Red Bull car testing on a track before the new F1 season

The new F1 season is nearly here. 2021 F1 testing was reduced from two sessions of three days each, to only one session of three days. With the 2021 regulations receiving only minor tweaks the cars will be minor evolutions from 2020 and teams should be very familiar with their operation. The season’s only test session has freshly concluded and here’s what we saw:

Lap Times Are Meaningless

When viewing the results posted from each day’s running in 2021 F1 testing, pay no attention to the lap times. Teams are free to run their test program any way they wish and one team may be on a low fuel short stint while another may be on a high fuel race-length stint. The cars could also be on different tires. Those two teams will have wildly different lap times as a result. Therefore, throw those times out the window as they mean nothing when comparing one car to another.

Teams Sandbag

In 2019, Ferrari came out of the gate looking strong, and Mercedes looked like perhaps they were struggling with pace in pre-season testing. Well, when the teams turned up in Australia a few weeks later, Hamilton put the car on pole and Vettel in third was nearly seven-tenths behind. Mercedes had been sandbagging in testing. We did see Mercedes struggle with reliability in 2021 F1 testing. However, Mercedes is a very capable team so don’t think for a second they can’t again put the car on pole position in the first race. Ferrari also has an all new engine this season so we may see them pull more power out as the season gets underway.

Reliability Is Telling

Teams who ran the car as much as possible in testing are teams who have put together a reliable car. Reliable cars give you the best shot at the most points over the season’s length. Red Bull came straight out the gate with Max Verstappen putting in a chart topping 139 laps on the first day of testing alone. Having a fast car is great, but if it won’t finish the race because of mechanical issues, it may as well be the slowest car on the grid. Verstappen had 5 retirements in 2020 meaning no points for those races - yet he still placed 3rd in the championship only a handful of points behind Valtteri Bottas. The reliable looking Red Bull means Verstappen and Perez can capitalize on points.

Drivers In New Cars

Vettel, Alonso, Ricciardo, Perez, Sainz, Tsunoda, Schumacher, and Mazepin are all in equipment they did not drive last year. Vettel didn’t get many laps in testing due to mechanical issues at Aston Martin. Meanwhile Sainz struggled with a Ferrari that seemed a bit on a knife’s edge. Alonso seemed back at home in Formula 1 and got on well with the Alpine. 

Where we’ll learn just how well drivers have adapted to their new surroundings is instead at the first race of the new F1 season in Bahrain in less than 2 weeks. Race weekend is a high pressure environment and will separate the men from the boys.

Teams Are Sneaky

Given that the teams were not in a race weekend format, there are rules they did not have to adhere to — mostly surrounding television camera access. Teams covered up the cars as much as possible by using various shrouds to keep prying eyes from spying what they’ve worked so hard on.


Development Continues Apace

The cars we saw at 2021 F1 testing are not the cars that show up to the first race. At some point, teams needed to decide where to “freeze” development so that they could build all the parts needed to assemble cars for testing. While cars were built for testing, development in the wind tunnel and computer simulation has continued, so expect teams to bring yet more new parts to the first race in Bahrain.

Exploited Loopholes Showed Up At Testing

If teams have had a “creative” interpretation of the FIA’s rules, that interpretation often shows up at pre-season testing. Brawn’s double diffuser, McLaren’s F-Duct, and even last year’s “Pink Mercedes” all showed up at pre-season testing. This year McLaren delivered with a crafty interpretation of the new rules surrounding the restrictions on the rear diffuser. It does not, however, appear to be something fundamental to the design of the car so I expect we’ll see a team or two deliver their own version in time for the first race as the rest of the field tries out the design.

If you’re like me, you can’t wait for the new F1 season to begin. Thankfully, the days are counting down to when we hear the roar of race cars once again.

About the Author:

Jared Nichols has been a Formula 1 fan for over a decade and a car nut his entire life. He is the host of the F1 Explained podcast, where he and special guests make Formula 1 accessible to all. Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

March 18, 2021 — Jared Nichols

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