Formula 1 (or F1) is a motorsport that started in 1950, but it can trace its roots back even further to the early days of Grand Prix racing. For beginners, the sport may seem intimidating as there are many rules to follow and a lot of technical details. So, what do you need to know about F1?
F1 is one of the most popular sports in the world, with more than 400 million global TV viewers. The most important things to understand about F1 as a beginner are the long history of the sport, the drivers and teams involved, the race weekend structure, and the basic rules and regulations.
F1 can seem complicated for beginners, but once you understand the basics, it can be one of the most exciting motorsports to watch! Below, we go into more detail on everything you need to know about Formula 1.
The History Of Formula 1
Formula 1 has a rich history, going back to the early 1920s and 1930s. There was a competition known as the European Grand Prix Championships, and although the cars were very different to what they are today, this era is where F1 finds its roots. It is debated when the first ‘real’ F1 race took place, but the first World Championship was contested in 1950.
Key Fact: The first ever F1 race was the Turin Grand Prix in 1946 at the Valentino Park circuit in Italy, but the first World Championship race was held at Silverstone in the UK in 1950.
In 1946, just four years prior to this, the FIA (Fédération International de l’Automobile) standardized the rules, and the FIA is still the governing body of the sport to this day. These rules have changed over the years, but the main structure has remained intact, and it’s where the word ‘Formula’ came from, referring to the ‘formula’ of rules that govern the sport.
Most of the rules that have changed over the years have been to do with specific mechanical components of the cars, and what is allowed or deemed to be race legal. The engine sizes and types have been one of the main components that have changed drastically, while there are various other parts of the car that have sparked controversy as well.
Safety & Aerodynamics
Many of these features are to do with the safety and aerodynamics of the cars, two concepts that teams only really started taking seriously in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was a rapid advancement in technology, along with several tragic – and some fatal – accidents that would change the sport forever. Even today, various measures are continuously revised that help to improve the safety of the world’s fastest motorsport.
These decades also brought in the first real sponsors of F1 teams, and these are a mainstay of modern teams, with liveries and big sponsor deals being some of the most prevalent and controversial in the world of sport. We will discuss the sponsorships and money involved in F1 soon, but first let’s go into a bit more detail about the teams behind the cars you see on track.
F1 Teams / Constructors
The current F1 teams in 2023 are:
- Red Bull
- Alfa Romeo
- Aston Martin
There are usually around 10 teams (as there have been since 2017), each with two drivers taking part in each race. This is not always the case, as for example in 2010 there were 12 teams with a total of 25 drivers. So, each season can be different, and this is one of the many things about Formula 1 that fluctuates year after year.
Key Fact: It costs more than $200 million just to enter as a new team in F1!
The actual teams that are competing also change regularly, as teams decide to rebrand themselves or be replaced by another team entirely. Teams and constructors used to be distinct entities, but now the words are used almost interchangeably. There are a lot of technical details that surround the subtle differences between them.
Put simply, teams may have parts of the car, notably the engine, produced by another constructor (like how Aston Martin uses Mercedes engines), while the team retains the intellectual property rights to the chassis that they use. In the modern era, teams must produce their own chassis, but this was not always the case, as in the past some teams used to sell their chassis to others.
Therefore, you might see teams being referred to as Haas-Ferrari or McLaren-Mercedes (this was the latter’s official team name for much of the 1990s and 2000s). The first part of the name is the team, while the second (if applicable) is the engine manufacturer. It can get quite confusing, but making this quick distinction can make it much easier to understand who is being referred to when you read the standings.
Some teams, like Mercedes and Ferrari, make their own engines. This means they are usually just referred to as Mercedes and Ferrari. The same is largely true across the grid nowadays, as most fans simply know Haas as Haas, even if there is a Ferrari engine (or ‘power unit’) inside the car.
The teams compete for points in the Constructors’ Championship, while the drivers compete in the Drivers’ Championship. The teams gain points through their drivers’ performances, and the scores from both drivers are combined to give the team’s total. We will talk more about the scoring below.
