With the cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix earlier this year, and the eventual decision from Formula 1 not to replace it with another race due to the logistical challenges that was going to present, there’s suddenly a very welcome two-week break between races for those working in the sport.
The three straight race weekends that followed the summer shutdown feels a long time ago, and I can confidently say there are few people that are disappointed they are not preparing to kick off another such tripleheader with a trip to Sochi in less than a week’s time.
But that doesn’t mean F1 cars are not going to be running during the gap. In fact, the focus shifts very much to the machinery that will be lapping in Europe and, more importantly, the drivers involved.
That’s because McLaren is running Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward in a closed test at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya this week, and next week Alpine will test an as-yet-undefined number of drivers in Hungary.
How and why is this happening? Because the testing of previous cars (TPC) regulations eased in one sense this year, allowing teams to run last year’s car as much as they want. Previously, a car had to be at least two years old — which sometimes led to challenges in terms of engine suppliers and other components.
Given the fact that this year’s cars are so vastly different to their predecessors, with hardly any carryover at all from 2021, the FIA allowed the previous generation of car to be used for testing purposes because there is so little a team can realistically gain when it comes to car performance that would be applicable this season.
Simply being allowed to run the car is one thing, but the budget cap era is another reason why it has become more popular to carry out such expensive tests. In the past, any money that could be earned would need to be spent on car development, and therefore drivers running in two-year-old machinery tended to only be the very richest, paying for the privilege so the team made a profit.
Now, the budget cap means some teams have the flexibility to run a 2021 car without it impacting the race team’s budget, and a few in particular have taken advantage of that.
Alpine and McLaren are two such teams, with the former having put together an extensive testing program for Oscar Piastri as it was trying to prepare him for his F1 debut next year. That schedule included visits to circuits that Alpine has struggled at in recent years — so it wasn’t only for the driver’s benefit — but the intention was to give Piastri 5000km (3100 miles) in the car.
Unsurprisingly, the desire to do that has dried up now that the young Australian is heading to McLaren in 2023, but certain venues were already booked out and still can provide value for Alpine. Jack Doohan had tested in Qatar and Monza earlier this year alongside Piastri, and as he steps into his countryman’s shoes as next in line from the Alpine Academy, his seat time is going up.
And by pushing ahead with the test, as long as drivers are contractually free to do so then Alpine can evaluate other candidates when it comes to the 2023 seat it has available. Nyck de Vries is one such name who could well join Doohan in Budapest, although it’s unclear if that interest was pre-existing or triggered by his highly impressive F1 debut in the Italian Grand Prix at the weekend.
The more surprising name that could be involved was that of Colton Herta, but there’s method to that link. On first viewing you might wonder if Alpine are suddenly showing an interest in snatching the 22-year-old from under Red Bull’s nose to race next year, but if he were to make an appearance it would be more for Red Bull’s own benefit.
Herta could be benchmarked against other drivers in the reckoning for an F1 seat and would become a bit more of a known quantity to Helmut Marko et al as a result. In return, Alpine gets better terms if it takes Pierre Gasly for next year, having helped with Red Bull’s plans for his replacement.
While it remains to be seen if Herta will get to experience another F1 car, he already has spent time in a McLaren at Portimao this year, and now the Barcelona test could be even more valuable for Zak Brown’s team…
The signing of Alex Palou to an F1 testing deal — much in the same way Herta was recruited for similar purposes –has already led to the Spaniard getting behind the wheel of the MCL35M in his home country today. And with O’Ward set to do the same this week, that’s two drivers who have never raced in F1 getting a run at a track that is on the current F1 schedule, and regularly used for pre-season testing.
It’s the track F1 teams know best, and should provide the easiest opportunity to try and correlate the IndyCar drivers’ performance with that of McLaren’s race drivers. But it would be much easier to just compare the IndyCar talents to each other, which is why it wouldn’t be a massive surprise to see Herta show up in Barcelona at some stage to join in with the test.
There will always be caveats to such a test and it will never provide the high-pressure situation of a race weekend in the current car, but it’s a much more relevant undertaking than simply analyzing a driver in a simulator.
By the time the F1 paddock reconvenes in Singapore in just over two weeks’ time, there might be clarity over who is driving where in 2023. But even if there isn’t, whenever those decisions are finally made it’ll be fascinating to find out what role the testing programs played in those calls.