To test or not to test?
Usually, this time of year sees Formula One dive into a yuletide slumber from which it awakens only at the dawn of the first car launch of a new season, yet time was when we enjoyed something called winter testing.
For those of you wondering what on earth I am talking about, I don't mean a mere two day 'rookie' test as seen recently in Abu Dhabi for young drivers seeking to impress with the speed of their talent and in some cases, the size of their wallets. No, believe it or not we once had the sight of teams heading out to venues such as Jerez, Barcelona or Valencia as soon as the racing season was completed, with drivers running frequently and in many cases, right up until Christmas. New driver signings getting their first run in a new car, commercial sponsor brandings unveiled, developments of aero parts etc could all be expected to materialize over the winter months and perhaps more importantly, we journalists had something to write about.
Now of course, financial constraints have seen 'post-season winter testing' following similar programmes to the recent two day tests at the Yas Marina circuit in the Middle East for the rookies and a further two days of testing at the same venue for Pirelli's 2011 tyres. While this was largely a commendable move by the F1 fraternity as costs were getting ridiculously out of control, surely in this era without the 'car manufacturers' and lower costs, the time has come for them to extend the winter test programme allocation and there is much to suggest it could be done so in an affordable manner. The recent announcement of Renault's decision to cut back its level of involvement by selling back the stake it had in its F1 team to Genii Capital and focusing on being an engine supplier only, follows in the footsteps of Honda, Toyota and BMW in the fact that they are no longer present as a manufacturer-owned team. There is no doubt that all four car companies contributed massively to the increase in costs witnessed as they used the sport as a pure marketing device to increase sales and therefore were largely responsible for the cost cutting measures that were subsequently introduced.
My opinion is that since they have now departed; let's welcome the return of winter testing in a more meaningful guise than currently exists.
The likes of Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren will always be able to afford the necessary financial expenditure associated with any increase in the winter months of testing as they naturally attract the most sponsors due to previous success but even for those in a separate financial league, the monetary requirements linked to more test days are not going to break the bank.
While technological advances in car design have been unquestionably of the highest order, there is still no substitute for track testing and in these situations, it could well be possible for teams to return to the days of being able to iron out problems with potential upgrades for the following design or to evaluate potential drivers in a more detailed manner.
New signings for Williams and Sauber, Pastor Malonado and Sergio Perez, would be able to have more track time to acclimatize to their new teams and most importantly, would find the intense pressure cooker that is Formula 1 a little more bearable following potential experience they would have gained via an extended winter testing programme. Naturally, for all the young drivers who participated in the recent 'rookie tests' in Abu Dhabi, the two days they had in the cockpit were an opportunity to showcase their respective talents but one has to wonder whether the times recorded are a true indication of a drivers' performance. Time is of the essence and there are many variables that can hinder a drivers ultimate lap time; technical or mechanical failures, specific testing programmes implemented by the team, minor excursions as a result of driver error. All of these can reduce the amount of time spent on the circuit and thus the judgment formed of a driver's capabilities will not be an accurate one.
Would the world have heard of Michael Schumacher had Jordan not been permitted to test him on a soaking Silverstone circuit in early September 1991 prior to his Belgian Grand Prix debut? Would Jenson Button have graced us with his presence if Williams had been unable to run him over the period of a week in Barcelona and Jerez back in 1999 and early 2000? Would Lewis Hamilton's debut in Melborne and subsequent early races been as impressive without the amount of mileage he enjoyed during pre-season testing in 2007?
Probably not on all counts and the F1 fraternity would do well to remember such instances because there could be drivers out there who with a little more track time, could perform better than they have over a mere single day and would thus enable a more accurate evaluation of their performance by their respective teams.
Of course it would be important to keep costs down to a respectable amount and though the sport is suffering from the worldwide recession, there is the possibility of a 'controlled' extension to the testing ban. Now that the manufacturers have all but gone (save Ferrari and Mercedes) the amount of expenditure required for a new comer to at least be respectable is a lot lower than the levels seen two or three years ago when it was at its height.
Lotus (Tony Fernandez' team you understand and not the new Group Lotus outfit), Virgin and HRT have all completed their debut seasons and in different fashions too. Each has completed their pre-season goals: Survival? Check. 2011 car design and finances in place? Check. Respectability earned? Check - well for Lotus and Virgin yes, HRT is more questionable.
HRT? Well, what can you say? From the look of them this year, it has to be said that they have hardly raised a blip on the radar despite the efforts of Bruno Senna, Sakon Yamamoto and Karun Chandhok - at least when he was permitted to get behind the wheel. One has to wonder that if you gave HRT a budget similar to Ferrari or McLaren levels, would they ever advance any further up the grid? Probably not. Would they benefit from extra track time in the off-season? Potentially. However, there is one positive to such a situation arising - they might be able to spend more money on a decent paint job for their cars because if they can't actually make them faster, perhaps trying to make them look faster and less of an eye sore will give the Spanish outfit a greater sense of accomplishment. Come to think of it, their perennial back-of-the-field performances have probably ensured they provide their sponsors with more exposure than many of their competitors do. Perhaps there's something in that for the others to consider...
Of course the winter testing ban was implemented for valid reasons but I think that now there has to be a time for evaluation and consideration of where the sport wishes to go in the near future. Greener engines from 2013, more environmentally friendly emissions, new rules packages etc, so let's give the F1 community the opportunity to track test components and drivers for a little longer than they are permitted to have under the current rules. If it is controlled, managed correctly and used only for such purposes, then it can surely only add to the quality of the show.
It might also give us journalists a little more to write about...