers (remember this was before all engines were mandated to be the same size, weight and have the same fixing points) installing a different engine ten or twenty years ago was not the comparatively straightforward job that Brawn found in 2009 when they had a last minute change from Honda to Mercedes.

As spending in F1 spiralled through the early years of the new century, the amount of testing increased massively.  In 1999 there were 18 different pre-season tests held over 55 days as follows:

Date Circuit Teams
13-15 Jan 1999 Catalunya Arrows, BAR, Ferrari, Prost, Williams
19 Jan 1999 Fiorano Ferrari
23-26 Jan 1999 Jerez BAR, Benetton, Honda, Stewart
26-28 Jan 1999 Catalunya Arrows, McLaren, Sauber Williams
3-4 Feb 1999 Magny-Cours Prost, Williams
3-4 Feb 1999 Silverstone Arrows, Benetton, Jordan
6-10 Feb 1999 Fiorano Ferrari
8-14 Feb 1999 Catalunya Arrows, Benetton, Ferrari, Honda, Jordan, McLaren, Minardi, Prost, Sauber, Stewart
13-17 Feb 1999 Kylami BAR, Williams
16 Feb 1999 Magny-Cours Prost
17-18 Feb 1999 Silverstone Arrows, Benetton
17-20 Feb 1999 Catalunya Jordan, McLaren, Prost, Sauber, Stewart
17-20 Feb 1999 Mugello Ferrari, Minardi
22-24 Feb 1999 Fiorano Ferrari
22-25 Feb 1999 Silverstone Arrows, BAR, Benetton, Honda, Jordan, McLaren, Williams
23-25 Feb 1999 Mugello Ferrari, Minardi
28 Feb – 1 Mar 1999 Fiorano Ferrari

 

While by todays’ standards this looks excessive, the level of testing ramped up so that by 2005 there were 34 tests over 109 days between the close of the 2004 season and the start of the 2005 season:

Date Circuit Teams
22-23 Nov 2004 Varano Ferrari
22-26 Nov 2004 Misano Minardi
23-26 Nov 2004 Paul Ricard Toyota
23-27 Nov 2004 Catalunya BAR, Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull, Renault, Sauber, Toyota, Williams
25-26 Nov 2004 Fiorano Ferrari
30 Nov – 4 Dec 2004 Jerez BAR, Ferrari, Jordan, McLaren, Red Bull, Renault, Sauber, Toyota, Williams
1 Dec 2004 Silverstone McLaren
1-3 Dec 2004 Fiorano Ferrari
7-12 Dec 2004 Jerez BAR, Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull, Renault, Toyota, Williams
8 Dec 2004 Fiorano Ferrari
10-11 Jan 2005 Vallelunga Ferrari
10-16 Jan 2005 Jerez BAR, Ferrari, McLaren, Renault, Toyota, Williams
14-16 Jan 2005 Valencia Sauber
18-20 Jan 2005 Misano Minardi
18-21 Jan 2005 Catalunya Ferrari, Red Bull, Toyota, Williams
19-21 Jan 2005 Valencia BAR, McLaren, Renault, Sauber
20 Jan 2005 Fiorano Ferrari
22-23 Jan 2005 Varano Ferrari
24-30 Jan 2005 Catalunya Ferrari, McLaren, Sauber
25 Jan 2005 Fiorano Ferrari
25-28 Jan 2005 Valencia BAR, Red Bull, Renault, Toyota, Williams
1-4 Feb 2005 Valencia BAR, Ferrari, McLaren, Renault, Toyota, Williams
4 Feb 2005 Misano Minardi
7-8 Feb 2005 Silverstone Jordan
8-13 Feb 2005 Jerez BAR, Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull, Renault, Sauber, Toyota, Williams
9-11 Feb 2005 Silverstone Jordan
14 Feb 2005 Valencia Ferrari
15-17 Feb 2005 Valencia BAR
15-18 Feb 2005 Catalunya Ferrari, Jordan, McLaren, Red Bull, Renault, Toyota, Williams
19-21 Feb 2005 Imola Minardi, Sauber
21-23 Feb 2005 Silverstone McLaren, Red Bull, Renault
21-24 Feb 2005 Valencia BAR, Ferrari, McLaren, Toyota, Williams
1-2 Mar 2005 Mugello Ferrari
5-6 Mar 2005 Varano Ferrari

 

What is clear from this list is how much the better funded teams were testing, Ferrari for example appearing at 20 of the 34 tests, including one that took place over the 5-6 March (the first race in Australia that year was held on 6 March).  McLaren managed 12 tests, while everyone’s favourite backmarker team Minardi only managed three tests.

These tests weren’t just pre-season of course, they continued throughout the year, and before the end of the 2005 season there would be a total of 92 test sessions at 25 different circuits over 255 days.  65 drivers took part (so at least teams test drivers got valuable mileage) and the teams covered a staggering 392,799 km between them.  The numbers for the following year are lower in terms of only 63 test sessions and a total of 192 days.  However the distance went up with 411,012 km being covered.

While then F1 cars carried on running through the winter, now we have had no running since the celebratory donuts of Brazil (apart from the filming days Mercedes, Force India and Toro Rosso did on Friday behind closed doors).  The anticipation is therefore much higher to see not only what the new cars look and sound like, but also to determine who has got their calculations right this year.   In the same time period cars have gotten much more reliable, partly due to them being kept in parc ferme conditions which means the teams no longer have the opportunity to rebuild the car between qualifying and the race, so the car has to be built to last for the duration of both.  The restriction in pre-season testing has had a similar result, the tests are now much more productive, with the teams having to concentrate on the important aspects of improving reliability and performance in a very compressed timeframe.  While it is still very hard to determine anything from the testing times (as each team is on a different programme with different fuel loads and potentially using different compound tyres), at least they are now all running at the same circuit on the same day.  The end result is a much more media friendly event, which enables fans to get their fix of F1 that we have all been missing since the engines were switched off in Brazil last November.

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A long time fan of Formula 1 and grass roots motorsport, I am interested in the engineering aspects not only of F1 but the 'men in sheds' who develop homemade specials to take on the products of the big racing car manufacturers.