Why F1 pre-season testing takes on greater significance this year as new season dawns

Time to find your helmet, don your fireproof gloves and pack your bags. Because 95 days after we said goodbye to Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel in Abu Dhabi, Formula 1 chugs back into life this weekend as the start of the 2023 season dawns. The car launch season, from the tempered-down to the over-the-top, has concluded and finally we will see cars on track with the first – and much-maligned only – official pre-season test of the season. Where? Bahrain. Also the location where, 11 days from now, motorsport’s greatest show goes racing once more.

Yet while an undertone of eager excitement will immerse fans the world over at the sight of fresh – or perhaps not so fresh – liveries at the Bahrain International Circuit, such delirium won’t be mirrored in the paddock. Rather, it’s back down to business. Tick off your checklist. Screw your nuts and bolts. Contrary to the zing in the air, a wave of apprehension will blow over the paddock and its personnel.

Testing is a strange phenomenon. On the whole, the timesheets are not said to be the priority. Instead, its tweaking set-ups. Trialling different parts. Attaching aero-rakes and dashes of green paint to analyse airflow. Some teams even swing the other way; sandbagging the car’s true performance to disguise their potential from their competitors.

That all being said, this three-day testing window does take on more significance than years gone by. Usually, the teams also come together in Barcelona for at minimum a shakedown. Or perhaps Jerez on the southern Spanish coast. This year though, with 2022’s drastic regulation changes only moderately tinkered with in the off-season – a slightly raised ride-height the most noteworthy change – drivers will only have a day-and-a-half of running to tune their cars appropriately and iron out any issues.

Three days in total and bang: we’re into the first Grand Prix weekend of 23. That’s the number of races, it should be said, not just the year.

For most, three days is not nearly enough. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, switching from Alpine to Aston Martin, describes it as “unfair”, though the unfortunate injuries sustained by Lance Stroll in a bicycle accident which has ruled him out of testing might give the Spaniard more time in the car come the weekend.

George Russell, aside from praying for a much-improved Mercedes this year, had an interesting comparison when it came to the break between last year’s final race to this official test.

“I don’t think three days of testing is enough,” he said. “It’s been 12 weeks out of the car from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain. Could you imagine Rafael Nadal going 12 weeks without hitting a ball going into the French Open?”

In fairness, Nadal would still probably win at Roland Garros. At times last year, Max Verstappen evoked a similar domineering aura as he cruised to his second World Championship – and those around him fumbled.

Max Verstappen is targeting a third-straight world title (Getty Images)
Max Verstappen is targeting a third-straight world title (Getty Images)

Despite the “anti-timesheets” philosophy, Verstappen was indeed the fastest-man at last year’s Bahrain test, ahead of a season which saw him claim 15 wins out of 2022 as he won the title by 146 points to Charles Leclerc. Red Bull’s New York launch was focused on their new partnership with Ford from 2026. Understandably so, with their car near-identical to their 2022 juggernaut.

But what of Mercedes? While testing should not stimulate drivers to the point of top-tier expectation, it can dampen the mood very quickly. Last year’s testing period was memorable for Toto Wolff’s team as “porpoising” became the talk of the town, with the Silver Arrows most adversely affected.

That, alongside bouncing seen later in the season, hampered their season to the point of no return. Mercedes also trialled a “zero-sidepod” design in testing which raised eyebrows aplenty. What perhaps is more surprising is it’s a philosophy they’ve persevered with this season, judging by the W14 launch last week. Mercedes’ return to black, too, is not an uncommon theme.

Mercedes will be hoping for improvement with their W14 car for 2023 (MERCEDES/AFP via Getty Images)
Mercedes will be hoping for improvement with their W14 car for 2023 (MERCEDES/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps the only topic of note from the launch events was indeed the amount of teams with black on their liveries. Haas have switched to an all-black model, with Alfa Romeo and Ferrari adding pitch-dark to their designs. Why? It’s all in the name of saving weight, in an era where F1 cars have never been quicker or heavier. A marginal gain in a sport of marginal gains? The first indications could bear fruit at testing.

The mood at Ferrari, meanwhile, is positive despite a 2022 characterised by frustration. Back in the title reckoning, engine blowouts and strategic errors cost them dearly – and team principal Mattia Binotto his job. Replacing the Italian is restrained Frenchman Fred Vasseur, formerly of Alfa, tasked with restoring the Scuderia to a top spot not obtained since 2007.

Yet beyond the top-tier teams, this testing window will be of huge significance to three men in particular: the 2023 rookies. McLaren’s Oscar Piastri, AlphaTauri’s Nyck de Vries and Williams’ Logan Sargeant will all experience the thrill of their cars in a competitive-ish environment, assigned with the battle between stirring and angering their bosses with limited time on track.

All in all, then, testing is an event out of kilter with F1’s fundamental mantra. The stopwatch never lies? Well, in this 25-and-a-half hour window, it actually can.

Teams and drivers will dampen expectations and concerns in front of the cameras, despite scurrying and worrying behind closed doors. As for us, mere onlookers, every clue and signal will be read and speculated on. And after a season when the order of merit was flipped away from the norm, that’s all one can do.

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