What is testing, and why is it so important to teams and drivers?

Formula E's 12 teams and 24 drivers have three days at their disposal in Valencia to rack up the mileage and acquaint themselves with their 2020/21 cars. How do they go about it, and what are they looking to achieve? We spoke to Maximilian Guenther (BMW i Andretti Motorsport) and Mark Preston, team principal at DS TECHEETAH, to find out.

Formula E's official pre-season test at Valencia's Circuit Ricardo Tormo offers up the opportunity for teams to run their cars at will over the course of three days and five sessions - with between 5-6,000 laps likely to be racked up between them over their time in Spain.

Each of the championship's 12 outfits has been flat-out since Season 6 drew to a close in Berlin, with nine of the 12 opting to run with a new car and updated or overhauled powertrains from the beginning of Formula E's first campaign as an FIA World Championship in 2020/21.

The remaining three teams; DS TECHEETAH, Nissan e.dams and DRAGON / PENSKE AUTOSPORT, have opted to pour efforts into a later homologation, with updates to come in-season, given the option thanks to Formula E's cost consolidation measures introduced earlier this year.

So, it's the perfect opportunity to trial that hard work and development, whilst bedding in new, and returning drivers, with run-time - key given it's the only official pre-season test on offer in Formula E, and the only time all 24 cars will be on-track at the same time outside of a race weekend. 

Real-world reference

With so many changes made to everything from software to setup, and countless hours spent on dynos, rigs and test benches and in pounding the virtual miles on simulators, it's vital that teams have a real-world benchmark. Getting on-track enables engineers to tally whether what they've seen in theory transpires in practice at a race circuit.

Teams devise intricate testing programmes in a bid to prove their thinking and direction as well as their new powertrains and cars. Raw pace and lap times are rarely the priority, explains Mark Preston.

"You can do all the simulations and the calculations in the world but nothing beats actually going to a real race track to validate everything."
Mark Preston, DS TECHEETAH

"When you test things on rigs or dynos or in simulators, you don’t always find the differences that can happen on the track," says DS TECHEETAH's team principal.

"The running can validate your concepts and ideas you’ve developed and it comes together at the track.

"There’s three days and a reasonable amount of time. These cars are really reliable and the powertrains last the year, so it’s not like the old days of Formula 1 with a load of breakdowns.

"The engineers have the scope to run one thing on one car, and one on another. So, if something works really well, it might validate something that opens up other avenues."

So, there's the room to try things that might be too costly to trial over a race weekend, given the tight timescales. Preston says its all part of equipping an engineer's armoury, and having 'the tools in the toolbox' to cover off any eventuality that Formula E can throw up at any given event - even if Valencia is a different prospect to the street circuits that comprise the series' calendar.

"Both drivers have a list of things they have to work through but there’s scope to try some new hypotheses," continues the Australian. "We can test it here, and justify that by saying ‘we think it will work on a street circuit because…’ whilst knowing our tests here won’t translate directly to a street circuit.

Mark Preston, team principal DS TECHEETAH

"The track in Valencia is more of a traditional race circuit, so it’s maybe not completely representative but you can judge yourself against other teams. It’s nothing definitive, and it won’t tell you for sure if you’re fastest, but it could show you if a change you have made has made you faster, relative to others and your own benchmark.

"Having the ‘tools in your toolbox’ - the setups in hand for all situations if it’s raining, for example - is the aim. One of the keys to engineering is exploring these hypotheses and knowing what we’ve got to prove to get them to work on a race weekend at one of the tracks on Formula E's calendar."

Driver's Eye

"The goal is obviously to learn as much as possible," says BMW i Andretti Motorsport's Maximilian Guenther. "Everybody has their own programme of software and setup development that they want to try.

"It’s very structured for all teams, with run plans to follow for each of the three days. If you don’t have issues, you follow it strictly. On a day like Saturday (with the rain, and subsequently drying track surface), you react a bit and change things with the track surface changing throughout the day. I know what our plans are for each day before we start.

"We’re trying things in all directions. There are smaller things to tune and optimise but there are bigger things that I would never try on a race weekend that we can try here."

Guenther, like Preston, feels that times are not the object of testing. His focus is on driving development forward - equipping himself and new teammate Jake Dennis with a car best placed to deliver results come lights out in Santiago.

"There are some people that look to the timesheets and want to be on top of the times but for us, it’s important to learn – it’s not just this weekend," continues the German. "You look at the times at the end of the day but it’s not the most important thing.

"The track’s different to the usual circuits we race on but it’s still a useful opportunity with three days of testing to keep tuning the car from the team’s side and from the driver’s side to explore different things with qualifying and race simulations, too.

"Myself and the team want to focus on extracting the most possible. We focus on ourselves and this philosophy, collecting as many points as possible per weekend and to keep learning and keep improving. I’ve been this way through F4 and F3 and that’s what I’m here to do.

Gunther Formula E BMW

"We are one team and for both Jake (Dennis) and I, the most important thing is that the car is as quick as possible. You focus on beating everybody from there, as well as your teammate but until then you work as a team together to share ideas, share everything to make the car as competitive as possible."

So, has BMW's hard work paid off so far?

"The car and powertrain feels very good and I think we’ve done a good job over the off-season," said Guenther. "We’ll see for sure how good in a few weeks’ time in January, but the guys at the factory have done a very good job.

"Lots of development and we’re still improving and understanding the new car. So far, so good. You get a feel of the improvement as a driver for sure, but the data tells you all you need to know."