The foundation of any successful season starts to develop many months before Formula One cars actually hit the track. But pre-season testing is where it properly begins to take shape...
Pre-season testing is pretty self-explanatory, really. All teams registered for the Championship travel to a designated circuit a few weeks before the first race to put their latest creations through their paces over two intense four-day periods.
As the only opportunity to run the cars in anger and make sure everything is ready for a fresh year of competition, it's a hugely important time for the teams. It's also an enjoyable one - mixed with a bit of nervous anticipation, of course. Paddock reunions, the F1 circus back together again, some fresh faces, plenty of question marks and a lot of hard work to get through.
For many years, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain has been home to F1's pre-season running, largely owing to its challenging nature, wide range of characteristics and (usually) clement weather. It's a great place to properly put cars through their paces.
Over the last two weeks, F1 teams have completed their eight days of 2018 pre-season running in very contrasting weather conditions. The first test was dominated by cold temperatures, rain and even snow (yes, really!), while the second test took place in warmer, sunnier conditions.
The new Mercedes-AMG F1 W09 EQ Power+ completed 1,040 laps over the course of those eight days - a very healthy tally. It's given the team plenty of useful data and information to study and dissect.
"Winter testing won't turn a bad car good, nor will it magic a disorganised group into a well-drilled team," explains Technical Director, James Allison. "However, like every other aspect of life, if you practise and prepare, you will improve.
"We spend a whole year preparing back at the factory to make the team and the car better with each new season - this is the basis of any successful Championship. Winter testing is where we make our final push.
"It is our first opportunity to check the performance and reliability of a project that had hitherto been tested as a series of disconnected sub-systems. It is our first, and only, opportunity to make sure that everything we have done is built on firm foundations. And it is the last chance before Melbourne (the first race) to ensure that all parts of the team are ready for the new season."
That final point is undoubtedly the most crucial. All the hard graft and effort, night shifts and extra hours put in prior to winter testing are properly put to the test when the car hits the track for the first time.
Will everything work? Will the car be reliable? Will all the operations away from the track run smoothly? These are all questions that need answers - and teams will find those out during those eight days of on-track running in Spain.
'Winter testing won't turn a bad car good, nor will it magic a disorganised group into a well-drilled team'
"F1 is a famously complicated sport, where the overall team is only as strong as its weakest link," explains James. "Pre-season testing aims to test every link in that chain - from aero to tyres, vehicle dynamics, race engineering, drivers, gearbox, Power Unit, electronics, IT, communications, marketing and so on - to demonstrate that we will be ready for Melbourne.
"This effort can be broadly summed up under the banners of performance and reliability - but neither of these headlines does justice to the breadth of the challenge."
Having only one track to test on, and in cool conditions too, does limit what can be learnt from pre-season running. The temperatures and track conditions are not representative of what we will tackle during the course of the season. But they still provide an important opportunity to gather data and learn about the characteristics of the car.
"We think we have learned that we are starting on a solid footing," James explains, fresh from the final day of pre-season testing and a productive eight days of track action for the infant W09.
"It has been reliable, it has been predictable, it doesn't overheat, it has been pretty well balanced, and it seems like it is fast enough to compete at the sharp end of the grid in Melbourne."
So, it's been a useful and very encouraging testing period for the team and the new W09 - which certainly has a lot to live up to, following on from the success of its predecessors. Programmes have featured race simulations, low-fuel qualifying runs and tyre tests.
In fact, getting to know the new 2018 Pirelli tyres has been a major focus during pre-season testing. But while we have been determined to learn as much as possible about our own car and the tyres it'll use this season, we've also been looking at what the competition is up to.
"We might pretend that we are focused only on ourselves - but we fool no-one," James admits. "We look, in excruciating detail, at what the others are up to. Our strategists pore over all the available information, trying to deduce the pecking order from the patterns in the lap times and GPS traces.
"Our aerodynamicists and designers examine a huge and growing archive of photos, looking for interesting innovations. We listen to the pit-lane gossip and try to build up from the myriad nonsense whether there are any repeated themes that have a ring of truth to them.
"The sadder ones amongst us even read the end of day press releases, trying to see between the lines of quotes for any hint that a team is sounding a little smug, or whistling to keep its spirits up.
"Some of this we do because we are obsessives - because we love the sport and because we can't help ourselves. But some of it carries real value. The end result of all this effort is a composite picture of the strengths and weaknesses of our opposition, which in turn feeds our own development decisions in the weeks and months ahead."
'We listen to the pit-lane gossip and try to build up from the myriad nonsense whether there are any repeated themes that have a ring of truth to them'
It's all in the detail, after all. The smallest piece of data can provide teams with vital knowledge of their own car, or important clues about their rivals.
And that doesn't become any less crucial because the regulations for 2018 have changed so little - especially compared to last year's monumental rewriting of the F1 rulebook. There's always plenty to learn, whether there's been an evolution or a revolution.
The W09 has clocked an impressive number of laps over 2018's testing period - particularly impressive considering the opening test's unusual weather. It's completed 4,841 kilometres of running, the equivalent of over 15 Spanish Grand Prix race distances and has shown real signs of promise.
Now, the team heads back to base to regroup and complete the final preparations, tweaks and changes before heading off to Australia for the new F1 season. We're ready for battle. Are you?