As we have said, the teams fluctuate, and so there is no hard and fast, definitive guide to the teams in F1 as they change year on year. However, there are some that have been around for a long time, such as Ferrari. They are the only team that have competed in every single World Championship since the very first one way back in 1950.
KEY POINTS• The first F1 World Championship was held in 1950
• 10 teams fight it out each year to win the World Constructors’ Championship (WCC)
• Teams can come and go, but it’s expensive to join as a new entry
Who Are The F1 Drivers?
The 2023 F1 driver lineups are:
- Red Bull – Max Verstappen (1) and Sergio Pérez (11)
- Ferrari – Charles Leclerc (16) and Carlos Sainz (55)
- Mercedes – Lewis Hamilton (44) and George Russell (63)
- Alpine – Esteban Ocon (31) and Pierre Gasly (10)
- McLaren – Lando Norris (4) and Oscar Piastri (81)
- Alfa Romeo – Valtteri Bottas (77) and Zhou Guanyu (24)
- Aston Martin – Fernando Alonso (14) and Lance Stroll (18)
- Haas – Kevin Magnussen (20) and Nico Hulkenberg (27)
- AlphaTauri – Yuki Tsunoda (22) and Nyck de Vries (21)
- Williams – Alex Albon (23) and Logan Sargeant (2)
As with the teams, the drivers in F1 also fluctuate each year, and some move from team to team, with drivers rarely staying with the same team for long periods of time unless they find success there. This is because the cars change each year as technology advances, and therefore different cars start to suit different drivers.
So, the formation of the teams and drivers is very dynamic, and each year there is usually a vastly different lineup from the year before. This is of course not exclusive to F1, as it is similar with football, soccer, and basketball teams as well, and other motorsports like NASCAR.
The drivers compete against each other to become the World Champion, and they do this by scoring points throughout the year.
The F1 Points System
The winner of each race gets 25 points, and then from there those who place 2nd through to 10th also get points on a declining scale, with the 10th place finisher getting 1 point. These points are added up throughout the year to crown the World Drivers’ Champion, and the World Constructors’ Champion is the team with the most points from their combined drivers’ scores.
Key Fact: There is also one point available for the fastest lap during the Grand Prix, but the driver will only get this point if they also finish in the top 10
There is also a points system for the Sprint races, which saw their debut in 2021 and now have 6 spots on the calendar. The winner of the Sprint gets 8 points, with this decreasing by one all the way to the driver who finishes in eighth place, who gets 1 point. There are no fastest lap points in the Sprint, and there are no points for regular qualifying.
Over the years there have been many drivers who have won multiple championships, with names like Michael Schumacher (7 World Championships), and Lewis Hamilton (also 7) is perhaps the most famous multiple World Champion at the moment. However, the most recent driver to win multiple World Championships is Max Verstappen, winning in 2021 and 2022.
F1 Cars Explained For Beginners
F1 teammates drive the same car as each other – well, roughly the same car, minus a few small tweaks to suit their driving style. This is often the best measure of a driver’s skill, as if you can beat your teammate who has the same car, and the same advantages and disadvantages as you, you can prove yourself to be the better driver.
Because the cars vary so much between different constructors in terms of design and performance levels, some teams consistently win and some consistently lose. That’s why we have seen eras of dominance from the likes of Ferrari in the early 2000s, Red Bull from 2010-2013, and Mercedes in the latter part of the 2010s.
There are many rules and regulations that need to be followed with the cars’ designs, and these rules change seemingly as often as the teams and drivers do. The sets of regulations are divided into Sporting Regulations and Technical Regulations, with the former typically affecting the racing, and the latter usually affecting the cars.
F1 Engine Sizes
The original engines used back in the 1950s had a capacity of 4.5 liters, with the modern engines being limited to 1.6 liters. The number of cylinders has also changed, going from V8, V10 or even V12 to the now-standard V6 turbocharged engines, which now include many different energy recovery systems and have certain fuel limits on them as well. Still, the cars can reach top speeds of more than 200 mph (320 kph)!
