Midfield catching us, says Mercedes, as it reveals F1 test analysis secrets

Red Bull follows Mercedes in 2020 f1 preseason testing

Preview of Melbourne? Mercedes says first race will be close

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This year’s F1 season will feature close racing at the front and a midfield pack that’s gaining on the leaders, says Mercedes, which has published some of its internal analysis of this week’s testing session.

Revealing how it monitors rival cars and calculates their true performance, the team said that testing data was a “goldmine” that could lead to “surprisingly accurate” estimates.

It has predicted a midfield reshuffle, with some teams gaining ground in that battle, and said that Ferrari’s pace has so far been masked because it is running its power unit at a lower performance level than that of its customer teams.

“Testing times are a goldmine… If you look at them long enough, they gradually give up their secrets.”

One reason Mercedes claims to learn so much is that teams tend to follow the same testing pattern year after year, running the same fuel levels, making it much easier to evaluate their pace.

The analysis, published at the end of the first week of testing, appears to have been put together to disprove the claim that you can’t learn anything from preseason times because of unknown fuel loads, engine modes, tyre performance and driver commitment.

“But is it true?” asks Mercedes. “Try telling it to the team strategists and see their response.

“Every team in the pit lane pores over the data as it emerges in order to build up a picture of the competitive pecking order. It is possible to figure out, with surprising accuracy, what lies beneath the headline lap times that we see during winter testing.”

AlphaTauri during preseason testing

Mercedes expects the competitive order of midfield teams like AlphaTauri to change this year

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The team follows many of the same processes as Mark Hughes, Motor Sport’s Grand Prix editor, who wrote earlier this week about inferring fuel loads based on the length of each run, and adjusting the lap time to take account of the changing weight.

Mercedes also uses GPS traces to monitor speed and acceleration, which can reveal changes to engine power, and the different modes that are available to drivers.

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“At the end of the first day, a hazy pattern is present,” said the team. “By the end of the first test, that pattern comes into better focus.”

It’s not quite a data-driven crystal ball, however, with Mercedes describing its leaderboard as “lower-bound estimates”.

You can say with some confidence that your competitors are “at least as fast as X”, but you do not know for sure how much faster they could have gone,” it says. “No-one wants the egg on their face, claiming that they are faster than another team, because they can never know for certain what was hidden or what is coming next.

“For example, will Red Bull bring a significant upgrade package to the second test? Why have Ferrari spent this test running their power unit consistently at much lower levels than their partner teams?”

Despite the caveats, Mercedes did make some predictions about the start of the season, suggesting that its new dual-axis steering system may not give it a significant advantage in Australia, at least. “The battle in Melbourne at the front is going to be tight,” it said. “We can also see that the midfield have closed on the front and that there is some considerable midfield swing compared to last year’s competitive order.”


Testing spy: how Mercedes calculates its rivals’ true pace

“Testing times are not meaningless,” says Mercedes. “They are a goldmine, if you’re prepared to sift through them with care and caution until a clear picture begins to emerge. If you look at them long enough, they gradually give up their secrets.”

This is how the team analyses the performance of its rivals:


Start with what you know

Teams know every car’s lap time and the number of laps completed, as well as the performance difference between tyre compounds and the amount of fuel that’s burnt each lap.

Like a Maths GCSE question, you can start to estimate a car’s pace from this data.


Look what happened last year

In the top secret world of F1 car development, teams are surprisingly predictable when it comes to their testing runs. “They tend to do similar things each year,” says Mercedes. “Most people will run three fuel levels: a lower fuel load for performance, a medium fuel load for the bulk of their work, and full tanks for their race simulations. For each team, these three levels are different, but, weirdly, they don’t vary much from year to year.

“Our opening guesses will assume that each team will do the same as they did the year before.”

Mercedes pitstop during F1 2020 preseason testing

Pit stops are a good sign that a team is on a race simulation

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Count the laps

To refine the opening guesses, strategists look at the number of laps that a car has run, and identify the minimum fuel load. “If a car does a 10 lap run, then we know that a lap consumes (say) 1.7kg, then there must have been at least 17kg of fuel in the car to do that run,” says Mercedes. “In reality, teams do not like to run down to fumes in normal testing, so it is more likely that there was at least 27kg of fuel in the car.

“If our prior assumption was that this team normally runs 50kg for general testing, then we will adjust our initial guess to say that the car was likely to have somewhere between 27kg and 50kg of fuel in the car. Once a team has done a load of running, this estimate gets surprisingly accurate.”


Watch for the pit stops

“The real insight comes when a team attempts a race distance. Doing a full race distance with pit-stop style tyre changes implies that the team must have its tanks near to full. This narrows the error in our estimates dramatically, allowing race times to be compared more or less directly.”


Tracking data

GPS tracking allows teams to see rivals’ speed and acceleration, which allows them to calculate each engine’s power and available modes.