There was a time when testing in Formula One happened almost all the time.
If cars weren’t running at grand prix weekends, there were in Jerez or Imola or Portimao racking up thousands of miles a season.
Damon Hill said he never drove more miles in a year than when he was a test driver for Williams.
Then F1 changed. As the tobacco money disappeared and team budgets shrank, the focus switched from speed and excess to efficiency and entertainment. Testing, however much it might delight the purists, is not much of a spectator sport and since the arrival of new owners Liberty Media the opportunity to run extra mileage in pre-season has been gradually reduced.
In 2020, the teams flew to Barcelona for two three-day blocks of testing, reducing the time spent testing from eight day-long sessions to six. In 2021, with team budgets squeezed even more severely by the coronavirus pandemic, there will be just three days of on-track action for teams to thrash out the problems of the winter before the first race.
Not all teams will be glad of the lack of opportunity but one thing they have won on is location: the track at Barcelona is a fine layout for testing, with two long straights and a technical final section that tests the low-speed capability of cars, but in February and March the weather has not always been ideal.
Snow has even delayed running in Catalonia and doing laps in temperatures that F1 almost never races in, ie anything below about 15 degrees Celsius, is not seen as useful by the teams. The weather in the desert state of Bahrain is unlikely to be anything like so troublingly cold.
The F1 world was sent into shock after Alpine, the rebranded Renault team, reported that their returning two-time world champion had been rushed to hospital after a cycling crash.
The Spaniard collided with a car while out training in Switzerland and underwent surgery on a broken jaw before being discharged to recover at home, a period of convalescence that also saw Alpine rule him out of appearing at the launch of their car.
As such, all eyes will be on Alonso in Bahrain as he prepares for his 18th campaign as an F1 driver. Whether he is physically up to it just a few weeks after such a serious crash will be his first real test.
In recent years Bahrain has been a track where Ferrari can challenge: Charles Leclerc would have seized his first grand prix victory there had his engine not lost power in the closing stages of the 2019 race and a red car had won the previous two events there.
They were significantly less dominant there during the double-header, earning just a solitary point from the two races between the two cars, but with Carlos Sainz on board and a winter of improvements, it will be a good yardstick to see if they have stopped the slide from title contenders to midfield mediocres that saw them finish sixth in the championship last year.
Cars following each other
Naturally, there is no actual racing during testing but one question that drivers get asked every year: “what’s it like following others?”
The subtext to the question is that the ability to follow cars with ease, and without tyres overheating or loss of downforce or both, is central to overtaking. If you cannot stay within a second of the car in front through corners, you cannot get close enough to effect a pass.
There have been some minor aerodynamic changes to cars this year ahead of a more major shift before the 2022 season, and they are aimed at making the cars a little easier to follow. The proof will be in the testing pudding as to whether those changes have worked.