Delving into the data from the sole pre-season test for Formula 2 highlights the impact of cutting track time and resources for drivers, but also leaves an unclear picture of the competitive order
A total of 18 hours of track time were offered to Formula 2 teams this year before the start of the season, although a combination of red flags and a simple reluctance to leave the garage while the track wasn’t at its quickest and tyre supply was limited meant that probably only 16 of those hours across three days were actually used.
It was a similar story last year when Bahrain was also chosen as the venue for pre-season testing, and sessions were held at night on that occasion. The introduction of the all-new 18-inch tyres was the big talking point this time in 2020, and Pirelli rubber was a hot topic again this week as a modified version of the hard compound tyre was given to teams to try for the first time – a stiffer compound designed to reduce the amount of graining considerably.
In addition to six sets of the hard compound, nominated as the ‘prime’ tyre, every car was allocated two sets of the unchanged soft compound too which acted as the ‘option’ tyre. With each round now including three races rather than two, on race weekends there will be still be two sets of the options for use but an increase to four sets of the prime tyre.
Driver feedback varied on how the new hard compound handled, with the tyre mostly used for long runs (10 or more laps) and race simulations (19 or more laps). While at most circuits it would be a given for the prime to last a full sprint race and for the longer stint in feature races, the high-abrasive asphalt used at Bahrain meant even a 20-lap stint was a big ask.
“A lot of people did different stuff [on long runs], so it’s hard to know what tyres people ran when because the longevity of the soft was similar to the hard,” Carlin’s Jehan Daruvala summarised to Formula Scout.
Prema’s Robert Shwartzman, who like Daruvala won at Bahrain last year in his rookie season, thought differently.
“The new hard tyres are much more complicated than the old ones. We have less grip, and degradation is more difficult to control,” he said.
Shwartzman was one of the more conservative with his use of track time over the first two days, and the 158 laps he set in testing was the lowest of anyone. Last year, he topped the pre-season charts with 199 laps.
However, he did do five long runs, two of which were full race simulations and at a time when the track was closer to what it will look like when racing begins there in just over two weeks’ time.
Carlin and Charouz Racing System meanwhile opted to start their development work for race set-ups on day one – when hotter temperatures would have masked any tyre warm-up issues – and did aero mapping runs rather than save up their tyres.
Running long stints early in a test, especially at Bahrain, is a risk and a reward. The evolving track surface, combined with its abrasive quality and the desert dust that laid on it before testing, means data picked up on day one may have limited use for track conditions on day three. Such is the limited window that each tyre peaks in, it means from a data analysis perspective that there is only a small number of laps – especially on the soft compound – that show a driver’s true performance window.
And once that tyre has visited its peak over one or two laps, that’s it; it doesn’t peak again.
Tyres aren’t the only contributor to performance, and aero mapping from runs early in the test enable engineers to adjust wing angles and find set-ups to increase downforce and make the car easier to drive for when the tyres are at their peak and on a faster track. Ergo, that data can be more useful if the set-up changes correspond with or anticipate the track evolution.
If not, then you’ve spent a day and at least one set of tyres optimising a car for conditions that are now irrelevant. It costs time, and therefore it’s going to hit a team’s budget too. Cutting track time doesn’t always cut costs in racing.
So in some ways testing is now painting an even less accurate picture of the competitive order than in previous years, but then F2’s calendar shake-up leaves another twist as half of this season takes place on street circuits anyway.
One driver who will be really looking forward to those is two-time Macau Grand Prix winner Dan Ticktum. The Briton was fastest in the first session of testing and was pleased with the pace of his Carlin-run car – not surprising as the team stood out in pre-season testing and successfully converted that winning pace into both race weekends at Bahrain last year.
However it was an encouraging sign for the Williams junior, who was inflicted by tyre warm-up issues at DAMS last year. His morning laptime was beaten at the end of Monday, when Charouz’s David Beckmann went out at the very end of the afternoon session and became the first driver to break into the 1m42s.
Most drivers ended up setting their personal best laps in the Tuesday morning session, with Trident’s Bent Viscaal – whose presence on the F2 grid is not confirmed beyond the Bahrain opener – laying down an early 1m42.028s benchmark using the soft compound.
DAMS’ Marcus Armstrong was just 0.010 seconds slower than him, and they remained at the top of the times until ART Grand Prix repeated a trick of putting its drivers on track together for a qualifying simulation while the track was relatively clear and temperatures had dropped slightly. Alpine Formula 1 junior Christian Lundgaard vaulted up to first place with a 1m41.697s lap, 0.331s up on Viscaal, and his Sauber-backed team-mate Theo Pourchaire slotted into ninth place.
Carlin pulled the same trick in the afternoon to go one-two, and Ticktum’s session-topping time placed him fourth on the end-of-test timesheet. Both of the day’s sessions were interrupted by red flags, primarily a result of cars stopping on track with mechanical issues. Teams were coy on the causes, and unfortunately those hit hardest were some of the least experienced.
Reigning Formula Regional European champion and Campos Racing driver Gianluca Petecof revealed that it was an electronics issue that led to him missing most of Saturday afternoon, while HWA Racelab’s Alessio Deledda ground to a halt twice.
