Delving into the data from the sole pre-season test for Formula 2 and FIA Formula 3 Championship highlights some interesting trends, and the impact of cutting back the track time for drivers
Across three days and six sessions each, the two highest profile junior single-seater series assembled in Bahrain this week for the only high-speed mileage they will be allowed before their seasons begin at the same circuit later this month. Were it not for numerous red flag interruptions, this would have equated to 15 hours on track each, during the heat of the days and nights.
To some Formula 1 teams, such conditions in the desert are more desirable than the staple of a cold but massively well-known Barcelona, and given the Formula 2 teams were trialling the 18-inch wheel specs that F1 will adopt in 2021, it shouldn’t be entirely ruled out that the test location – and reduction to three days of running – was being used as a dummy for F1 too.
The figures that everyone would have looked at, and what certainly what put smiles on the faces at Hitech GP, were the fastest lap times in the F2 sessions. Were the new, larger wheels going to make the cars slower, and who was going to be top?
As it turned out, the increased size of the wheel rims, and the new tyre compounds that Pirelli had created to fit them, more than slowed the Dallara F2 2018 car. This seemed to be primarily down to a driver feedback issue, with the smaller volume of rubber interacting with the track translating to less information going to the driver via the steering wheel or through their seat.
Campos Racing’s Guilherme Samaia actually described the new tyres as “very responsive”, but the paddock consensus was that steering was heavier and as a result so was degradation with the thinner sidewall. Prema’s Robert Shwartzman summarised the changes as giving “less time” to drivers. It was no surprise that ART Grand Prix and Trident called on the immensely experienced Sergey Sirotkin and Tom Dillmann respectively to test to improve the teams’ understanding of the tyres, although Sirotkin’s call-up was to replace Renault F1 junior Christian Lundgaard quarantined at a Tenerife training camp.
“The behaviour of the new tyres is interesting: when you push the limits, there are times that the car suddenly breaks down, and you had to get used to it,” said Shwartzman.
“The 13-inch tyres felt different, such situations were more expected. Our main purpose was to collect data, but in general we understand that we should be in the top five or three. We completed almost the entire planned program, although red flags often appeared on the track and sometimes traffic interfered.”
Former Formula E star Dillmann spoke in detail to Formula Scout about the tyres, and how the change in weight distribution altered the handling characteristics for the worse. F2’s sprint races in Bahrain have recently been prone to pitstops for tyre changes, usually only seen in the longer feature races, and Dillmann absolutely expects that trend to continue.
As a typical Bahrain sprint race would be 22 or 23 laps, and a feature race would be at least 30, it would be expected to get at least 10 laps out of one set of tyres, and preferably even longer on the punishing circuit depending what compound was in use. Formula Scout took every stint of 10 laps or more from testing and went through the data to see which teams appear to have the advantage so far. The appearance of slow traffic and yellow flags is not separated from this data, and there were several stints recorded by drivers that looked far worse than they actually were due to one anomalous lap. There is also no data on which compound of tyre was used, with both the hard and soft compounds available during the F2 test.
Every ‘afternoon’ session for F2 actually took place going into the night due to the circuit’s advanced spotlight setup, and the slightly cooler temperatures meant there was a greater focus on qualifying runs as downforce levels increased.
Those who spent that time doing race runs reaped the rewards in terms of pace too, with seven of the 10 fastest stints taking place during the darkness and the fastest five unsurprisingly being in the final session of the week when the track was the most rubbered in.
Carlin’s Jehan Daruvala was the fastest of all, with a 17m36.377s time over 10 laps set when the track was at its quickest. He had not ventured into sub-18 minute territory on any prior runs, but his ferocious one-lap pace in other sessions suggested his speed was no fluke. Five of the next nine best runs were recorded by HWA Racelab, which took over Arden’s entry during the winter.
Given Arden’s race pace was considerably better than its qualifying pace, and HWA’s veteran driver Artem Markelov is renowned for his tyre-saving ability in races, it was perhaps a surprising strategy for the ‘new’ team to focus so heavily on race simulations. This is reflected in the fastest lap times from the test, as HWA was slowest of all. It was 0.187s off next slowest team Trident, and 1.252s off the test benchmark set by Hitech GP’s Luca Ghiotto – equating to being 1.236% off the absolute pace.
This emphasis on race runs was reflected in comments Markelov made at the end of the test too: “There is still a lot to do, as far as the driving is concerned. Hopefully we can use free practice and qualifying on the opening race weekend to make more improvements. [But] they were very nice tests.”
On the flip side, fellow debutant team Hitech recorded the least laps by some margin. Its tally of 255 was only two thirds of what Prema was able to achieve, and 54 less than anyone else – a gap equatable to two races at the circuit. But Hitech was efficient with its time, and its lack of mileage came primarily down to a gritty first day where its two freshly-built cars accumulated 44 laps.
Veteran driver Ghiotto found the first day enjoyable despite the little spent he spent in the car, and his smile grew as the test went on. He was full of praise for Hitech after the final day, when he not only set the fastest lap but also the fifth fastest 10-lap stint of anyone, a 17m52.514s comfortably clear of all but Daruvala and HWA’s Giuliano Alesi and Markelov.