All the advanced technology and lightweight materials that go into making an F1 car mean that they are far from cheap to build. The teams now must stick to a strict budget cap, which is around $135 million (although inflation may affect the specific figure). In the past, it was not uncommon for the biggest teams to spend nearly half a billion dollars on their cars each year!
KEY POINTS• Each Formula 1 team has 2 drivers
• These drivers compete to win the World Drivers’ Championship (WDC)
• The cars are built within strict sets of regulations, and teams must adhere to the budget cap
Formula 1 Tracks & Events
With the speed and size of the F1 cars themselves, the tracks need to be designed specifically for this kind of high-speed racing. There are many strict rules in place regarding layouts and track lengths, and this means it’s very difficult for new tracks to make their way onto the racing calendar. Usually, this calendar consists of about 20-23 races taking place across 5 continents.
The F1 race calendar for the 2023 season is as follows:
- Bahrain – 5 March
- Saudi Arabia – 19 March
- Australia – 2 April
- Azerbaijan – 30 April
- United States (Miami) – 7 May
- Italy (Imola) – 21 May
- Monaco – 28 May
- Spain – 4 June
- Canada – 18 June
- Austria – 2 July
- Great Britain – 9 July
- Hungary – 23 July
- Belgium – 30 July
- Netherlands – 27 August
- Italy (Monza) – 3 September
- Singapore – 17 September
- Japan – 24 September
- Qatar – 8 October
- United States (Austin) – 22 October
- Mexico – 29 October
- Brazil – 5 November
- United States (Las Vegas) – 18 November
- Abu Dhabi – 26 November
Most of the tracks are purpose-built, with the exceptions of the street circuits, like the famous Monaco Grand Prix, which takes place in the streets of Monte Carlo, and the Singapore Grand Prix, which takes place at the Marina Bay Street Circuit. The former is the only race on the calendar that does not adhere to one of the track rules regarding total race length.
Exceptions To The Rules
While the Monaco GP runs a total length of 260.286 km (161.734 miles), with each lap being 3.337 km (2.074 mi) long, the FIA states that a race must be at least 305 km long (190 miles), with each lap recommended to be between 3.5 km and 7 km in length. Along with Monaco being the exception at the short end, the Circuit de Spa Francorchamps, the host of the Belgian GP, comes in over the recommended length by 0.004 km.
What Time Do F1 Races Start?
Most F1 races start at:
- 06:00 PST
- 09:00 EST
- 14:00 GMT
- 15:00 CET
- 19:30 IST
- 23:30 ACST
Most Formula 1 races take place in daylight, in order to coincide with a starting time of around lunch time for European audiences. However, some take place earlier (like the Japanese and Australian GPs), and others take place later (like those in the Americas).
There are a few races that take place under floodlights for at least part of the race, known as night races. F1’s night races include:
- Saudi Arabia
- Las Vegas
- Abu Dhabi
Each of the races over the course of the F1 season, which usually runs from March through to November, allows the drivers and teams to gain points in order to win the respective championships (WDC and WCC). Most seasons end up going right to the end, but there have been occasions where the championship is won with several races to go.
Key Fact: Michael Schumacher holds the record for winning the championship with the most races to go (6), sealing the 2002 title after completing just 11 out of 17 races.
F1 Free Practice Explained For Beginners
There are effectively three parts to each F1 race weekend, with the first being known as Free Practice. This takes place over three sessions, usually across two days, and it allows the drivers to get to grips with their car and the circuit without the pressure of a racing atmosphere.
F1 practice sessions adhere to the following format:
- FP1 – 1 hour long, usually on a Friday morning
- FP2 – 1 hour long, usually on a Friday afternoon, but on a Saturday morning if it’s a Sprint weekend
- FP3 – 1 hour long, usually on a Saturday morning, but no FP3 session on a Sprint weekend
The next stage is qualifying, and this usually takes place on a Saturday, the day before the actual race itself.
