Conclusions from testing: Signs new rules have changed the game

Oliver Harden
Pierre Gasly, George Russell and Charles Leclerc during pre-season testing. Barcelona February 2022.

Pierre Gasly, George Russell and Charles Leclerc on track during the pre-season session at the Circuit de Catalunya. Barcelona February 2022.

One down, one to go.

Formula 1 is halfway through its winter program after the conclusion of the first pre-season test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, where the new 2022 cars were together on track for the first time.

It is notoriously difficult to predict the pecking order at this time of year – Ferrari’s misleading 2019 testing form frankly left too much egg on too many faces – but there are early signs that the new rules have changed the game.

Here are our conclusions from the first test.

Haas, Alfa Romeo (and Alpine?) are in trouble

The standard across the F1 pitlane has arguably never been higher and so many teams seemed to have a productive week in Barcelona that those who didn’t were easier than ever to identify.

So first, then, to Haas, who spent much of the week fighting fires off the track and found little respite on it.

The VF-22 didn’t appear for the first 45 minutes of the opening morning and when it did leave the garage it didn’t last long, a cooling leak and sensor problems restricting Nikita Mazepin to just 20 laps before he handed over to team-mate Mick Schumacher.

Late to the afternoon session by more than an hour, Schumacher added 23 laps to his tally in between being sidelined by floor damage but seemed to steady the ship with a solid 66 laps on the morning of Day 2.

With the car back in Mazepin’s hands that afternoon, though, it all went wrong again, the Russian stopping seven laps into his first run with a damaged fuel pump before returning to end the day with 42. He added only a further nine laps on the final morning before an oil system issue brought an early end to Haas’s test, putting the team out of their misery.

The week went only marginally better for fellow Ferrari customers Alfa Romeo, whose C42 car reportedly struggled badly with porpoising (more on that later) during a pre-test shakedown at Fiorano.

Alfa recorded just 53 laps across the first day-and-a-half, with Valtteri Bottas – despite driving the car on all three days – completing 58 fewer laps in total than team-mate Guanyu Zhou as the team were struck by one issue after another.

Haas and Alfa Romeo undoubtedly have the most work to do before the second test, but if you’re looking for a potential surprise flop for 2022 may we suggest Alpine?

Limited on parts, the team were third bottom of the mileage chart with a grand total of 266 laps and conducted their running without the use of DRS and their redesigned Renault engine at a low-power setting, which would at least partially explain their modest position on the timesheets.

More to come? Probably.

But in a week that started with chief executive Laurent Rossi aiming to merely hold onto fifth in the standings and ended with Fernando Alonso stood with his hands on his hips next to his smoky A522 after stopping on track – ending Alpine’s test less than an hour into the final day – this is not a team oozing optimism.

2022 rules have solved F1’s aesthetics problem…

F1 had had a major aesthetics problem since 2009, when the visual wow factor was taken away by the introduction of high and narrow rear wings and front wings spanning the full width of the front tyres.

Things improved slightly with the wider and swept-back look of 2017, but still F1 cars – long, heavy and packed with as much furniture as the teams could possibly fit – were difficult to love.

For an indication of how far beauty standards had slipped, you only needed to look at how so-called thumb noses had become de rigueur – generating not so much as a batted eyelid – since 2015.

As the new breed took to their natural habitat in Barcelona, the first test only confirmed what launch season suggested – that F1 is home to proper racing cars again.

Lower, more aggressive and immeasurably cleaner – the new rules offering far more freedom for different interpretations than first feared – these machines have brought to life the artists’ impressions from 10-15 years ago predicting how F1 cars of the 2020s would look.

They remain imperfect – working on the weight and sorting out the sound are the next steps – but Formula 1 finally has cars fit for a child’s bedroom wall again.

…but present their own unique challenges

The cars may look fabulous but proved to be difficult beasts to tame across the first test.

With the return of ground effect, porpoising became a theme of the week’s running – best highlighted by the footage of Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari bouncing down the pit straight – with virtually every team affected to some degree.

Amid suggestions that Mercedes have suffered more than most, George Russell almost seemed to cul de sac himself in an attempt to downplay its significance when asked about the sensation at the end of Day 2.

“We didn’t experience it too much because,” he began before his answer trailed off and he started again.

“It’s not very pleasant at all,” he admitted, going on to describe the porpoising as a potential safety problem.

It remains to be seen whether the rules will require a slight revision in order to solve the issue, but even so it already appears that these cars – almost as fast as before in the high-speed sections but significantly slower in the slower stuff – present a unique challenge behind the wheel.

Throughout the week drivers spoke of the need to adapt their driving styles to the different machinery and that was exemplified by World Champion Max Verstappen, who according to a trackside report by respected reporter Mark Hughes seemed to be driving unlike he ever had before.

Early on both the brakes and throttle with noticeably smoother inputs, was this, Hughes pondered, a conscious effort to keep the car as consistently close to the track surface as possible to maximise the ground effect?

If so, that would speak volumes of Verstappen’s intelligence and perhaps also the influence of Adrian Newey, a legendary designer with a racer’s soul and the ability to communicate in a language his drivers understand. Certainly it is tempting to picture the scene of Max and Adrian debating the optimal way to drive the RB18 in between simulator sessions over the winter…

Perhaps Verstappen’s experimentation is an early sign a specific style may be required to make the most of the 2022 cars in much the same way the blown-diffuser era rewarded drivers who mastered its unusual demands.

Survival of the fittest? More like moving with the times.

Sergio Perez follows Carlos Sainz. Spain, February 2022.

F1 still taking fans for fools

Strictly speaking, this was not a pre-season test but a ‘Pre-Season Track Session’ – an untelevised, behind-closed-doors shakedown, albeit one with all 10 teams in attendance.

To butcher an old phrase, if it looks like a test, runs like a test and sounds like a test, it is a test and F1’s attempt to pretend it was anything but was yet another example of the sport insulting the intelligence of the fans.

There was a certain snootiness in the responses to complaints of those frustrated by the decision not to broadcast live from Barcelona, that testing is boring anyway and rarely provides clear clues to the competitive order.

But that is to dismiss the simple joys of fandom – F1 in action again being the first sign of spring; an early glimpse of the cars and drivers getting to grips with their new surroundings; onboard T-cam footage of every driver akin to 20 separate flat viewings in the same building, each one a window through which we all will live the season ahead.

To understand the benefit of live testing you only need to refer back to the buzz created by the sighting of the Mercedes DAS system in 2020 – a tangible piece of engineering genius that would in previous years have gone completely unnoticed until the opening race.

After two successful years of televised testing, it was as though F1 had chosen to step back in time to the dark ages and a world where a combination of CCTV and amateur footage and photography were all anyone had to interpret incidents with the potential to set the tone for a team or driver’s season.

The reasons for the Barcelona blackout have not been fully explained, but it is safe to assume finance and logistics – with Bahrain staging both the final test and the first race of 2022 – had something to do with it.

That F1 now has the capacity to broadcast live testing, but still chose not to, borders on being offensive.