Formula 1 pre-season testing: History and how they changed

Formula 1 pre-season testing: History and how they changed

With the 2023 season right around the corner, we thought about a little history class regarding how pre-season testing evolved throughout the years.

Ahead of the 2023 campaign, the teams will gather in Bahrain on February 23rd and will be testing their new cars for three consecutive days up until February 25th. This will be the teams' only opportunity to check how their new challengers perform before the season starts in Bahrain the following week.

Many argue that just three days of pre-season testing is not enough for the teams and drivers to learn how the new car behaves. Of course, the engineers dream to have unlimited time on track before, and during the season to refine every single detail of the car. However, this is not possible nowadays, since FIA's rules state that the time that all Formula 1 outfits have to test their cars is limited.

Despite that, this was not always the case back in the days, when the sport had less strict rules, and teams did not have limits on how much time (and money) they could invest in pre-season and in-season testing.

Some of the wealthier teams like Ferrari could benefit from the fact that they could spend a lot of money on pre-season testing to better develop their car for the upcoming season. Moreover, having no limits on testing meant that the outfit that could afford to run them, could give young drivers the chance to gain a lot of experience in a Formula 1 car. This would of course benefit them in the long term in case they needed a new driver in the future.

Rubens Barichello during pre-season testing in 2007. 

Not only teams invested time and money into pre-season testing, but throughout the whole season, they kept testing their cars to further develop them and extract every single bit of performance they could.

However, the tragic incident that led to Elio de Angelis' death at Paul Ricard in 1986 brought the FIA to change testing rules, which became stricter. The FIA stated that all testing sessions had to be run under full race safety conditions.

What did that mean, though? Running a testing session became way more expensive. Therefore, the FIA decided to implement new, stricter rules around the early 2000s to decrease the costs and the difference in performance between the richer teams and the ones with less money.

Nowadays, the rules are simple. Every year, before the season opener, teams have a few days (this year it's three days, while last season they had six) to test their cars, collect data, and prepare for the first race. Moreover, they can also run two sessions – each limited to a maximum of 100 kilometers – for promotional purposes, the so-called “filming days”.

Furthermore, teams will also be able to use the current car (the one they use for the ongoing season) to run in-season tests for Formula 1 tire supplier Pirelli. Of course, even these type of tests have their limitations, and their main goal is to help Pirelli to further develop, and improve the design of the tires. Thus, these tire-tests are not meant to give the teams more time to test their cars.

Finally, there is also a young driver test at the end of the season in Abu Dhabi, where teams give space to young drivers while also trying some parts for the upcoming season sometimes.

Sergey Sirotkin during 2018 pre-season testing with Williams. Barcelona, Catalunya.

What about the tracks that hosted pre-season testing, what are the ones that have been used the most? For sure, if you have been following Formula 1 for some time, and you don't live under a rock, you must know that the Circuit de Barcelona, Catalunya was the most used recently. Thanks to great weather (2018 we are not talking about you), slow-fast sections, and its favorable geographical position near most of the team's factories, this track is the perfect venue for pre-season testing. In fact, it was the only one used from 2015 to 2020.

However, this was not the only circuit that hosted these tests. Jerez and Valencia in Spain, the Algarve International Circuit in Portugal, Mugello in Italy, and Paul Ricard in France were also used to run pre-season testing.

Written by Davide Bini.