Formula 1 drivers travel around a racetrack trying to beat each other to the checkered flag at incredible speeds. With various sections of the track involving heavy acceleration and others requiring heavy braking, many fans may wonder if F1 cars have brake lights.
F1 cars do not have brake lights, but they do have a red flashing light on the rear of the car. This light is related to the energy recovery systems of the cars, and doesn’t only come on during braking. F1 cars don’t need brake lights, nor do they need headlights either.
Even racing bumper to bumper, a driver knows when to expect changes in speed and does not need to be pre-warned by a brake light. An F1 car slowing down will only happen if it has mechanical issues, or it needs to navigate a corner. Below, we’ll look at what the lights on an F1 car are really for.
F1 cars don’t have brake lights because, when racing, every driver is braking at around the same points on the track – into the corners. F1 drivers therefore don’t need to be shown when their opponents are braking, as they simply know they will when going into the corner.
For as much as an F1 race is unpredictable and exciting, certain parts of it are just expected, and certain things have to be done at a certain time. At certain points on the track, a car goes as fast as possible, while at others, it will need to slow down, take a corner, and then speed up again. All of the cars do the same things at about the same points on the track.
At these points, where speed is predictable, every driver understands the line they are on and the speed they need to be racing at for optimal performance. Having brake lights wouldn’t help the driver behind, as they too are planning on braking at pretty much the same place. After braking, the driver then speeds up again until the next corner.
Another key reason Formula 1 cars forego brake lights is that, even in an emergency where a driver may need to quickly apply the brakes, if there’s another car right behind them they simply can’t stop in time anyway. An F1 driver has superb reaction times, making adjustments in around 0.2 seconds, but at 190 mph the car just won’t stop in time, so the brake light wouldn’t be much use.
For a road vehicle traveling behind another, brake lights are vital. The speed of the vehicles, and the distance between them, usually make braking in an emergency sufficient to avoid an accident.
Pedestrians stepping into the road, or other vehicles pulling out into the road without looking, all add to the need for working brake lights so that following cars can quickly understand the situation in front of them. It’s for a similar reason that road cars have indicators or turn signals (or ‘blinkers’) to tell the driver behind what you’re planning to do next. It’s all about safety.
Formula 1 has no need for these lights, as there shouldn’t be any pedestrians crossing the track and nor should any of the drivers be taking any alternative routes around the track. As for cars pulling out in front of another, the only time this happens is from a pit stop, and there’s a specific lane for the cars to pull out from, and drivers are always made aware of these cars by their teams.
It’s pretty clear by now that every perfectly valid reason for a standard car to have brake lights doesn’t apply to a high-speed race such as F1. With little to no outside interference from racegoers, the need for drivers to warn each other when braking becomes obsolete. And although the extra weight from adding brake lights would be minimal, designers don’t look for reasons to add weight to cars.
F1 cars do have some lights, even though they don’t have brake lights. F1 cars have a blinking red light at the back that tells following cars they are harvesting energy and therefore possibly going slower than normal, and they also have lights on the roll hoop, again related to the ERS.
The Blinking Red Light
Despite not having brake lights an F1 car does have several lights situated at the rear of the car. There are two vertical LED lights on the rear wing and one larger red LED light at the back of the car at the top of the diffuser, which has multiple functions. These lights are there to signal when the car is in an energy-saving mode.
This is when the car’s hybrid engine collects electrical energy from the wheels spinning and also the extreme heat that the car generates with its exhaust gases via the ERS. This energy is then stored to be used later. Seeing this light go on warns drivers behind that the car will not be going at maximum speed. It doesn’t mean they’re braking, just going slower than they could be.
Formula 1 cars have a system called ERS (Energy Recovering System) that transfers the stored energy from the heat and friction and converts it into usable electric energy. The ERS doesn’t kick in all the way through a race, however, so when it is active and the car is expected to drop in performance briefly, the blinking rear light gives the drivers behind them some warning.
Formula 1 cars don’t use front lights such as headlights, even when the race is run at night. Several Grands Prix are run at night, such as in Singapore and Abu Dhabi. For night races the rack track is so well lit that the track looks like it is bathed in sunlight.