It’s fair to say that both Hitech and HWA did great jobs given this was the only running they were allowed in the regulations to test the car and new tyres before the season, and by hiring series experts for their driver line-up they avoided having to follow Trident’s lead of bringing in a professional driver just for one day.
This potentially backfired for Trident, as when Dillmann returned the car to Marino Sato he still looked down on confidence and pace. He is the one who will be racing, and it could have been less of an issue had F2 not dropped its routine of two pre-season tests in Spain.
Sirotkin set the longest stint of 24 laps for ART, and the former Williams F1 driver took a punt on the competitive order.
“The impressions from the test was as pleasant as possible,”he said. “It was interesting for me to drive [the Dallara F2 2018]. We successfully worked all three days, tried different settings, both on shorter and longer stints. Many options showed themselves well, and by the sum of all the factors, I would suggest that the ART GP is one of the two fastest in the pack.”
The Russian may be right, but Lundgaard’s lack of mileage will severely hurt his immediate chances of success, and prior to the track being at its quickest it was Carlin and Charouz Racing System that looked ominously fast on the short and long runs.
FIA Formula 3
You can never take too much away from pre-season testing, goes the old F1 saying, but Bahrain did nothing to lead anyone away from the assumption that Prema will be the team to beat once again in FIA F3, and Hitech will be its closest rival.
Prema’s trio of drivers all had qualms with how the car reacted to the 2020-spec tyres, but the team routinely worked through all problems and ended up with what was the fastest package by the end of the test. In its line-up are two series rookies compared to Hitech’s one, and the experience of the drivers in the latter team was evident.
New Mark Webber protege and Renault F1 junior Oscar Piastri described the test as being “up-and-down”, while Frederik Vesti followed up his FIA F3 World Cup debut with Prema with some scintillating long runs (measured using the same 10-lap reading as the F2 results) after early struggles. Logan Sargeant, the team’s only sophomore driver, already knew what he was looking to improve on following a tricky 2019 that did end with a Macau Grand Prix podium with Carlin.
“The tyres are really difficult to switch on in qualifying conditions while trying to put together a proper lap with traffic,” Vesti said of an issue he will have to get used to during the season with a 30-car grid. “During the three days I made pretty big steps and I found a lot of new things that I need to improve for race weekends which is really [good].
“We ended the last session P6 and while it’s not where we want to be it’s still a good step forward on new tyres. The race runs have been good through the whole test. I’m happy with the three days, now I need to go back home and fine-tune everything.”
The race runs were more than good, although the F3 field was considerably closer and on average they ran far longer stints than F2. Vesti’s best 10-lap pick was a 18m31.387s run on the morning of the test’s third day, an improvement by 1.515s on the benchmark he had set the previous afternoon. The only driver capable of getting between those times was team-mate Sargeant, who set more sub-18m37s runs than anyone else.
Charouz piled on the miles and were rewarded with being Prema’s closest opposition on race pace, with Niko Kari setting a 18m33.744s on the afternoon of day two. The final day was used almost exclusively for long runs by most of the other teams, and despite being on a faster track they were unable to beat Prema.
Due to being called up by Mercedes-Benz to drive in the Formula E’s Marrakech rookie test, HWA’s Jake Hughes missed the first day entirely but he looked one of the most comfortable on track.
His race runs would most likely have bettered Prema’s had he been equipped with one more day of data, and he put in the second quickest lap of the test on his final fast lap. The Briton was quick to play down his performances, stating the tests “aren’t too representative” of what the season holds.
Both Hitech and HWA made sure they ran as many laps as possible while also concentrating on their new F2 efforts, and as a result it brought the drivers of both teams quickly up to speed. Red Bull junior Liam Lawson was rapid on a long run – with his best 10-lap excerpt taken from an unbeaten 23-lap stint – and a qualifying lap for Hitech, while HWA rookies Jack Doohan and Enzo Fittipaldi put in the most miles and as a result had the freedom of finding their limits in both key performance barometers of the test.
Doohan was third fastest overall, and Fittipaldi rivalled old Formula Regional European Championship team-mate Vesti as the best ‘rookie’ (both raced in Macau) and feeling “more than ready” to show his race pace for real.
Campos and Carlin spent far more time in the pits, but both teams still showed competitive pace and more importantly improvements on their status as the worst teams of 2019.
Alex Peroni set 143 laps for Campos, with only the part-absent Hughes recording fewer, but the Australian – returning from his back-breaking crash at Monza round last year – showed confidence on long runs and also bagged the fastest laptime. His two team-mates were less smiley, as they were off the pace.
F3 veterans Enaam Ahmed and Cameron Das had to work to “a different philosophy” of car at Carlin, but it was reigning BRDC British F3 champion team-mate Clement Novalak who looked the more composed of the three on track and led much of the final test session before being shuffled down the order by a flurry of late improvements from others.
Bahrain pre-season test round-up
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