We're heading out of the Tempest and into Europe with many things to be found... The testing season is upon us, and after the deluge of press conferences and launches, the ten Formula 1 teams will get down to eight days of seriously hard work, testing their new cars at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. The first part of 2017's phoney war will be over... the next commences.
While pre-season tests have occasionally ventured further afield, Spain has been the location of choice since the limits were imposed, with tests at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo in Valencia and Circuito de Jerez supplementing the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Barcelona, however, has always been the preferred location as it is in 2017.
Why Barcelona? A common misconception is that teams descend on Catalunya at this time of year because it's warm. It really isn't! But Barcelona does have plenty of other advantages. The circuit has excellent infrastructure and plenty of garage space; it is logistically convenient, being located on a major European highway and close to two international airports but until F1 gets another Spanish team, it doesn't particularly favour any one outfit. And while February in Barcelona can be bitterly cold, there's a good chance it will be dry, which is definitely a bonus when you want to accumulate the laps.
Best of all though, the layout of the Circuit de Catalunya offers everything a team could want when it needs to learn everything about a new car in a very short space of time. The track has high-speed, medium-speed and low-speed corners of varying radii, it has quick changes of direction plus a long main-straight. It's a high-downforce circuit that's tough on tyres. While F1 doesn't really have 'normal' circuits any more, Barcelona is as close to nominal as you're going to see.
The first trucks carrying garage equipment left the factory heading for Spain a couple of days ago, with more materiel being fired off southwards on a regular basis and the last due to leave Milton Keynes at 1900h this evening, heading for the tunnel and the 22 hour drive to Barcelona. Chassis RBR13-01 will be travelling first class, just in time for us to turn those first laps on Monday of the first test.
Given the limits on track time, and the value teams place on it, people are often curious as to why cars seem to spend half the day in the garage. This isn't down to a lack of enthusiasm! There's simply a lot to do at a test and not all of it is out on track.
A test has a big programme to get through, lots of parts and configurations to test. Aerodynamicists will want the car to run festooned with extra sensors, the drivers will want to get comfortable – which may involve anything from adjusting the pedals to trying out different steering racks or brake materials, the power unit engineers have a brand-new design to understand... etc, etc.
In an ideal world, much of testing is really about validation. Testing the car on track validates the simulation models and the wind tunnel data. The closer the correlation between track and tunnel, the happier a team will be. That said, there are things – tyre performance being a prime example – where there isn't a substitute for putting miles on the car.
Of course, the best chance for understanding the car is to gather as much data as possible under the widest variety of conditions. This is why the actual times produced during testing have to be taken with a grain of salt. It's tempting to compare the times set by different teams – but unless you know they're running at the same time of day with the same tyres, tyre pressures, fuel loads, ride heights, downforce settings and goals, then there's really nothing to compare. This is why everyone will say that the times during testing don't matter and the team has to concentrate on its own performance rather than looking at what everyone else is doing.
Everyone still does look though – that's just human nature...
Finally, it's important to remember that Barcelona doesn't just fulfil the function of testing the car. F1 is a team sport and, while it is the public's first chance to see the new cars, it's also the crew's first chance to work with them. This will be their first opportunity to test some of the new garage and pit equipment that replicates the gear currently in sea freight containers crossing the world's oceans bound for Melbourne, Shanghai and Bahrain and the exciting bits of the 2017 F1 season.