For races during the day, there is no need for headlights on an F1 car either. They would prove an unnecessary distraction for drivers to see glaring lights in their mirrors. Racing at up to 210 mph requires total concentration, and headlights would be more of a burden than a blessing. F1 has one-way traffic and drivers don’t need to see in the dark, negating the need for headlights.
The red light on the back of an F1 car is used primarily to warn other drivers of the ERS being activated. Once a driver behind is aware that this is happening, they can make allowances for their speed and not be caught out by the driver in front going slower than expected.
The two vertical lights on the back of the rear wing are a relatively new addition to the cars and are there to simply add an extra layer of protection. These smaller lights work the same way that the large light does on the spoiler and increase visibility in return for negligible extra weight to the cars. When signaling a car is harvesting energy, these lights will blink.
This early warning system is not the only use that the rear light has during a race, as the LEDs can also occasionally be a green color. This is a fairly rare occurrence, but when a rear light is bright green it means the driver in control of that car is driving without having obtained a full FIA Super Licence yet.
The criteria to get a Super Licence are quite in-depth, as you’d imagine for a car shaped like a rocket, and new drivers have to meet certain criteria before being fully licensed.
A driver that has held a valid Super Licence in the previous three seasons is eligible immediately, but until the driver has one, the light on the back of the car turns green to warn other drivers. The green light just gives that little extra heads up to drivers to be more aware that they aren’t as experienced in these cars.
One interesting and highly applauded development for the 2022 F1 season and beyond was the introduction of mandatory practice outings for rookie drivers. This FIA ruling has been introduced to try and allow more drivers an opportunity to drive in F1 and prove to their constructors that they are worth taking a chance on. Some rookie drivers may have a Super Licence though.
Each F1 team must give at least two practice outings to rookie drivers that have started no more than two Grand Prix. This means the chances of spectators seeing the rather elusive green light on the back of an F1 should increase dramatically. Before this, F1 constructors have been loathed to trust their 12-million-dollar cars to rookies unless forced through injury or loss of form.
One of the first reasons the red light was first introduced (having been on the cars long before ERS) was when weather conditions become so adverse during a race that driver safety became an issue. The amount of spray that an F1 car can throw up behind it is incredible.
The water hits the tires and is thrown up into the air, making visibility for trailing drivers poor and at times very dangerous. The red light is employed so that drivers can at least gauge the distance between themselves and the car in front of them.
Drivers will quickly inform their pit crew when visibility becomes difficult, and then a decision is made to keep the red light on (albeit blinking) at the back of all cars to ensure as safe a race as possible. As the LEDs at the back of a Formula 1 car are very bright, even a large amount of spray won’t impede a driver from seeing them in the rain.
The FIA has clear regulations when it comes to the operation and use of rear lights on an F1 car, ranging from the position of the lights, the number of lights, and how they are operated. Rear lights have been used in F1 for decades, although throughout these years the use to which the rear light has been put has altered dramatically.
The two smaller LED lights situated on the rear wing were first seen in 2018, and first tested by Mercedes at the request of the FIA, and these lights are now part of FIA regulations for all vehicles. All lights must be clearly visible from the rear of the car, and there can be penalties for non-working lights.
The driver himself must have the ability to switch on the rear lights when seated in the car. This means that the driver has to be told by the control room that he needs to turn on the rear light in case of visibility issues, who themselves are told by the race organizers and safety marshals.
While a driver has the ability to control the lights on the car from the monocoque, many of the functions of the lights, like many other aspects of the car, are automated. This allows the driver to concentrate on the actual driving of the F1 car rather than having to remember to turn the flashing lights on to warn other drivers that the ERS is charging.
Given that the driver would have to remember to deal with the light at the back of the car at least once every lap as the energy is stored and then made available for use at key, driver chosen points, having the lights being computer-controlled removes the chance of driver error.
F1 cars don’t have brake lights. The drivers all brake at around the same points on the track, and so they don’t need to be warned of drivers in front slowing down in the corners. The cars race so fast that, if a car slowed down rapidly elsewhere, there wouldn’t be enough time to react anyway.