How much does F1 testing matter?

F1 teams have three days of pre-season testing in Bahrain ahead of the F1 2023 campaign

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Every hot take from the Formula 1 car launch season has included the caveat ‘but we’ll see what happens in testing’, but as teams prepare to see their cars on track for the first time – how much will the results in Bahrain matter?

Total Motorsport‘s Nigel Chiu was bang-on with his prediction for the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix based on testing, but even then it was runner-up Max Verstappen who’d set the fastest time pre-season.

In 2021 Verstappen again went quickest ahead of the season, but that time went even quicker than he or anyone else managed at the Bahrain GP weekend itself and again he missed out on victory in the curtain-raiser.

Fastest times don’t mean much

Red Bull’s Sergio Perez in action during Pre-Season Testing 2022 in Bahrain | REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

And that 2021 test illustrates the first point: fastest times don’t mean that much. The day three top ten order was Verstappen, Yuki Tsunoda, Carlos Sainz, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez, Fernando Alonso and Charles Leclerc.

Of those, only Verstappen, Ricciardo and Alonso qualified within three positions of their testing finish and just two drivers – Verstappen and Ricciardo – finished the opening race within the same bracket.

In 2022, Verstappen‘s fastest time was seven-tenths ahead of Leclerc at the end of testing but the Ferrari man beat him to pole position by 0.123s at the Bahrain GP, and the Scuderia recorded a one-two after both Red Bulls retired.

Outside of those two, none of the final testing top five occupied the top five come the first qualifying of the season.

Ignoring the COVID-impacted 2020 it’s much the same story the further back you go. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel finished 2019 testing in Barcelona just 0.003s apart and looked to be set for a grandstand title fight but the German finished the championship in fifth, 160 points behind Hamilton.

Neither driver managed pole position at the Spanish Grand Prix either, that honour went to Valtteri Bottas.

2019 Spanish Grand Prix, Saturday | LAT Images/Mercedes F1 Team

Race runs and lap counts

However, you can still tell a lot from testing. The most obvious thing is reliability – Mercedes were consistently near the top of the lap count for their period of dominance from 2014 to 2021, which also gave the Silver Arrows lots of valuable data to get started on upgrades before they’d even flown to Melbourne to start the season.

In 2022 Red Bull edged Ferrari in the lapcount that foreshadowed their stronger reliability over the season while Mercedes‘ monster final day meant they managed more distance than both – and proceeded to have no reliability DNFS over the season.

But there was another key Mercedes takeaway from testing – the eye test. The Silver Arrows were already in deep trouble with porpoising while Ferrari rode the bumps better than most and were immediately setting the pace come the start of the season. Finally, Mercedes‘ race run was noticeably slower than Ferrari‘s.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc celebrates on the podium with the trophy after winning the race | REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

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