Tracking well … Mark Webber during a Red Bull test drive at the Jerez racetrack in southern Spain. Photo: Getty Images
Football and cricket teams train, tennis players and golfers practise, boxers drill, swimmers, cyclists and runners trial, and formula one drivers test. Preparation and simulation are staples of sport. In just about any competition you care to name, training, practising, trialling - call it what you like - are unrestricted. But not in F1. In-season testing is banned and only limited pre-season running is allowed. The rigid restrictions were imposed in the middle of the last decade as one of several measures to control the runaway costs of fielding an F1 team. With the start of the season at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne five weeks away, teams began their preparations during the week with a four-day test at Jerez in southern Spain. Two more tests at the Circuit de Catalunya outside Barcelona from February 19-22 and February 28 to March 3 are the only other opportunities to fine-tune the new cars - and some new drivers - before official practice at Albert Park on March 15. It's only in Melbourne that teams and drivers will know for sure whether pre-season tests were a form guide or flattered to deceive.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
With the days of unlimited testing - and unlimited budgets - long gone in F1, teams have adapted in recent years to doing more with less. Computer programs that simulate car performance at every track on the schedule, wind tunnel calculations and sophisticated video simulators have replaced track running between events. Post-global financial crisis, the F1 rules allow three tests, involving all the teams, of no more than four days each from February 1 to the week preceding the first race. The teams are limited to a total of 15,000 kilometres testing in a calendar year. In addition to the pre-season trials, there is a three-day test for young drivers - open only to those who've contested no more than two F1 races - usually held at the end of the season. A further four one-day aerodynamic measurement tests are permitted at approved straight-line (like an airfield runway) or constant-radius (for example, the speed bowl of an automotive test track) courses. Drivers can train and test as much as they like on big-screen simulators at the factory. These virtual-reality racers are so realistic - and getting more life-like all the time - that they are increasingly accurate predictors. They have even been known to cause motion sickness in some drivers.
TESTING WHAT AND HOW
At the pre-season tests, teams develop and refine their designs, making sure everything works reliably and meets the computer-calculated performance targets. Despite the extreme sophistication of simulation software used to predict performance, the results on the track still vary and real-world testing is the only true guide to a car's potential. Teams will experiment with different set-ups - complex combinations of suspension settings, aerodynamic balance, weight distribution and engine tune - to find a car's sweet spot. Speed isn't everything at tests and teams will usually concentrate on simulated race runs with high fuel loads and medium and hard compound tyres. The headline-grabbing quickest lap times at tests are achieved with little fuel on board and using the softest compound tyres for ultimate cornering grip, and may not be indicative of overall performance. Many a team has won the ''winter world championship'', setting the pace in the northern hemisphere pre-season tests, only to be uncompetitive when the real racing starts. The first real guide to the pecking order will be qualifying in Melbourne. Development never stands still in F1, with the cars evolving through the season.
THOSE WERE THE DAYS
From the early 1990s until the mid-2000s, the richer F1 teams took advantage of the lack of testing restrictions, logging tens of thousands of kilometres between the races. The top teams had dedicated test squads with separate personnel from the race groups - including extra drivers - that undertook relentless development work. But when annual budgets for the leading teams soared to upwards of $400 million, unlimited testing was a major target of the need for urgent cost reductions and controls. And because testing took place out of the public eye, it contributed nothing to the F1 ''show'' . The ultimate exponents of testing were Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, who trialled constantly at the company's Fiorano track, refining car and driver to an unprecedented peak. As the only team with its own test track, Ferrari remains an opponent to the in-season testing ban, with its big chief Luca di Montezemolo likening it to not allowing football teams to train between matches. He also bemoans the lack of opportunity to train new drivers. In late 1995, Indycar champion Jacques Villeneuve tested with Williams for the best part of five months, before his F1 debut at Albert Park in March 1996, and was immediately a front-runner.
FIRST TEST TALLY
Although it's far too soon to really tell, the early indication from the first pre-season test at Jerez is that Ferrari, Lotus and Red Bull are in good shape. Unlike last year, Ferrari have jumped out of the test gate, with Brazil's Felipe Massa setting the quickest lap time of the four days in the new F138. Massa did the Italian team's initial trial work on his own as team leader Fernando Alonso isn't back from his off-season break until the test in Barcelona starting on February 19. Massa was two-tenths of a second quicker than Kimi Raikkonen; reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel was fractionally slower again in the latest Red Bull RB9. Also on the front-running pace was Raikkonen's teammate Romain Grosjean, half a second faster than Lewis Hamilton in his first outing with Mercedes-Benz. Hamilton was closely matched by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who was a tenth clear of Jenson Button's best on the opening day in his McLaren. Mark Webber ran the first two days and was 1½ seconds off Massa's later yardstick, while Daniel Ricciardo and his French teammate Jean-Eric Vergne showed promising pace in the new Toro Rosso. Not too much can be read into the times as they were set on different days in slightly different conditions and with the cars in different configurations. The Barcelona tests should be a better guide, but still not conclusive. Even after the first race at Albert Park on March 17, unless someone is completely dominant, there will still be more questions than answers about how the season will unfold.