What can we actually learn from Formula 1 testing?

Date published: February 18 2020

Formula 1 testing

On the eve of pre-season testing, we’ve crunched the numbers from the last five years to highlight what can possibly be learned before the start of a Formula 1 season.

2015

Following on from their first year of dominance, Mercedes proved to be the quickest team after 12 days of testing.

In the final week in Barcelona, they topped the timesheets ahead of Williams and Ferrari, with the latter being quickest in Jerez. Elsewhere, Sauber looked to be the best of the rest while McLaren was stuck languishing at the bottom.

It was largely the same story in terms of reliability, with the Silver Arrows racking up more mileage than any other team, clocking 1340 laps. Sauber, Toro Rosso, Ferrari and Williams also did over 1000 laps themselves.

McLaren, struggling with their new Honda engine, did the least by far with just 380 to their name.

The tests were a sign of things to come. Mercedes continued to be the best in terms of both pace and reliability throughout the season, winning 16 races and taking both titles. Ferrari finished P2 in the Constructors’ Championship ahead of Williams and Red Bull.

At the other end, McLaren’s pre-season struggles with their power unit continued. They had retirements in 10 races, with four being double DNFs, and even had two DNSs, finishing ahead of only Marussia. Just nine points ahead of them was Sauber who, after an impressive pre-season and first race, struggled to develop their car further.

2016

Ferrari fans got their hopes up after the Barcelona tests in 2016 in which the Scuderia was quickest. Kimi Raikkonen topped the time-sheets with an average lap time of 1:22.765, half a tenth ahead of Vettel and just under three clear of Nico Rosberg.

Behind them, Force India looked to have made huge progress with Nico Hulkenberg being 4th quickest on average, while Haas and Manor were the slowest teams.

Mercedes once again topped the standings in terms of mileage. The German team completed 1294 laps, with their rivals Ferrari and Red Bull doing 891 and 817 respectively.

McLaren looked to have overcome their 2016 reliability problems, completing over 700 laps, while Haas and Manor again propped up the leaderboard, both failing to reach the 500 mark.

As soon as things got underway in Australia it was clear that Mercedes had been hiding their true pace and still had the quickest car by far, making a fool of everyone who jumped to conclusions after the Barcelona tests. They went on to cruise to both titles again, while Ferrari ended up failing to beat Red Bull or even win a race.

Force India, on the other hand, did live up to their impressive pre-season form, ending 2016 in P4 in the standings as the best of the rest with two podiums to their name.

McLaren also had a good year, ending up in P6. Lower down, Haas ended up doing far better than testing had suggested, finishing above Sauber and Renault, but the same couldn’t be said for Manor, who finished bottom with one point.

2017

Ferrari was once again quickest in testing in with Raikkonen’s fastest lap over half a second clear of the Silver Arrows. The Red Bulls were P6 and P9 with Felipe Massa ahead of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg splitting him and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.

McLaren and Sauber finished bottom of the timesheets, with the fastest lap from both teams around three seconds slower than Raikkonen’s.

As per usual, Mercedes completed the most laps, doing 1096 and covering 5102kms. Ferrari followed with 956, while McLaren was the only team who failed to do over 500 laps, encountering problems with their Honda engine yet again.

The pre-season lap times proved to a more accurate reflection of this year’s pecking order. Despite eventually losing both championships to Mercedes, Ferrari had the quickest car for much of the season, with Vettel leading after 12 races. Red Bull finished a lonely P3 while Force India was best of the rest yet again.

As the Barcelona tests also suggested, McLaren and Sauber were the season’s strugglers. The British team failed to overcome their engine problems and scored just 30 points, while Sauber was even worse off, finishing in the top 10 on just two occasions to end the season with a meagre five points.

2018

It was business as usual in terms of lap times with Ferrari once again going quickest, this time locking out the top two spots.

Behind them was Fernando Alonso who set his quickest time on the final day after struggling for track time throughout testing due to the team’s poor reliability.

The Mercedes drivers’ fastest laps placed them in P8 and P10, while Verstappen was down in P20 surrounded by the Williams and Force India drivers.

Once again, Mercedes completed the most laps with Ferrari in second, while McLaren completed the least due to various issues, from the typical engine problems to wheels falling off the chassis.

Fellow strugglers Sauber enjoyed a far more positive pre-season, completing 786 laps with their fastest being good enough for P15, ahead of both Williams drivers.

Much like in 2017, the Barcelona tests were a largely accurate indicator for the season ahead. While Mercedes unsurprisingly leaped to the top of the grid come Melbourne, Ferrari again gave them a run for their money and often had a better car.

Renault meanwhile built on a positive pre-season to finish the season in P5 ahead of Force India and Haas.

Sauber too carried their Barcelona form over, finishing the season in P8 just behind McLaren who had decent pace but poor reliability. Unfortunately for Williams, their fall from grace began as they ended the season as they ended testing, at rock bottom.

2019

You’ll never guess who went quickest in 2019 testing; yep, it was Ferrari.

This time, however, there was less sandbagging from Mercedes as Hamilton’s fastest lap was less than half a tenth slower than Vettel’s. Renault and Toro Rosso set the quickest times outside the top two teams, with Red Bull struggling and Williams taking the wooden spoon.

Williams also completed the least mileage of anyone, struggling to do any laps at all, let alone quick ones – all because they were two-and-a-half days late to testing, of course.

Mercedes and Ferrari fared the best in this department, while McLaren, now running a Renault engine, enjoyed good reliability for a change, completing 873 laps, more than four teams.

Unlike in the previous two years, Ferrari failed to build on testing and take the challenge to Mercedes, being quickest in a straight line but nowhere else.

The Red Bull of Verstappen actually managed to beat both Vettel and Leclerc, winning more races than both. McLaren were the season’s biggest improvers as their Barcelona form foreshadowed, comfortably finishing as the best of the rest, taking a podium in the process.

The tests also proved to be a sign of things to come for Williams who ended up enduring one of their worst seasons ever, scoring just one point and being the slowest team by far.

Also struggling was Haas. Unlike Williams, the American team had a largely successful pre-season but failed to develop their car or master the Pirelli tyres, ending up in P9 come Abu Dhabi.

What does all of this tell us?

Well, for starters, if you see Ferrari set the quickest laps, don’t get your hopes up. Mercedes rarely show their hand in the pre-season tests and nearly always end up with the best car.

In fact, no teams’ pace is sure to be an indication of how quick their car will be when the lights go out in Melbourne. Some, like Mercedes, will purposely hide their true potential, while others may go all out simply because it is all they have to give.

Rather than looking at lap times, perhaps pay more attention to the number of laps each team completes. There are exceptions, but generally, if a car isn’t running well enough to complete over 600 laps in Barcelona, it’s a bad sign; just look at McLaren- Honda or last year’s Williams.

If, on the other hand, a team is getting their cars to the track and around it issue-free for near to 1000 laps, they’re undoubtedly in much better shape. With just six days of testing this year compared to eight, that landmark may have to be  adjusted slightly.

Ultimately though, few conclusions can actually be drawn from pre-season; just sit back and enjoy the sight of F1 cars going around a track again.

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