The secrets of F1 testing...
Every wondered what really goes on during pre-season testing? Sky F1's Marc Priestley, a former mechanic with McLaren, reveals a few of the secrets...
By Marc Priestley @f1elvis
Last Updated: 19/02/16 5:51pm
So here we are again, that time of year F1 fans think has taken far too long to arrive, but those at the F1 teams could almost certainly do with pushing back by a couple of weeks given the chance…pre-season testing.
For me it's a time of year I used to dread when I worked at McLaren, but now look forward to with eager excitement.
The dread came as a result of knowing what we were about to face as mechanics and engineers…weeks and weeks of sleepless nights and pain-filled days; battling with uncooperative new technology; desperately trying to make parts fit the car; preventing things catching fire or breaking and, of course, ultimately trying to make the car go quickly.
Back then, things were a little different and there was no such thing as a 'nightshift' crew or single car tests, or even a limit on the number of days we could run. Everyone and everything was pushed to its absolute limit and beyond.
Today, I sit comfortably behind a laptop or in front of television cameras, watching with the rest of the world and analysing what we've all waited months to see, the previously top-secret 2016 cars finally unveiled on the race track.
It may not have the wheel-to-wheel excitement of the first Grand Prix, but for me, this is one of the most interesting times of the year.
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So much time, effort and resource goes into getting a Formula One car from concept stage to the time the covers come off and it finally turns a wheel at the first test, it's no wonder teams try their hardest to protect their intellectual property and keep things secret. It's that part of the testing story that I always look at to try and understand the real picture of what's going on inside each garage.
With all teams testing openly together and being forced to keep garage doors open in the pitlane, it's easy to think that the days of espionage and public misdirection are long behind us. At this time of the year, more than any other, that couldn't be further from the truth.
As well as it being the first opportunity for the likes of you and I to see each car in the flesh after months of waiting, the same of course is true for each of the competitors in this high stakes sport.
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Photographers on each team's payroll will be commissioned to snap a list of 'wanted' pictures of the most intriguing opposition's cars. Literally hundreds of images are uploaded immediately to team servers, shared with the design offices back at factories and analysed in the level of attention to detail F1 teams are famed for.
Of course the 'victim' in this scenario knows it's happening so tries their best to keep things covered, hoards of mechanics and truckies moving to block the views of snappers as soon as the car rolls back towards the garages after a run. I've known teams use decoy photographers, wearing team kit, to draw the attention of the 'defending' crew, only to have the 'real', 'plain clothes' photographers taking pics of a completely different and unprotected element of the car.
I remember working with the great Adrian Newey a few years back, when we unveiled a super-duper new front wing at a test. He was so protective of the groundbreaking features of his latest design and realised we could only cover it until the moment it left our garage and trundled the length of pitlane, he decided on a different tactic.
He asked us all to forget about the front-wing. We'd attach it to the car, then not give it a second glance, instead focusing all attention on the rear wing…which was exactly the same as last time out. With such an over-exaggerated fuss being made at the back of the car to prevent anyone seeing the rear-wing we had, not one photographer spotted the subtle, yet pioneering, changes at the front, as they scrambled for a glimpse of the back!
Before anyone starts feeling sorry for these poor, under attack teams, don't.
They're all doing exactly the same things to each other, trying to get pictures, listening to each other's radio communications, even trying to scan the opposition's tyres with thermal imaging cameras at the end of a run. It's all part of the game when there's so much at stake.
A number of years ago, when I was at McLaren, Ferrari invited us to use their test track, Mugello, in Italy. Such was the level of paranoia between the two that we had a Technical Surveillance Counter Measures company go into the pitlane ahead of us to sweep for covert electronic devices. They didn't find any.
It's not always just about protecting information from the opposition with Formula One teams during testing. Carefully managing what the media and the public see, or perceive, is also a big part of today's game.
With the stakeholders in F1 each having different responsibilities to different parties, the performance levels on display are rarely a true, or clear, picture of how comfortable each team is feeling behind closed doors.
I've been there when the driver steps out after the very first run with an inconcealable smile on his face and we all knew instantly we'd built a good car. If it turns into one of those 'once every ten years' type successes, the team has to start managing expectations throughout winter testing by running heavy fuel or slower tyres, much as Mercedes tried to do last year.
Equally, if a team's struggling and know's its car a bit of a dud, they might need to put out a couple of attention grabbing lap times to appease unsettled sponsors or shareholders while they fight the fires internally. Low fuel, qualifying type runs, can often reshuffle the order at the end of a day, when the rest of the field are working on reliability based longer stints.
Drivers too, can have their own agenda, particularly in the modern world of needing to convince financial backers of their potential. It's not unheard of for a driver to request he be given the opportunity to make a headline for himself at a crucial time in contract negotiations.
All this means that deciphering the coded messages from pre-season testing are never straight forward when press releases, interviews and even lap times can be carefully scripted to match the corporate stance.
For me it only makes the whole thing more fascinating, looking between the cracks in the armour, through the gaps in the car covers and into the eyes of the main protagonists as they act out their roles in the biggest show on Earth.