The 2022 Formula 1 season is over. The 2023 season is about to begin.
In the shadow of the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, all 10 teams will take to the Yas Marina track again for a single-day test that they all hope will give them a run-up to 2023.
And while there’ll be three rookies on track aiming to maximise their seat time, none will have as much of a spotlight on them as Aussie Oscar Piastri.
This is Piastri’s first official week as a full-time McLaren racing driver, and from today and well into next season he’ll be the most-watched driver in Formula 1.
You couldn’t come up with a higher profile way for a driver to enter the sport.
Piastri is a rare talent, as evidenced by his impressive back-to-back rookies championship in Formula Renault Eurocup, Formula 3 and Formula 2.
His year on the sidelines as part of an Alpine driver logjam was a bump in the road, but as part of that program he completed more than 3000 kilometres of testing in previous cars as preparation for his debut.
But his high-profile falling out with management amped up interest in his story significant as one of the main players of the 2023 driver market. That he landed at McLaren, precipitating the team to sack Daniel Ricciardo, only intensified the spotlight.
But after turbulence of the last four months and the frustration of not racing in almost a year, he’s finally officially a full-time Formula 1 racing driver, the 18th from Australia.
As of yesterday he was welcomed back into the paddock and was free to don his first real set of papaya overalls as a Formula 1 driver.
His seat fitting out of the way, today he’ll rack up his first official kilometres in pursuit of a fast start in 2023.
WHAT’S AT STAKE IN THE TEST?
The biggest hurdle facing young drivers like Piastri in making their Formula 1 debut isn’t the number of races, the physicality of the cars or the non-racing demands on their time.
Over the last decade or so Formula 1 has been gradually decreasing testing time to the point where it’s now banned in all but previous few circumstances. Beyond pre-season-testing and this single-day post-season test, there’s no way for young drivers to get representative seat time.
That means every minute in a seat is extremely precious — particularly given the regulations changed so dramatically this year, making private testing in last year’s machinery of limited use beyond physical training.
“Kilometres nowadays in Formula 1 cars for race drivers are quite limited,” McLaren principal Andreas Seidl said. “Therefore it‘s obviously a very important test for us to get an initial read from Oscar’s side as well on our car and give him an initial feeling, which is then simply the starting point of making sure we get him ready for Bahrain next year.
“We have a good program in place. I think we have a lot of experience as well in getting young drivers ready for the first race in Formula 1. That‘s obviously the objective.
“We want to try as hard as we can together with Oscar [so] that the first race in Bahrain next year actually doesn‘t feel like it’s the first race for him in Formula 1.”
It’s also a crucial opportunity for Piastri to embed himself among the team and particularly his garage crew, who were working with Ricciardo this season. The relationship a driver has with his mechanics and engineers, and in particular his race engineer, is enormously important to achieving their full potential.
Finally, Piastri can use today to feed back to the team how he likes his cars to drive. While it’s too late for him to have any meaningful input into the 2023 car’s philosophy, he’ll still be able to act around the edges to nudge the car closer to where he likes it.
That could be particularly important given the known peculiarities of the McLaren car that ultimately forced Ricciardo out of the sport after two uncompetitive seasons.
WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING IN THE TEST?
With in-season testing virtually banned in F1 on cost-saving grounds, the nine-hour session is the final chance teams have to troubleshoot outstanding problems with the 2022 machines with a view to not repeating the same mistakes in 2023.
The next opportunity they’ll have to do any serious running will be pre-season testing in Bahrain next year just one week before the first grand prix.
It’s also the first time teams tend to get access to drivers switching from a rival constructor. Fernando Alonso will make his first appearance in Aston Martin overalls, with Pierre Gasly also free to take the Spaniard’s former Alpine seat as of this week.
But arguably the most important element of the test is that Pirelli will give teams full access to next year’s tyre sets. A deep understanding of the Pirelli rubber is crucial to success, and with so little track time allowed outside race weekends, these nine hours will influence who gets the best start to 2023.
ABU DHABI TALKING POINTS: Verstappen dominates in 2023 warning as Hamilton sinks to brutal new low
‘SERIOUSLY’: Schumacher told off for trying to end his last F1 race on a high
‘I THINK YOU KNOW…’: Ricciardo breaks down as it all sinks in
Next year’s tyres are differing subtly from those used this season, with the biggest difference being to their structure. Pirelli is reinforcing its tyre structures to try to improve front-end grip and dial out the oversteer inherent with this new generation of car. A lack of front-end responsiveness was a key bugbear of Max Verstappen early in the year and is related to Ricciardo’s struggles this season.
The new structure will also allow teams to run with lower tyre pressures.
Further, Pirelli is introducing a new hard C1 compound that is slightly softer that the one used this season to open potential new strategies at some tracks. The current hard will be renamed C0 and used at only the most severe circuits.
Each team will field two cars. They must be set up in a specification used during a race this season, so teams can’t bring 2023-spec machines and can’t use 2023-spec parts unless they’ve already used them in a grand prix.
One of the two cars must be driven by a rookie with two races of experience or less. That’s a big advantage for F1 debutantes, who get a car to themselves for the entire day.
Other than Piastri, fellow rookies Nyck de Vries and Logan Sargeant will also get their first big cracks at modern F1 machinery but debut with unusual amounts of testing experience under their belts already.
De Vries ran in four practice sessions for three different teams this year as well and also made a sudden F1 debut for Williams at the Italian Grand Prix in the place of the injury Alex Albon, where he sensationally scored his first points.
Sargeant is also fresh off a full F2 season and four practice sessions in a row for his Williams team.
Every team bar Alpine, Alfa Romeo and Haas will field their 2023 driver line-ups, with only Esteban Ocon, Zhou Guanyu and Kevin Magnussen missing from the test.
Jack Doohan gets his third representative outing in the 2022 Alpine car, having undertaken two hours of free practice in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi in the last two months.
He also got 100 kilometres in the car earlier in the year in a filming day, though these take place with specific testing tyres and must be undertaken “purely for marketing or promotional purposes” according to the rules.
Doohan finished sixth in the F2 standings after one of his front wheels detached late in the feature race. He’d earlier led the race on an alternative strategy.
Is this Daniel Ricciardo’s last F1 race? | 03:28
Mercedes junior Frederik Vesti will also get a run after a disappointing debut Formula 2 season. The Dane is moving to the highly rated Prema team for next year’s season.
Formula 2 champion Felipe Drugovich and runner-up Théo Pourchaire will be on track for Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo respectively. Pourchaire has a chance to replace Zhou in 2024 if he wins the F2 championship on what will be his third attempt.
Pietro Fittipaldi will enter the test for Haas but will likely be exploring his racing options in the United States next year after being overlooked for Nico Hulkenberg for a 2023 drive.
Red Bull Racing: Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, and Liam Lawson
Ferrari: Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, and Robert Shwartzman
Mercedes: George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, and Frederik Vesti
Alpine: Pierre Gasly and Jack Doohan
McLaren: Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri
Alfa Romeo: Valtteri Bottas and Théo Pourchaire
Aston Martin: Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso, and Felipe Drugovich
AlphaTauri: Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck de Vries
Haas: Nico Hulkenberg and Pietro Fittipaldi
Williams: Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant
The test gets underway at 4pm (AEDT) and runs until 1am.