It is said that a good driver needs little more than a couple of laps to get a feel of how his team’s new car will perform – but can we really tell anything from the early days of testing?
The first new car of 2013 was ‘virtually’ unveiled by Lotus on Monday and became the second team to launch their new machine today. Most others will follow suit between now and the opening test in Jerez next week – but after the buzz of unveiling the new car, the first run can either be a time of elation or depression.
This year the teams will have 12 days of running to understand their new cars and, for those who have them, to bed in new drivers.
It may not sound a long time – but use it well and a team can make some significant strides forward in that many days (which equates, actually, to more than half the amount of running teams get on Fridays during the Grand Prix season).
For the top teams, these 12 days offer a chance to prove an initial concept and to take it on as many steps as possible before the opening race.
But it’s a difficult balance.
On one hand, they want to progress as fast as possible, but on the other they want to mask the true potential of their car so they don’t show their full hand too early and give their rivals the chance to copy clever concepts before the opening race.
As the Lotus launch demonstrated, any more unusual design elements – like their passive double DRS system – will not be revealed until absolutely necessary as new secrets are hidden from prying eyes.
In recent year’s we’ve seen early tests reveal the likes of the double diffuser, the f-duct and the double-DRS system, all of which sent teams without those designs into overdrive as they tried to work out whether they would work on their car and, if they did, how quickly they could be implemented.
‘Spying’ is the name of the game – and you can bet that every team will be sending engineers from their design office to Jerez to stick their noses into other teams’ garages as much as possible.
Meanwhile, many of the press photographers in Jerez will also be tasked with snapping shots of bodywork, new design features and anything they can spot under the skin of the cars so the teams can also analyse new details on the cars from afar.
Lower down the grid, however, some teams will run below legal weight (there are no laws for that in testing) by removing the ballast, as this can push them up the testing times and perhaps help coax a sponsor teetering on the edge of commitment into signing a deal.
So, while the early running next week will reveal some clues the full picture will only become clear in Australia.
That said, it does not mean the signs in testing will not be there, because typically any trends (good or bad) revealed in the opening days will be with the team for the season - and any setbacks at such a crucial time can be devastating.
The best approach to testing, then, is to keep the head down and keep the poker face on.
Making over-optimistic comments at this early stage can led to some embarrassing backtracking if things don’t turn out as first indicated.
Already the new cars that hit the track will have development parts being prepared to go in for the next test – and that is without having seen their original designs turn a wheel.
Once real-life data from the track is relayed to the designers, any modifications to the design will be fast-tracked ready for the next test, while any key flaws in the concept can be researched and worked on with the hope of finding a solution by the final test.
When McLaren lost their way with the ‘octopus exhaust’ in the pre-season of 2011, they quickly recovered by putting together a solution that mimicked what they had seen on their rivals’ cars in the opening test – and they did so in time to take two second places in the opening two races.
So it’s no wonder that all but one team (Williams being the ones to miss out) will launch their new cars in the week before the opening test.
And in these days of evolution and small iteration gains, the more time the teams have to push through little design tweaks in the next few months could make all the difference when they get to Melbourne.