In Formula One's current incarnation, the opportunity to 'practice' the endless and complex scenarios which teams and drivers must execute faultlessly on each Grand Prix weekend, doesn't come around very often any more.
When I joined McLaren's old test team at the turn of the century, things were a little different.
By the same point in a new year, we'd have probably completed something like eight times the amount of mileage that the teams completed by the end of the first Jerez test a couple of weeks ago.
For a start we ran two cars everywhere and there were no real limitations about how much we could run. Teams got together and arranged as many tests as everyone wanted, often simply travelling from one venue in Spain, directly to another with only a few days in between to get things set up. At a big team like McLaren, if no one else wanted to 'come out to play', or we wanted to try a few things in private, we'd just hire the entire circuit for a week exclusively, cost was largely irrelevant.
Back then almost everyone had a dedicated Test Team staffed to the same levels you see the race teams operate at today. As mechanics we worked bloody hard, for ridiculously long hours and could be away for almost two months without returning home in January and February. There was certainly no such thing as a night shift crew, as is common place now, as operating two cars at each test meant there were no spare people to come in and take over the car prep at the end of a working day. Today of course, teams are only permitted to run one car each at a test, freeing up the other car crew of mechanics and support crew etc, to play that role and keep working hours somewhere near sensible.
I do realise here that I'm seriously at risk of sounding like a miserable old git, reminiscing about how tough we had it way back in the 'good old days' and how the mechanics of today don't realise just how easy they have it. To redress that a little I should of course point out that, today's pitlane mechanics don't have a dedicated test team to do all of the donkey work pre season, there is only one team, the race team. Since the demise of open testing and test teams in general, although there's obviously a lot less testing, any that does take place has to be covered by the race guys and with the season itself now running into November, add the pre-season tests to the mix and it's a long, long time away from home.
In the old days, as a Race Team member, we'd cruise around the factory during January and February at a comparatively leisurely pace, tinkering with pit equipment and polishing things, whilst the 'test monkeys', as we so rudely called them, pounded round and round Spain, moving from one venue to the next. We'd turn up for the last few days, once the car was all sorted, and carry out race simulations and pitstop practice, whilst the test guys looked on and sarcastically referred to us as the 'Superstars'.
Although the amount of mileage has reduced dramatically during pre-season, it is obviously the same for everyone.
Each team sets out at various points in the previous year to design and create a car they believe will give them the best chance of success in whichever battles they compete and they all go through the process in much the same way. When it comes to the point in the new year of assembling and presenting the finished article to the world at a press launch, we've seen slightly different approaches, but one thing in common for all of them is that what we see there is in fact, far from the finished article.
Some of the bigger teams launched at a larger, glitzy affair, in the days before heading off to the first test and in these instances the car that's photographed, like David Beckham at a movie premier and analysed in media circles like an intercepted WW2 coded message, can often bear only a small resemblance to the one which will take to the first Spanish test track in less than a week's time.
There have been times in my past where, either because the real bits simply weren't ready in time, or because we didn't want to reveal secrets to the press, we taped plastic, pretend exhaust tail pipes in place or glued old brake ducts temporarily to the hubs just for the photos. More often than not, less than an hour after the media had left, the car was back in the race bays and stripped down into hundreds of bits as we got it ready to go testing for real.
At the track, everyone has their own agendas and schedules, but if you laid all eleven sets of test plans out next to each other, they'll all cover the same aspects and set out to achieve the same objectives.