F1 Qualifying Explained For Beginners
F1 qualifying uses the following format:
- Q1 – 18 minutes, slowest 5 drivers are eliminated, setting positions 16-20
- Q2 – 15 minutes, slowest 5 drivers are eliminated, setting positions 11-15
- Q3 – 12 minutes, setting positions 1-10
Qualifying is split into three sessions, like free practice, but they all take place on one day. It uses an elimination format, with all 20 drivers taking place in the first session, Q1, and then only the top 15 drivers by lap times proceed through to Q2. The next stage is Q3, and it’s made up of the top ten drivers from Q2.
Q1 and Q2 allow for positions 11 through 20 on the starting grid to be determined. Q3 determines the positions 1 through 10, and therefore also pole position.
The driver with the fastest lap after 12 minutes goes onto pole position (first on the starting grid, or P1), and then the second fastest goes into second place and so on. Where the driver starts on the grid is vital for their chances of winning the race.
Key Fact: All drivers use the soft tire compound for their qualifying runs. In the past, they would often use the medium tire during Q2, but that was due a rule that has since been scrapped that allowed the fastest drivers to have more control over their starting tires for the race.
What Do F1 Races Involve?
The Race Start
On race day, F1 drivers do a warmup lap and then a formation lap (both are used to test out the cars and allow the tires to warm up) before taking their position on the starting grid. Then, a set of five lights will light up one by one every second, before they then go out after a random time period to test the drivers’ reaction times and to allow for a fair start.
From there, the drivers battle it out over the course of the shortest number of laps that exceeds a total distance of 305 km (190 miles), besides the Monaco exception we noted earlier. The actual race can last no longer than 2 hours, and the driver who crosses the finish line first after the set number of laps is crowned the winner, with second and third place also taking a step on the podium, where champagne is traditionally sprayed.
Throughout the race, drivers and teams will employ various strategies to hopefully give them the edge over other teams, and these strategies involve pit stops. The F1 pit lane is like pit lanes in other motorsports, as it is where the cars go mid-race (or pre-race) in order to change their tires, or in some cases to perform repairs on the car.
These pit stops take place at the time of choosing for the drivers and the teams, but some may stop once and some twice or more. Usually, drivers must go to the pits at least once during a race in order to use at least 2 different tire compounds, but this rule is abandoned in the case of wet weather, where the drivers can stay on the same set of tires if they prefer, but most still tend to pit at least once.
Key Fact: The last time a driver went the full race without pitting was in 2021, when Esteban Ocon completed the 58-lap Turkish Grand Prix on a set of intermediate tires. Alex Albon finished the (dry) 2022 Australian Grand Prix having pitted just once on the penultimate lap.
Pitting costs time, usually around 20-25 seconds, and so drivers can temporarily lose positions. This might make it seem counterintuitive to pit more than once, but as other drivers also need to pit, it tends to balance out over the course of the race as people regain lost positions as other drivers head to the pits.
Tire Compounds & Race Strategies
Different race strategies play out as a result of different tire compounds offering different advantages and disadvantages, along with the fact that fuel loads decrease over the course of a race, making tires last longer in the later laps. For example, a driver could pit twice and go soft-medium-soft during the race and be faster than a driver who pits once and uses a hard-medium strategy.
F1’s tire compounds are as follows:
- Soft – Offers the most grip but has the shortest lifespan
- Medium – Offers reasonable grip and durability
- Hard – Offers the least grip but is very durable
- Intermediate – Ideal for damp conditions thanks to its shallow tread pattern
- Full Wet – Best for wet conditions thanks to the large tread blocks
Beginner Fact: The soft, medium and hard tires are known as 'slicks' as they are smooth and have no grooves or treads. These are only used in dry conditions.
Contacting The Team
The drivers will be in contact with their team over the radio throughout the race, and this allows them to discuss strategies in real time, and the team can monitor the car (and the other drivers) remotely in order to determine when the best time to pit is. Aside from that, it is up to the driver to simply do his best to reach the checkered flag at the end of the race as quickly as possible.
We have already touched on some of the rules surrounding the cars and the tracks, but there are a lot more that first-time watchers of the sport should be aware of.
