Formula 1 cars are complex machines that go around world class circuits at 200 miles per hour. One thing that we don’t see them do very often though is going backwards. This can leave many fans wondering if F1 cars can even reverse at all.
F1 cars can reverse and have a reverse gear as it is required by the rules. However, it’s almost never used. Shifting into reverse is only ever required if a driver spins or goes off the track and has to reverse back on in a safe manner. Engaging reverse gear on an F1 car is often a complex process.
Aside from the process of putting the car into reverse gear it can also be extremely difficult to reverse the car. Formula 1 cars are not designed to go backwards, and there are several factors that limit the drivers’ ability to reverse the car. We go into this in more detail below.
Do F1 Cars Have Reverse?
Formula 1 cars do have reverse gear, even though we don’t see it being used very often. F1 cars must have reverse per the technical regulations, and drivers may need to use it if they spin or go off the track.
Even when returning to their garages the cars are pushed backwards into their pit box by the mechanics, and the marshals often push the cars off the track when there’s been an incident. However, there are some occasions where a reverse gear can come in handy on a Formula 1 car, and it is actually an important element for the car to have.
The drivers rarely have to use the reverse gear on their cars. In fact, if it was up to the Formula 1 engineers, they wouldn’t have reverse gears built into the cars’ gearboxes at all – anything to save weight!
Engaging Reverse On An F1 Car
However, the reverse gear on a Formula 1 car is very small and light. There is only one tiny gear that is used to put the car into reverse, and it is engaged with a hydraulic actuator, which means it’s not as simple as shifting down on the paddles. There’s a special button that activates the reverse gear on a Formula 1 car.
Exactly how reverse works on each car will vary, but in many cases the driver will need to put the car into neutral and possibly engage the clutch before they then hold the downshift paddle for a specific amount of time, and then reverse gear should engage. However, sometimes it’s not that simple, which is a consequence of the cars being designed to rarely need it!
Why Do F1 Cars Have A Reverse Gear?
Formula 1 cars have a reverse gear simply because the rules state that they need to have a reverse gear. Formula 1 teams spend a lot of money and development to implement a reverse gear, and to make it as small and light as possible just to remain aligned with the rules.
The main reason that this rule exists is for safety. If a car was to get stuck after an incident while near the track, it is safer for the driver to engage their reverse gear and get themselves back on track rather than having marshals on the circuit pushing the car back on track. It’s also just necessary to allow drivers to get themselves out of danger if they can’t go forwards.
Why Do F1 Drivers Sometimes Spin Their Car Around?
We sometimes see drivers spin their cars around when they get into a tight space. This happens on many street circuits if a driver misses their braking point and runs wide into the run off area. Aside from being impressive, there’s a good reason they do this.
Going into a low gear and spinning the wheels to do a 180-degree turn is safer and quicker than reversing out of the run off area. Engaging the reverse gear on the car can take some time, and even then the driver needs to slowly reverse out of the runoff area and into an angle where they can drive off.
On top of that, the small mirrors and the restriction from the HANS (head and neck support) device makes it difficult for a driver to see other cars coming into the corner. Spinning the car around is quick, and it allows them to see the other cars heading towards them so they can re-join the circuit in a safe manner.
Can F1 Drivers Reverse Their Car?
Formula 1 drivers can reverse their car. However, drivers are unlikely to ever need to do so. Drivers might know how to do it, but because they never do it can often take some time for them to remember how to engage reverse and get it going.
Formula 1 drivers usually don’t use their reverse gear. If they end up in the barriers the car is likely too damaged to continue, and they will need to retire from the race.
Becoming stuck in the gravel is another common occurrence, but yet again using the reverse gear won’t help them. The gravel trap will usually just beach the car and it will need to be pushed out of the gravel trap. If a car cannot return to racing under its own power, it must retire from the race.
The majority of Formula 1 circuits also have a lot of runoff areas, which means that drivers can often drive across tarmac or grass to get back on track. They likely won’t ever need to use their reverse gear to get back onto the circuit, as they’ll either be out of the race anyway, or they can get back on the track by driving forwards.
Lewis Hamilton At Imola In 2021
At the 2021 Imola GP, we saw how difficult it can be to reverse in a Formula 1 car. While chasing down Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton was lapping a backmarker when he ran onto a damp patch on the circuit.
His tires lost grip and he slid off the track and managed to coast his car over the gravel track without beaching it. However, he ended up face to face with the barriers. Having no space to turn the car around to re-join the circuit, Hamilton took the better part of 40 seconds to engage reverse gear on his car.
