Formula 1 is back this week.
While racing does not start until next week, with the Bahrain Grand Prix to kick off the 2023 F1 season, all ten teams will be in Bahrain shortly for three days of preseason testing. After spending months developing their cars for the 2023 campaign, the teams have limited time on track to put their cars through the paces before lights go out for the first race of the season.
With testing week upon us, we thought it was a good time to outline what, exactly, pre-season testing entails.
What is pre-season testing?
Pre-season testing, this year, is a three-day event at the Bahrain International Circuit, site of the season-opening Grand Prix a week later. Over three days this week (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) teams are allowed to put their cars on the track with minimal restrictions, to get a sense of how their setups, and aerodynamics, will look for the season ahead.
Each day is broken up into two sessions, a morning session which starts at 10:00 a.m. local time and runs for four hours, and an afternoon session which starts at 3:00 p.m. local time and runs for four-and-a-half hours. The importance of that afternoon session is that it will last beyond sunset, allowing teams to get a feel for how the cars will run during night-time conditions.
That will come in handy the following week, as the Bahrain Grand Prix is run at night.
Teams can approach these sessions in a number of different ways, but the main goal is to iron out any major issues, hone set-ups, and make adjustments as necessary. Teams can also isolate what areas of the car need to be upgraded ahead of the season, which begins just over a week later.
Why is it held in Bahrain?
Two reasons, really. The first reason is logistical. With the season beginning at the same track the following week, that cuts down on the travel time for each team.
The second is the layout of the Bahrain International Circuit, which you can see here in a diagram from F1.com:
The design of Bahrain International Circuit allows teams to test their cars under a few different conditions. There are some long straights — including the very long straight coming out of Sector 3, through the start/finish line and into Sector 1 — and some tight corners, most notably in Sector 2. Teams will be able to test out how their cars handle both long straights, as well as tight corners.
How are tyres handled?
Pirelli, the type provider for F1, provides all teams an equal number of each tyre compound. This allows the teams to complete as many laps as they wish with each tyre compound. This allows teams to get a sense of pit strategy for when the season begins.
Are their specific things teams can or cannot do during testing?
Testing is not held under grand prix conditions, and while normal safety requirements must be followed, teams are permitted to design their own testing programs. That includes selecting which drivers are going to participate, including reserve and/or testing drivers who are not slated to compete in the upcoming season.
What is that fluorescent paint I am seeing on the cars?
Remember, aerodynamics is the ballgame in F1. So finding out how the air is flowing over the cars is a huge part of the process, including during testing.
To get a clearer picture of how air is flowing over different parts of the car, teams will use what is called “flow-vis” paint. This is a paint composed of a fluorescent powder mixed with a light oil, applied to the front of the car before it takes to the track. As the car works through the circuit, the paint flows over the car, following the air.
In the above photograph taken from pre-season testing last year, you can see the flow-vis paint on the Williams Racing car driven by Nicholas Latifi.
Do not be surprised if, when watching pre-season testing, teams try and hide the results of a run using flow-vis paint. Often when the cars return to the garage after a run with flow-vis paint, teams cover the car so their competitors cannot get a sense of what is working … and what is not.
Are these the final cars that teams will use this season?
Adapt or die is part of life in F1. Teams are constantly looking to upgrade their cars, looking to squeeze every last bit of power out of them, and shave of every possible millisecond.
To that end, while the cars we will see this week are close to the final product, the results of testing often force some upgrades.
How much should we read into the lap times this week?
In reality? Not much. Given the number of variables at work — teams are trying different programs, with different tyre compounds and different fuel loads — it is usually hard to get a clear sense of how the grid stacks up before the season begins. Remember, while all the tyre compounds are available during testing, once the season begins, Pirelli allocated just three of the five different dry-weather tyre compounds for each Grand Prix. So we might see a team this week put down a fast lap time on a tyre compound that is not going to be in use next week during the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Also, teams do try and hide just how strong they are during testing, saving their full performance capability during the first qualifying session of the season. This is a tactic referred to as “sandbagging.”
Still, in recent history we have seen teams strong during testing come out and secure the pole position at the same track during the season. In 2021 Max Verstappen of Red Bull posted the fastest lap time during testing, and secured the pole at the Bahrain Grand Prix later in the season. In 2020 Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes posted the fastest lap time during testing, and his teammate Lewis Hamilton qualified on pole at the Spanish Grand Prix later that year.
Last season Verstappen was again fastest during pre-season testing, but Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc qualified on pole.
But we know how Ferrari’s season went.
What drivers are testing, and when?
Teams are starting to announce which drivers are running during which sessions. So if you have a favorite driver, you might want to check back as this will be updated.
Thursday am: Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Yuki Tsunoda
Thursday pm: Verstappen, Kevin Magnussen, Nyck de Vries
Friday am: Sergio Perez, Magnussen, Tsunoda
Friday pm: Verstappen, Hulkenberg, de Vries
Saturday am: Perez, Hulkenberg, de Vries
Saturday pm: Perez, Magnussesn, Tsunoda
Can I watch pre-season testing?
That depends on where you are reading this from, dear reader.
For those joining us from the United Kingdom and Ireland, Sky Sports F1 will broadcast the entirety of F1 testing.
Those outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland will be able to watch testing via F1TV, F1’s streaming service.