Medland: 'The best test ever' - why F1 found its sweet spot in 2023


Despite cries to make F1 pre-season testing a more exciting spectacle, Chris Medland believes a three-day test in Bahrain may be the sweet spot for teams and drivers ahead of the 2023 campaign

2023 F1 Pre-season testing

In 2013, when driving for Ferrari, Fernando Alonso covered 2,351 kilometres in pre-season testing. It was the last year of the V8 engine regulations – incredibly sophisticated pieces of kit but not the same complexity as today’s power units – and there were three test sessions.

Each test was four days long, so split equally the race drivers had six days each to spend in their respective cars to get ready for the new campaign.

Last weekend, there was the sole three-day test in Bahrain, so a day and a half per driver. And Alonso wasn’t happy.

“This year we have only one day and a half of testing in Bahrain, so I’m aware that I will not be 100% in Bahrain, not in Jeddah, maybe not in Australia,” the Spaniard had said at the launch of the 2023 Aston Martin. “So that’s a little bit unfair.

“I think it’s the only sport in the world that you do one and a half days of practice and then you play a world championship. There’s no other sport in the world.”

With Lance Stroll injured and missing testing, Alonso managed to get an extra half day of the schedule, and completed 1,461km.

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At that rate, he’d have very nearly matched his 2013 mileage in just half the time. In a decade, it’s remarkable how much the dynamics around testing have changed.

“You have to look out there - I think it’s the best (test) in Formula 1 ever,” Haas team principal Guenther Steiner asserted. “We’ve seen, how many red flags? Three? Everybody doing the laps… If you go to the lap count of previous seasons, the first test, this never happened before in my opinion.

“I’m so amazed about it. Five years ago every two or three hours there was a red flag. Now we’re all doing the laps, just boom, boom, boom.”

Teams were showing up and completing race simulations on their second days, with Sergio Perez spending his first morning in the Red Bull completing such a distance. McLaren’s troublesome week yielded the lowest mileage of all the teams by some distance at ‘only’ 312 laps – still an average of 104 per day.

McLaren 2023 Testing

McLaren’s Oscar Piastri hits the brakes during 2023 F1 pre-season testing

Alonso’s description of the short running as “unfair” in the context of him having switched teams – despite his vast experience – was a little disingenuous, but the rookies on the grid could be forgiven for making a similar claim.

While Nyck de Vries has one race and a number of practice outings for different teams under his belt, Oscar Piastri has never taken part in a race weekend session and Logan Sargeant was unable to test an old car over the winter like his counterparts. And yet the way that drivers can be so well prepared in other ways was on full display.

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So much work can be done on ever-more-realistic simulators, or through running in a 2021 car, that drivers have a much better handle on some of the more time-consuming challenges by the time they first get behind the wheel of the new machine.

The fact that Piastri’s spin at Turn 9 on the final day was the most dramatic moment caught on camera attests to the level at which all of the drivers were operating at as soon as testing got underway, with the likes of Alonso, Pierre Gasly and Nico Hulkenberg also settling into new surroundings without too much trouble.

But the efficiency with which teams managed to maximize their testing time owes something to the location, too. It might not have quite the same atmosphere as a crisp February morning in northern Spain with cars firing up at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, but Bahrain offers almost guaranteed good weather for running throughout the day, the ability to continue after dark and a forgiving track with plenty of run-off.

Aston Martin Bahrain testing 2023

Fernando Alonso appears on track for Aston Martin during pre-season testing

In Barcelona, the first few hours each morning regularly limited what teams could do due to temperatures being too low, and a greater risk of rain – or even snow as we had just a few years ago – that would then result in a track that would take a while to dry, all further had an impact on the average returns from each day.

F1’s constantly expanding race schedule has come at the cost of pre-season testing and that’s a sensible move. Of the track time that is used during a calendar year a greater percentage of it is meaningful in terms of a competitive element, but limiting testing is also a balance the sport needs to strike.

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Give the teams more testing time and they’d be so well prepared it reduces the unpredictability aspect that is so important for sport to be enthralling. But restrict it too much and you run the risk of creating issues that make a mockery of an elite global sport. It wasn’t that long ago there were cars failing to make it to the grid to start races, after all.

Moving to the single three-day test at a venue that offers the most reliable conditions just about finds that middle ground. Each driver has a back-up day where they can regain some track time if there’s ever a show-stopper, but nobody can expect to work through every single item they’d want to in an ideal world.

However long or short the pre-season schedule ends up being, though, there’s a reason it’s called testing. It’s a chance for teams to test their cars, not to go racing or put on some kind of show. That’s what the grand prix weekends are for, and they need to be given the space to reach an acceptable level of preparedness for that.

Questions were put to some team members asking how testing could be made more exciting, given the long days that are now televised. But just like football teams train, cricketers have a net session and boxers spar, not every single undertaking has to be done with entertainment in mind.

When there are big regulation changes, there might need to be more track time offered, but when there’s stability like this year, F1 might have found its sweet spot.