Armstrong pipped Hitech GP pair Liam Lawson and Juri Vips and Virtuosi’s Guanyu Zhou to go fastest in Wednesday morning’s session, at which point most teams switched focus solely to development work and race simulations.
Despite matching the Carlin drivers in completing seven long runs, MP Motorsport’s Richard Verschoor and Lirim Zendeli didn’t actually run on a programme longer than 17 laps. This isn’t suggestive that the team is evaluating the alternate strategy of pitting for a second set of tyres during Bahrain’s two sprint races though, as the soft tyre allocation hasn’t increased to make that possible.
Campos also deliberately opted for shorter runs, and completed its test programme despite Petecof’s problems. The team, which lost its founder Adrian Campos in January, ended the test on a high note as Ralph Boschung topped the last session.
Meanwhile Deledda’s longest stint was only 14 laps, and he was at the mercy of budget, reduced track time and mechanical issues in his limited mileage. It wasn’t an encouraging start to the Italian’s F2 career, and he clearly needed more laps and more tyres to just learn the car rather than be limited to trying to execute the programme HWA had planned as it too attempts to get on top of the Dallara F2 2018 car and drag itself up the order.
On the long runs he did do, it wasn’t too embarrassing for a driver whose best ever result in single-seaters is a sixth place achieved in an Asian Formula 3 race earlier this year. However his lack of understanding on how to extract the performance from the soft tyre was evident, and he was actually closer to the fastest driver on long runs (3.103s gap per lap over a stint) than on absolute pace (3.379s).
His team-mate Matteo Nannini has only been racing cars for two years, but has made the FIA F3 Championship podium, and he pointed to the need for improvements in qualifying simulations after Monday. That difficulty continued though, and his fastest lap the next afternoon was set on the hard tyre during a race simulation shortened by a red flag. Nannini then got hit by a gearbox problem on Wednesday morning, worryingly leaving HWA as the team with the least laps on the board.
When it came to isolated sectors then HWA fared no better, but for DAMS it looked encouraging as Armstrong was some way closer to Lundgaard than his best lap suggested. Lundgaard’s best sectors linked together would have given him a marginal 0.014s gain, while Armstrong’s ideal lap was 0.184s up on his actual best and would have made him second fastest.
The pair would have been quick enough to slot themselves between Callum Ilott and Felipe Drugovich on the front row of last year’s feature race on Bahrain’s Grand Prix layout, but laptimes were down on 2020 pre-season testing in warmer conditions.
The speed trap figures were interesting too, with Charouz often one of the fastest teams through the final sector and then across the speed trap. Its top speed was 300.8 km/h, with ART GP and Virtuosi next best and 1.6 km/h slower.
Slowest of all was Hitech, six km/h down on Charouz, although Lawson was second only to Beckmann on sector three times.
Beckmann built on the pace he showed on Monday afternoon by impressing on his long runs through the week. His 15-lap stint on Wednesday morning was the fastest when using a 10-lap rolling average of laptimes to calculate race pace, and it was Lawson who was his closest rival with a 0.091s per lap deficit.
Charouz’s pace was no doubt down to gains made between its many runs – although the team wasn’t actually top of the chart for laps done – as Beckmann’s team-mate Guilherme Samaia was sixth fastest despite struggling for one-lap pace.
Average race pace
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Prema and Carlin looked competitive as expected too, and the Virtuosi drivers shared encouraging messages of productivity despite being down not only on race pace but on single-lap form too.
The team’s new signing Drugovich was a lowly 15th on qualifying simulations, a comparable 0.336s down on team-mate Zhou, and 17th fastest on long-run pace where the team-mate gap was 0.153s per lap but Zhou was only one place above.
An impressive 10th fastest on the race runs was Verschoor, who may have done shorter stints but was however on a test-only deal. The 20-year-old Dutchman has past F2 test experience, and a Macau GP win under his belt, but needs additional sponsorship if he’s to land a race seat with MP.
The fact that he went to Bahrain is encouraging, and his performance proved he’s more than capable of stepping up to F2, but there are other serious contenders for the drive such as former Formula 1 driver Roberto Merhi and there may be sponsorship coming in from another source, as MP made an effort to hide its livery throughout testing.
Teams now have 14 days to trawl through all of the data from testing, and some will be headed back to their European headquarters in this gap. Between travel restrictions and costs of testing, others will choose to remain in Bahrain.
F1 holds its pre-season test at the circuit through the rest of this week, and DAMS’ Roy Nissany debuted the Williams FW43B on Friday with a whole day in the new car to himself.
While it may throw him when he returns to the lower speeds of F2 machinery at the same circuit, being part of the F1 team for the equivalent of a grand prix weekend will be a beneficial and envious experience for Nissany as the paddock bubble system means F2 will be kept apart from F1 once the season starts and drivers won’t be able to observe race operations.
Besides Monza, it will also be the closest F2 gets to F1 in the paddock as ad-hoc garages at street circuits and support race pitlanes elsewhere means teams will be without the luxuries for most of the time this year. But the only thing that really matters, and testing has done little to reveal, is who will be the fastest on track this season?