Putting the pedal to the metal: Five things to look out for in F1 pre-season testing

A beginners guide to pre-season testing and the 2024 season

Abu Dhabi F1 GP Auto Racing

It’s that time of year and the season of speculation in Formula 1. The sport readies itself for a new season after a gripping 2023 campaign full of surprises, upsets and controversies with all eyes focused on the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 2. Before the lights are out in the first race week, the cameras and drivers are focused on a vital few days of testing.

So, what is F1 pre-season testing?

Pre-season testing in the F1 calendar year is a crucial time for teams and drivers to test their cars’ limits. Over three days at Bahrain’s Sakhir International Circuit, renowned for its harsh conditions, teams will assess and analyse the cars’ performances to ensure their work behind the scenes pays off. It’s also the first time fans and media alike get to see the cars take to the track.

Testing is heavily monitored by the FIA, with limitations put on time to ensure that each team and driver is given an equal chance. Teams are only allowed to have one car on the track at a time, with a total of 24 hours on the tarmac over the three-day period.

During the three days of testing, teams will watch very closely how their cars perform with each second being an invaluable resource to their team’s success on and off the track. The one clear objective for each team is to collect as much data as possible to tone up and master their cars before race week one.

What should you look out for?

Hamilton has won six of his world titles driving for Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes (Tim Goode/PA)

Time to add a new word to your vocabulary: sandbagging. A word famous within the F1 community and closely associated with this time in the year, sandbagging can simply be defined as purposefully underperforming.

While testing is a key chance for teams to assess their cars, it’s also a great opportunity for rivals to assess their competition. It’s for this reason sandbagging comes into play.

Teams will tactically use this opportunity to underperform to keep their true ability a secret. Many associate this with Mercedes in 2019 who conceded pre-season testing to Ferrari – they then went on to win the first eight races that season.

Aston Martin
Lance Stroll jumps out from his car after his crash (Caroline Chia/AP)

Aston Martin experienced an astonishing 2023, picking up a record eight podiums, all from the experienced Spaniard Fernando Alonso. They rose from bottom of the pack to mid-table excellence and competed tightly with McLaren.

Their performance last year was not only down to Alonso, but partly thanks to their new car that closely resembled Mercedes. Even with this extra horsepower and innovation, Lance Stroll was still perceived to have underdelivered for the team.

His father Lawrence Stroll, who owns Aston Martin’s Formula 1 team, has been reluctant to let go of his son and remains positive that he can turn things around.

Stroll has impressed so far in testing. Sitting at the front of the mid-table pack on day one and day two, he is out to prove his critics wrong with a strong performance in testing.

Lap time and usage
The upcoming season will see a record 24 grands prix take place
(Tim Goode/PA)

A very important statistic in testing is the number of laps completed and the fastest lap time. As this is the first real test for the new cars to push through, their reliability must be suitable for a full race weekend.

An easy measurement for the durability of the cars is the number of laps completed. The more laps that are completed provide a strong showcase of how long the car can perform for.

Not only this, but teams are incentivised to complete as many laps as possible as with each lap more data is collected.

While these benefits may encourage teams to give their all, we must also remember that all teams will have access to the extra data which brings up the argument of sandbagging.

Potential match-ups
Austria F1 GP Auto Racing
Max Verstappen (centre) claimed victory ahead of Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz (Darko Bandic/AP)

The first Grand Prix of the year is just around the corner and teams will be out to show off and impress. One big standout about testing is that it provides the first look at this year’s potential match-ups.

Eyes will be heavily focused on Red Bull who came off a dominant 2023 with many wondering whether teams have what it takes to close the gap. Some may eye the possible driver rivalries this season will bring, for instance, whether McLaren is in the running against Ferrari and Mercedes.

It’s also important to consider each driver’s current situation at their teams. With Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez in the final year of their contracts, they will put everything into this year in an attempt to prove themselves to their current and possible employers.

It may still be very early on, but these rivalries start at the birth of each season and last until its conclusion.

Red Bull v Mercedes
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen won his ninth successive race on Sunday (Peter Dejong/AP)

Now then, the names you will all be familiar with, the near 300-point and dominant World Champion Max Verstappen and Construction Championship winners Red Bull will be in the spotlight.

Winning 21 out of 22 races, Red Bull are clear favourites, but this year has seen some very interesting changes to their car which will draw a lot of attention.

They have decided to go with a new design despite their flawless performance last season, they have implemented vertical sidepods to their cars – a similarity with the “zero-sidepod” approach Mercedes took in 2022 which they distanced themselves from.

Many have drawn comparisons between the two, with Verstappen commenting: “I would still call it a Red Bull style… but I know what you mean.”

Verstappen finished day one of testing with a time of 1:31.344, a whole second faster than Lando Norris in second.

Attention will be drawn to whether Red Bull can improve on last season, with these changes to the car being seen as risky, especially since this is the last year before the new hybrid power units are implanted for 2025 meaning this will be the most developed the current engines will be.

Mercedes have been raising debates over whether they can restore their World Championship ambitions. Where the car was lacking last year, namely in the turn exits, it is much more favourable to the drivers.

Lewis Hamilton made claims last season that the cockpit was too far forward saying it made him uncomfortable in the Mercedes W14, but this year they have moved it further back playing more into his comfort zone.

The seven-time world champion will this year, more than ever, want to prove himself in his final chapter with the Silver Arrows by bringing the fight to Red Bull.