Less data, more excitement — Why F1 doesn't need preseason testing

If you love data analysis, then it doesn't get much better than F1 preseason testing. But if you want better, unpredictable racing, we should abandon it altogether, writes Chris Medland

Williams with aero rake in 2021 F1 testing

Joe Portlock/Getty Images

I want to test something out on you: I think we should make Formula 1 more testing by taking away testing.

OK, maybe that made no sense, but don’t click away just yet. I’m in a very privileged position to be able to have a real love/hate relationship with testing. I used to love aspects of pre-season – being at a venue when there was little fanfare and just constant lapping going on, for a few days that were usually untelevised.

The trick would be delving into lap times and talking to as many people as possible from different teams in order to get a bit of a feel for how the competitive order was shaping up ahead of the first race.

Melbourne tended to be an outlier after tests in Barcelona, but it was usually possible to have a pretty good read on the final finishing order of the constructors’ championship, probably with one or two teams that ruin your predictions.

But that wasn’t the hate aspect. That part came from working 15 hour days (OK, still loved that because this job is amazing) just to try and tell people what was going to happen in the season before it actually happened.

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in 2021 preseason test

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And when I think about that and compare it to other sports, why are we doing that?! As in, why are we able to basically pencil in the order before the first competitive event? Honestly, I can’t tell you a time where I’ve seen multiple guesses at the final Premier League table published before the first weekend of the season, let alone ones that were accurate.

Yes, F1 and football are very different sports, but our obsessions with trying to get the order right is a product of having so much data and testing track time to work with. Ahead of a normal season, there has normally been six days – which adds up to 48 hours – of testing before the first race. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of SEVEN race weekends.


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I remember pre-season in 2014, and it was a necessity back then. The new power units were so complex that teams were having massive issues just getting their cars started. In fact, the extra early test in Jerez – at the end of January – was essentially a four-day shakedown where some teams barely ran before two tests in Bahrain. We were having a sweepstake in the media centre about whether the Red Bull would be seen before lunch or reach double figures in terms of laps.

But without that need to learn how to start a brand new power unit, it feels like testing has become an opportunity for engineers to gather as much data to make their cars run as perfectly as possible, and this is where I think 2021 has proven we need to change.

In 2014 there were 12 days of pre-season testing. Slowly that came down to eight, and then to six. This year we’ve had three, and I reckon we’re better off for it.

A private shakedown to check systems work is fine, but by giving teams seven race weekends worth of track time before arriving at the first race, we have been removing variables that add to sporting drama. F1 is obsessed with perfection, trying to make everything as stable as possible, and then the sport notices just how exciting things get when you remove that – for example when it’s a wet race.

Lewis Hamilton spins of in 2021 F1 testing

Hamilton should be getting to grips with his car in a race weekend, says Medland

Clive Mason/Getty Images

F1 cars are incredible, but part of the challenge should be in a driver getting the most out of it despite little in the way of running. As of this season they still get three hours of practice before attempting to qualify, and it would be a proper test of driver skill to be having to adapt to a new car that you’ve barely spent time in.

We’ve only had three days of testing this year, and there are more unknowns heading into the first race as a result. Is anyone reading this wishing it wasn’t the opening round this weekend, but instead another test? I very much doubt it.

Imagine watching the start of a race weekend having no idea about the competitive order at all…

I’m not here trying to look for gimmicks to spice up the show – to paraphrase Toto Wolff – but instead just highlighting where I feel F1 has allowed itself to cater too much to the technological and engineering aspect rather than the sporting one.

The human influence is what makes all sport so great. People performing at their best under pressure, delivering in the big moments and finding ways of overcoming adversity. That little bit of lingering doubt over whether they’re going to be successful or not, that’s what keeps fans coming back for more.

What lots of testing allows teams to do is understand so much about their cars before the first race that things have already stabilised to a great extent. It’s almost like getting everyone up to 95% of their potential and then saying you’re competing for that final 5%.

Rear aero rake on Alpine in 2021 F1 testing

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Florent Gooden / DPPI

The final potential remains the same either way, so why not use this year’s example of three days of testing (at the very most) to leave everyone with more unknowns heading into the opening race? Why not have them operating within a wider window, where a bit more importance is placed on how good a job the drivers and engineers do in terms of reacting to the car and conditions, and solving handling or set-up issues.

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Go even further and why not remove testing altogether? One shakedown, check the car will run and you’re going to be able to race, and then start your set-up and performance learning in Friday practice. Imagine watching the start of a race weekend having no idea about the competitive order at all…

Sergio Perez estimates it will take him about five races to feel fully comfortable in the Red Bull, and Sebastian Vettel agrees with that timeline after his switch to Aston Martin, but if that were the case for all of the drivers on the grid then it would lessen the impact on those changing teams while simultaneously increasing the variables between driver performances in the opening rounds.

In my opinion, a big part of what makes the best drivers stand out is their ability to adapt. It’s the fact they don’t need the car to be in its sweet spot to be able to perform, and they’re quick in all conditions, not specific ones. To that end, reducing the amount of pre-season testing and making that skill a little bit more important – at least in the early rounds – is only enhancing the spectacle and promoting sporting excellence.

In the last few years I could predict with quiet confidence what the finishing order was going to be in the constructors’ standings. This year feels like so much more of a guess, and that’s surely a good thing.