Bring testing back… sims aren’t cutting it?

Since 2009 Formula One has had a serious lock down on testing. Gone are the lavish year-round testing with bespoke testing teams, drivers, equipment and resources in favor of austerity such as… multi-million dollar simulators. The idea of testing had become, like most things in F1, extreme and I’m not talking about Gary Cherone or Nuno Bettencourt.

The excess amount of testing was outright scary but all that changed in 2009. Then FIA president Max Mosley put the brakes on testing by banning in-season testing and limiting pre-season testing to only a few sessions. Now it seems teams are set to vote on a more robust testing schedule and with the massive regulation changes in 2014, it’s not difficult to imagine why.

Jonathan Neale at McLaren told reporters:

“Formula One appears to be about to test itself again on its commitment to different types of testing,” he said.

“We’ll see tomorrow when there is a vote on the subject, but I think right now there are four teams who are in favour of going track testing. Clearly if you’ve got a circuit in your backyard already funded and have the IT equipment [in place] you want to roll up the shutters and push the driver out.”

Can you imagine who he may be referring to when he says a team with a track outside their back door? If you had to guess at which four teams were keen to start testing again, which teams would you finger as the culprits?

The obvious question may be regarding the serious money spent on serious driving simulators. Most of the teams have spent a fortune on these sophisticated simulators in lieu of on-track testing so isn’t that good enough?

“Over the years teams have rightly developed the technology and the cost saving methods that go with moving away from dependence on track testing and a reliance more on desktop simulation and sometimes [driver-in-the-loop] simulators,” Neale added. “By all means a simulator is a very valuable tool but there is a whole bevy of other simulations that go with it that help you work out what is happening on the circuit.

The reasons for the ban on testing haven’t changed and Neale says that the economics haven’t changed much since 2009:

“Formula One is at the moment just asking itself again [if it wants to return to track testing] and there are some quarters pushing very hard for the reintroduction of track testing. I find that slightly curious because there were very good reasons for us, pre-the financial crisis and Lehmann Brothers, to impose some cost constraints to stabilise the sport and make sure it was in good health for new teams coming along.

“There were a variety of more high-profile ways of doing that such as fixed budgets and a number of teams were tempted to come into F1 on the basis that we would work on some kind of sustainable formula. So we’ve had partnerships between big teams and small teams, a reduction in wind tunnel testing, resource restriction agreements and a movement away from track testing.

“Yet in some quarters they are pushing very hard for the re-introduction of track testing and I don’t see anything different in the environment – the economic environment is still precarious – that would take us back to track testing.

“I would be really surprised if a team could do a day’s track testing for much less than between £70,000-£100,000 in Europe. By the time you’ve got the cars, flights and all the people it must be in that order.”

That’s serious cash but if you spent $20m on a simulator, that’s a lot of testing you could have performed since 2009… in fact, that’s a couple hundred days of testing that could have been accomplished but that doesn’t take into account the parts and everything ancillary to the process. Can driver-in-the-loop simulation replace real testing? I quote Williams driver Susie Wolff after she drove the real car in testing:

“Driving the F1 car meant I came back into the sim with a whole new level of understanding. If you are in the sim trying to give feedback on a car you’ve never driven before, it’s not the same level of feedback. It’s not the same as being on the race track – nothing is.”

Judging by McLaren’s current form this year, perhaps their simulator program isn’t working either.

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