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F1 pre season testing

F1 pre-season testing 'champion' - Do fast times tell us everything?

It has been said that you should never look at the lap times when in pre-season testing, but do the timesheets actually tell us something?

Leclerc Bahrain start practice
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You hear all Formula 1 drivers say it often enough during test days: mileage is most important so we don't look at times. Recent years have often shown that this is not a crazy thought. Sure, you can see if teams have got it right in terms of car balance, but that says nothing about actual speed because then the term "sandbagging" immediately comes into play.

During tests it is never clear how much fuel the teams are using. From longer runs you can usually tell something, but so-called glory runs provide a distorted picture.

Last week, for example, Zhou Guanyu set the third fastest time in his Stake F1 car on the final day of testing and was faster than Max Verstappen. Stake F1 a top team in 2024? Well no, Zhou was driving on a softer tyre and on the face of it, had much less fuel on board.

Mercedes often does the opposite. The Silver Arrows quickly tend to show nothing of their speed over one lap. This is how Mercedes has fooled the competition at times in recent years...

Ferrari in 2019 and Mercedes in 2021

In 2019, Ferrari enjoyed a fantastic spell of testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc were fast on each tyre compound and the car also looked stable on the longer runs, so much so that it was suggested Ferrari could break Mercedes' dominance.

But Mercedes won the first eight Grands Prix with Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, leaving Ferrari bewildered. Wins would eventually come for the Scuderia with three in a row in Belgium, Italy and Singapore - though we all know about the power unit controversy from then...

In 2021, the opposite happened. Mercedes was still F1's dominant force until a dramatic test in Bahrain that year. Red Bull therefore seemed to be the favourite heading into the opening race.

But Hamilton won in Bahrain after a titanic battle and whilst Verstappen took the Drivers' title, Mercedes beat Red Bull to the Constructors' - something that looked impossible during testing.

Fast times do give something away

If you look at the table below, you will probably think that times do say something about the pecking order. Over the past five years, the team with the fastest time always finished first or second in the constructors' championship. However, it is very important to look the bigger picture.

For example, last season Red Bull was the fastest team during the test days and Aston Martin surprised with a fantastic car. But after a great start, the team slowly but surely fell to fifth in the Constructors' standings.

Simultaneously, McLaren dramatically struggled during winter testing last year yet was able to turn that tide all the way through the summer.

Looking at the 2024 numbers, it is therefore too easy to declare Ferrari the world champion.

Red Bull imitated Mercedes and did not focus on fast times. Red Bull and Ferrari seem to be the favourites after the three days, but there is nothing to stop McLaren will introducing an unprecedented update somewhere and win the last ten races of the season. In F1, you simply cannot tell!

So times say something, but not everything.

View the fastest times of past years below!

Fastest testing times vs final Constructors' position

Year Driver Team Lap time Finish in Constructors' standings
2019 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1:16:221 (Barcelona) 2nd
2020 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1:15:732 (Barcelona) 1st
2021 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:28:960 (Bahrain) 2nd
2022 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:31:760 (Bahrain) 1st
2023 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1:30:359 (Bahrain) 1st
2024 Carlos Sainz Red Bull 1:29:921 (Bahrain) ?

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