Formula 1 teams often suggest lap times in pre-season testing are meaningless and that a true picture of the grid does not emerge until the opening race of the season in Australia. However, following the opening week in which Valtteri Bottas set the pace and Mercedes enjoyed a clear advantage in terms of the fastest lap set, that team has revealed its strategists spend much of pre-season analyzing rivals and can work out “surprisingly accurate” minimum performance levels. And that analysis, it says, suggests Ferrari has thus far been running its power unit at “much lower levels” than it is capable of.
“Far from discounting testing time analysis as meaningless, 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,” the team explained. “Using techniques that have been built up over a number of seasons it is possible to figure out, with surprising accuracy, what lies beneath the headline lap times that we see during winter testing.
“It is true, of course, that the strategists face a considerable string of unknowns. Fuel load, engine mode, tire performance and driver pushing level play havoc with the lap times and all of them are either unknown, or partially known. However, testing times are far from meaningless. If you look at them long enough, they gradually give up their secrets.”
After working out estimated fuel load levels — in part due to the fact the majority of teams follow similar procedures year-on-year — and using GPS data to understand power unit modes, Mercedes says the midfield is catching a closely-matched top three, but also questions Ferrari’s approach so far.
“At the end of the first day, a hazy pattern is present. By the end of the first test, that pattern comes into better focus.
“What, then, can we say about the leaderboard after three days? This is where life gets tricky because all these estimates are 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.
“No one wants the egg on their face of 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 PU consistently at much lower levels than their partner teams?
“What we can say is that we predict the battle in Melbourne at the front is going to be tight. 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 times are not meaningless — they are a gold mine, if you’re prepared to sift through them with care and caution until a clear picture begins to emerge…”