The ban on in-season testing, which took effect beginning in 2009, has, like many Formula 1 rules changes, been subject to the Law of Unintended Consequences. The purpose of the ban was to help rein in team budgets. The better funded teams had actually maintained parallel crews during the racing season: a primary squad for races, and a shadow crew deployed strictly for testing. Testing budgets prior to the ban often rivaled the annual outlays for race weekends. The ban was designed to put a limit on that.
That was assuming, of course, that teams wouldn’t find other outlets for that money. The teams have thus far resisted outright budget caps, and the better funded squads have found virtual alternatives to testing on actual asphalt. Teams like McLaren and Ferrari have constructed their own simulators. As you might expect, these items are a bit more sophisticated than your average Playstation.
So in an effort to level the playing field for all teams, and restrain profligate spending, the FIA have really only succeeded in forcing team spending into new channels. As usual, there is a gulf between the haves and the have-nots. That’s no surprise. What is the fact that a team like Mercedes has not yet gotten their own first rate sim up and running.
Ross Brawn recently admitted to ESPNF1 the lack of a state of the art simulator had been a detriment to Michael Schumacher’s performance during the 2010 season. “He would have been able to work much more on the behavior of the tires,” Brawn said. “That we don’t have a top simulator was certainly not a help. We should make a big step with it over the winter. This technology can’t be bought on the market.”
As everyone knows, Schumi was a demon tester during his Ferrari period. His success during his prime was helped substantially by the constant development work he did on the car, as well as the long hours of tire testing he logged for Bridgestone. It’s one thing to have a native gift, but another aspect of Schumi’s talent was his willingness to put in long hours of preparation to better understand the car and the tires.
Unfortunately, with the test ban in place, Schumacher’s skill as a test and development driver are largely being untapped. He’s a bit like an exhibition boxer fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Of course, the other drivers are in the same boat when it comes to actual testing. That said, it’s also true the the other top teams, i.e. Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari, all have custom built simulators already in use. Mercedes, on the other hand, which many in the paddock thought was a state of the art team (largely due to the Brackley squad’s success in 2009 under the Brawn banner), is still working at putting one in place.
Brawn has admitted that this won’t happen before the end of next season. This is surprising, to say the least. Without testing, sophisticated simulators are becoming as de rigueur as wind tunnels for any team that hopes to be competitive. Ironically, Michael Schumacher claimed just about a year ago that one of the reasons he agreed to come out of retirement was the reduced schedule he’d be facing, due to the testing ban. Schumi, who turns 42 today, admitted that he wanted to spend more time with his family than he had during his Ferrari years.
But it seems that it was that very lack of testing that let some of the steam out of his comeback. I personally think that Schumacher will make a better showing next year, having had all of 2010 to adjust to the demands of racing again. I also think that if I were Ross Brawn I’d be moving heaven and earth to get the new sim finished.