4 Important F1 Rules To Be Aware Of
1. It’s A Non-Contact Sport
The first main rule to follow is that drivers cannot make contact with other drivers. This rule has its tolerances, as you will often see wheel-to-wheel racing resulting in slight touches, but as long as no damage occurs and the FIA stewards see the incident to have had no impact on either drivers’ performance, there is usually no further action taken.
There does not have to be contact for penalties to be given out, as if drivers are seen to be driving dangerously, or causing unfair obstruction to the other drivers, they may receive a time penalty, which they will serve during their next pit stop, or it will be added on to their time at the end of the race.
2. No Dangerous Driving
A driver must not weave from side to side in order to prevent a car from going past them, as this is deemed to be dangerous driving and unfair blocking. This shouldn’t be confused with the drivers weaving or zig-zagging to warm up their tires before the race or behind the safety car.
For this, the driver may receive a number of penalties, with the most common being a 5-second penalty added onto their time as described above, or a drive through penalty, where they must drive through the pit lane and then rejoin the race.
This can be costly, as they must slow down to the speed limit of the pit lane before rejoining the race. Other penalties include the stop-go penalty, where they must pit for 10 seconds before rejoining, as well as a black flag penalty, which essentially means the driver is disqualified from the race entirely. This is a rare penalty, and it was last used at the 2007 Canadian GP.
3. Obey The Flags
The black flag is just one of many flags used in F1 racing. One of the most well-known is the yellow flag. This is used to signify danger on the track, such as debris or other obstructions, and drivers must slow down and avoid overtaking. This may also be followed by the implementation of a safety car, which leads the race and causes the cars to slow down drastically.
A red flag indicates the suspension of the race or practice/qualifying session, and drivers must return to the pit lane. The race may or may not continue after this point.
Key Fact: The 2021 season saw the most red flags in F1 history, with 6 races being affected by stoppages
Finally, there is also the blue flag, which is used in several situations, but most commonly to indicate to slower drivers that they are about to be lapped by a faster car. In this case, the slower driver must not block any passing maneuvers, and their teams will often instruct them to let the faster car past them. Drivers can receive penalties for ignoring successive blue flags.
There are various other flags used in F1, but the ones listed above are the most common.
4. Overtake In A Safe Manner
Aside from the flags and penalties that can be inflicted on the drivers, there are also some specific rules regarding overtaking. Drivers must always drive safely, and they can be punished for performing dangerous maneuvers. There are also various zones on the track for the use of the DRS system for overtaking.
The Drag Reduction System is used to give drivers a speed advantage by opening a flap in the rear wing in order to reduce drag, as the name implies. Implementing DRS can give the driver a gain of up to 6-8 mph (10-13 kph) by the end of the DRS zone. There is at least one of these on every track, with some tracks that have multiple long straights having two or three.
Rules Around DRS Usage
These DRS zones are defined by the FIA and they limit the use of the system to specific conditions. The first is that the driver seeking to perform the overtake must be within the DRS zone, and within a second of the car in front when they pass the detection point (which comes before the activation zone). The driver being pursued is not able to use DRS to defend, unless they are also within a second of another car in front.
The system can also only be used if the FIA deem the conditions to be safe, and it cannot be used within two laps of a race start or restart (although a one-lap delay is being trialed at Sprint races in 2023). This system is designed to give the drivers an advantage only when they deserve one, and so it cannot be abused throughout the race. Aside from using DRS, drivers may overtake as they please, as long as they do so safely.
Formula 1 is widely regarded as one of the most exciting motorsports on the planet. The cars travel at speeds of over 200 mph, and the technology involved can make it a spectacle to watch them cornering at such high speeds without coming off the track. However, it can be confusing to watch for the first time, due to the layout of the competition and the rules surrounding the sport.
Many of these regulations govern the cars and tracks that are involved, while there are also strict rules drivers must follow during the race itself. The number of teams and the drivers on those teams fluctuates every year, but that helps to keep the sport interesting. You don’t need to know everything to enjoy watching the races, but hopefully this article has cleared up most of the basics!
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