Hamilton eventually managed to reverse his car away from the barriers, creating enough space for him to drive out of the gravel trap and back onto the circuit. However, this shows that putting a Formula 1 car into reverse gear is not a quick and easy task. It was revealed that Mercedes engages their reverse gear by holding down the ‘neutral’ button for a set amount of time.
Hamilton later explained that it was difficult to get the car into gear as he was unsure of how long to hold in the button to engage the reverse drive. Since he never really has to use it, it was difficult to judge exactly how long to hold the button down, especially while rushing to get back on track.
Why Is It So Hard To Reverse An F1 Car?
It’s so hard to reverse an F1 car because, not only can reverse gear be very difficult to engage, but actually seeing behind you when driving an F1 car is hard too. With tiny side mirrors and limited head movement, F1 drivers can find it very difficult to see behind them.
Getting a Formula 1 car to engage reverse gear is a lengthy and tricky process in itself, but actually reversing the car is yet another challenge that contributes to the reason we rarely see these cars going backwards under their own power.
Formula 1 cars have small side mirrors that are designed to allow the driver to see cars that are slightly off to the side of them as they are being overtaking – essentially so that they don’t crash into other cars. Seeing directly behind the car is effectively impossible, and drivers don’t have rear view cameras or interior mirrors as we have in our road cars.
Formula 1 drivers also have restricted head movement caused by the HANS device. This device is designed for safety purposes, but it also prevents the drivers from turning their heads from side to side enough to see out of the car – the drivers only really need to be able to see in front of them and into their mirrors.
F1 Rules Around Reversing The Car
The rules around reversing in Formula 1 are relatively simple, and there are some good explanations for them. The first and most important rule is that no car is allowed to reverse in the pit lane under its own power. This basically means that a car can only be pushed backwards by pit crew members.
This is why we often see the team members pushing the cars back into their garages. We even see the team members having to push the cars backwards when the driver overshoots their pit box. If the driver uses their reverse gear in the pit lane, they will be given a penalty and a fine. This is for safety reasons, as drivers could easily hurt those around the car while reversing.
Nigel Mansell In 1989
The most famous example of a driver going against this rule was at the Portuguese GP in 1989, when Nigel Mansell overshot his pit box and manually reversed into it. He received the black flag for this, but ignored it, and he later crashed into Ayrton Senna, taking them both out of the race. Mansell received a $50,000 fine and was banned for the next race.
While outside of the pit lane, drivers are allowed to reverse back on track after a spin as long as it is done in a safe manner. A driver can’t reverse back onto circuit when lots of fast cars are passing for example, as they can’t see what’s happening behind them, and an oncoming car could easily collect them in a nasty crash.
Can F1 Drivers See Behind Them?
Formula 1 drivers can only use the mirrors on their cars to see behind them, which is not enough to safely reverse a Formula 1 car in most cases. The mirrors on a Formula 1 car are tiny in order to save weight and to reduce the aerodynamic disadvantages that they bring.
These mirrors are only used when the driver is on track, and it allows the driver to see cars that are behind and next to them. Even then it can be difficult to see in the mirrors, especially considering the fact that Formula 1 cars are so small and fast that they can flash past the driver’s mirror view in fractions of a second.
When reversing out on track, the driver’s race engineer has to guide them as much as possible in order to prevent them from hitting anything, especially when there are other cars close by and on their way to the same corner.
Daniel Ricciardo Baku 2019
Quick and clear communication is something that Daniel Ricciardo did not get at the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. After missing his braking point and heading down an escape road, the Australian managed to stop his car just in time before hitting the barriers and damaging his car.
Ricciardo, desperate to get back on track, engaged his car’s reverse gear and was planning to reverse just enough to get extra space to turn around. Meanwhile, Daniil Kvyat had made the same mistake, with his Toro Rosso ending up just behind the Ricciardo’s Renault.
Ricciardo started reversing while his engineer was not able to warn him in time of Kvyat’s Toro Rosso behind hm. He ended up hitting the Russian driver’s car, and both of them ended up retiring from the Grand Prix in what was an extremely bizarre incident.
Formula 1 cars do have reverse gears as it is required by the rulebook for safety reasons. However, because drivers rarely use the reverse gear on their cars, it can sometimes be difficult for them go through the often-complex process of engaging their reverse gear if they do need to use it.