Test drives in Formula 1 are a mess. A colorful one after all: But it has nothing to do with action painting when cars in bright green, orange or yellow circle on the Bahrain International Circuit, the track at the gates of Manama, capital of the kingdom in the Persian Gulf, where the first Grand Prix of the year starts on Sunday next week (16:00 CET in the F.A.Z. live ticker for Formula 1 and Sky).

Sönke Sievers

Deputy Head of Sport Online.

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The hustle and bustle – afterwards you have to feud a lot – has a deep meaning: Flovis. Flo what? Behind this are the English words flow and visualization – translated into German it sounds horribly behördesk: flow illustration.

The engineers have the coloured paste applied to selected areas of their new cars. On the way it runs, dries out and so the clever minds learn the detailed flow conditions of the car and it shows whether the parts, be it the front wing or smaller deflectors, keep what wind tunnel tests and computer simulations promised. Equally indispensable are the frames, reminiscent of gratings, with which the cars are temporarily hung to measure air flows and pressures.

A spike against Toto Wolff?

In order to curb the cost explosion, Formula 1 has severely restricted testing opportunities on the racetrack in recent years. While in 2015 there were still twelve days, today the teams only have three to get to know and understand their new car. In addition, there is the shakedown's first exit of the car and two film days for advertising shots, which, however, are subject to strict rules and only help to a limited extent. "I would prefer ten days for testing, but every kilometre a Formula 1 car covers is expensive," says Franz Tost, Team Principal of Alpha Tauri. "We have a cost cap, if we wanted to test more, we would have to save the money elsewhere."

In any case, the dense calendar with 23 Grand Prix weekends leaves hardly any room for additional test drives. No problem for Christian Horner, race director of the world champion team Red Bull. On the contrary: "Let's test for a day or two and then race," Horner suggests. "If the field is mixed up a bit at the beginning of the season, would that be so bad?" Finally, any problems could be understood and solved in the course of the year. If you wanted, you could hear a fine spike against Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, Horner's favorite enemy, who failed to do just that last year. Mercedes, which was obvious in 2022 after a morning of testing, had fatally got bogged down, and the W 13 panted hopelessly behind Ferrari and Red Bull in the fight for the title.

And this year? At the halfway point of the test drives ending on Saturday, the big three mentioned are close together. The Red Bull, the scene agrees, has its yellow nose ahead. Mercedes believes it is on the right track. The W 14 is not as unpredictable as its predecessor, driver George Russell reported on Friday of a noticeably improved balance, but Red Bull is still a long way off. While Ferrari initially struggled with tyre wear in race trim, Mercedes soon suffered a setback. During the test drives, it is secret who has how much fuel in the tank, what engine power is called up and which tires are driven. But teams are usually good at assessing where they stand compared to the competition.

Stupid only if the technology strikes

In Bahrain, each driver has just twelve hours to try out the new company car. Stupid only if he bucks: George Russell's Mercedes did not like on Friday afternoon after 26 laps – the hydraulics went on strike, the tow truck moved in. Because the simulations are so good, such glitches are rare, but they endanger the sensitive schedule of engineers who want to collect kilometers and thus data in all conceivable tunings and programs.

The German Nico Hulkenberg covered 51 laps largely smoothly on Thursday, almost a complete race distance (57), before he had to leave the wheel to stablemate Kevin Magnussen on Friday morning. The balance of his Haas VF-23, Hulkenberg said, could still be improved.