| | | Effective PR

F1: wobbly wheels and sandbagging - the value of pre-season testing.

Bryan Edwards

Testing is just that. It's not racing, it's not practice. It's one step before final shakedown. And it's one step up from running a highly sophisticated video game a.k.a. a simulator. Before the car arrives at the track, teams have buckets of data. Then, sometimes literally, the wheels come off.

With the first race of the Formula One season slated for Melbourne on 13-15 March 2020, teams have rolled into the circuit at Barcelona for the second week of winter testing.

In the first week, there was the joyous signal that Williams are in better shape than last year. A year ago, they were two days late - this year they made a statement by being the first car out.

There were other teams doing interesting things, too. Ignoring the not-at-all interesting matt-v-shiny paint argument (it's already lost - Ferrari's matt red finish last year was subject to polishing with a cloth and a can of spray polish when they thought no one was looking - but the sneaky F1 camera operators were).

Winter testing is all about seeing what works and how well and what doesn't and how badly.

Mercedes trumped everyone with the announcement that they had developed a way of improving friction, traction and drag at the front wheels. On paper, it's simple: the front wheels of cars aren't actually straight - they point slightly in like a pigeon or slightly out like a clown. Try it. Put your feet on the floor and see - are they actually, truly, parallel? Fast racing cars use what's called "toe in" which is more like a pigeon than a clown. This improves precision on cornering so it's a good thing. In corners. It's less good on straights where the wheels and tyres present a larger frontal area to the incoming wind rush than they would if they were straight. That increases drag and drag, more or less directly, equates to lost power. Also, it means that the tyres are always travelling a little bit sideways: that increases traction in the corners but the friction that makes that happen is a liability on the straights. Again, that friction has to be paid for somewhere and it's paid for with power that isn't making the car go faster. And finally, all of this means that the tyres heat up faster (good) but stay hot longer (bad) and therefore they reach the end of their peak performance earlier (very bad). Given that cornering prowess is vital in a F1 car, the team can't simply set the car up so that the wheels are straight - if they did, the car would often go straight when it's supposed to be doing a corner. What Mercedes have done is to develop a system by which the driver can modify the "angle of attack" of the tyres on the move. Straight for straignts, toe-in for corners. It's so radical that one has to assume that they at least had the nod, if not a formal decision, from the FIA that it is legal. Perhaps the most impressive thing is not that it might add one or two KPH to the top speed on a long straight, nor that it might add one or perhaps two laps to tyre life nor, even, that it might allow teams to fill the cars with, maybe, a litre less fuel (which is one KG and every kilo counts off the line) but that they must have known that this development would not have a long life: next year's rules, already published, will prevent the device. It's a statement, every bit as important as Williams getting their car out first: there may be seven titles under their belt since Mercedes returned to F1 - remarkable in itself and they have mostly been consecutive and mostly with two drivers ranking highly in the Championship at the end of the season - but even though they start the 2020 season as favourites, they are not being at all complacent and are thinking up new ideas.

And they must for while Ferrari have produced an absolutely hideous car with a floor that looks like a running board designed by a four year old that's bodged his Airfix kit, it turns out that it goes around corners rather better than last year's car. The 2019 Ferrari was widely considered the fastest but it didn't like the curly-wurly bits. Le Clerc says that now it does and he's confident that it's as good as rivals. Vettel doesn't know - he crashed his SF1000.

And with Racing Point seemingly cloning the 2019 Mercedes nose and front aero - and even an entire bodywork that looks a bit similar to last year's championship winning, no - dominating, car. It's got a Mercedes engine in the back and there is no doubt that its performance has been hampered by the former Force India team's financial struggles up until the middle of 2018. Racing Point have basically tossed away the 2018 car and its 2019 development and created a one-season special before major rule changes make all current platforms obsolete for 2021. According to the official F1 website "Technical director Andrew Green has categorically denied suggestions that Racing Point have used Mercedes designs for the new RP20, though he did accept that his 2020 contender has taken some cues from the W10 and W11 Silver Arrows." Maybe it's just the way I read it but to me that sounds like "we copied it but we didn't have the plans."

Throughout testing, teams are not competing - at least not until the afternoon of the final test when the same spirit overtakes them as recreational skiers call "Friday Afternoon Syndrome," AKA shit or bust. Go flat out even if you go home with your leg in a cast and your arm in a sling. So the big worry for everyone, including Ferrari who everyone seems to be convinced is sandbagging, is that Mercedes did clockwork like long runs with zero drama. They weren't fast but they weren't pushing - they were gathering data. They were not doing low-fuel simulations. And they were running on tyres that are two to three "steps" harder than those ahead of them in the time-sheets. As the relative performance of both Hamilton and Bottas sank in on day one - Bottas said that the car was far from ideal and that it had some good corners and some shockers.

One thing is sure: now we have only two days of testing left before the cars go back to base for a quick wash and brush up before being loaded and airfreighted to Melbourne, we know the same as we always know - some techie information, who's in a good mood and who's putting on a brave face and we have absolutely no idea who's going to be the star of the show around Albert Park.


---------------- Advertising ----------------