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Why Are Some F1 Cars Faster Than Others? (Full Explanation)

Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport, with the best drivers and the best engineers in the world battling it out for the ultimate glory. But you may have noticed that not all the cars are built equal, and you may wonder why some F1 cars are faster than others.

Some F1 cars are faster than others because each team has their own design philosophy. Every team has a different interpretation of the rules and how to build their car, leading to cars with different levels of performance. Some cars are faster than others simply because they have a faster driver.

Formula 1 engineers work extremely hard to try and get an edge over the competition. If a team can hire the best engineers and team members, they have a good chance of building a fast car. Below, we take a closer look at the reasons there can be such big differences between the speeds of F1 cars.

Why Are Some Formula 1 Cars Faster?

Some F1 teams always seem to be near the front of the grid more than others. That’s simply because these teams have faster cars. Formula 1 is not a spec series, which means that every team is responsible for building their own cars, and they can be unique as long as they are within the rules.

F1 teams must follow a strict set of rules each year, but these rules can be interpreted in different ways. For example, the blown diffuser was a loophole that Red Bull made use of in 2011, which gave them an advantage over their competition. Other teams caught on, but Red Bull had invested the most technology and development into the system which made theirs the best on the grid.

The same goes for every other aspect of the cars, from the floor to the engine, and even down to the nuts and bolts that hold everything together. Every single car on the grid is unique based on how the engineers have interpreted the rules and built their car in their own way. This is what causes the difference in speed and race pace between each of the cars.

Qualifying Pace

One of the best ways to gauge the difference in speed between F1 teams is to analyze their qualifying pace. Qualifying is all about getting one fast lap in. The teams will maximize the speed of their cars by fitting them with the softest compound of tire available and giving them as little fuel as possible. The drivers will then go out and give it their all to push the car to its limits.

Oftentimes, this reveals the true pace of the cars, and it gives a clear indication as to which car is the fastest on the grid. But it must be said that some cars are much better in terms of race pace than they are in qualifying, and we’ll consider this in more detail soon. Nevertheless, average qualifying pace is a good metric to use when comparing the difference in pace between the cars. 

F1 Qualifying Gaps 2021

RankTeamQualifying Difference (seconds)
1Mercedes+ 0.000
2Red Bull+ 0.037
3Ferrari+ 0.598
4McLaren+ 0.625
5AlphaTauri+ 0.628
6Alpine+ 1.205
7Aston Martin+ 1.312
8Alfa Romeo+ 1.447
9Williams+ 1.522
10Haas+ 2.414
NOTE: For the table above, we’ve used the average pace gap of the quickest driver from each team, because that’s a better measure of the car’s potential than counting the slower driver as well. For example, Red Bull’s Sergio Perez was, on average, a full half a second slower than Max Verstappen, and that’s not the car’s fault!

As you can see, there is a clear top two teams in this chart. As we know, the title fight went down to the wire at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Heading into the final race of the season, both Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were equal on 369.5 points. 

Above, we can see that both Mercedes and Red Bull were incredibly close in terms of qualifying pace, which correlates with how close the championship fight was between the two teams. At the bottom of the chart we’ve got Haas, who had the slowest car on the grid and finished the season with zero points.

But it’s not always the case. As mentioned above, some cars have better race pace than qualifying pace. That’s the case with Williams, who managed to score more points (23) than Alfa Romeo (13) who technically had the faster car on paper in terms of qualifying pace.

The Effect Of The Driver

We can’t omit another key component in the F1 speed equation – the person behind the wheel. Even though a team might have the objectively fastest car on the grid, they need a quick driver if they want to take advantage of this. There is no better example to use than the average qualifying pace difference between Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez in 2021.

The Red Bull drivers were regularly separated by more than half a second over the course of the 2021 season. Similar gaps were seen elsewhere on the grid, such as at AlphaTauri and Haas. So, one of the main reasons some F1 cars are faster than others is simply that they have a faster driver behind the wheel.

F1 Team Top Speed Comparisons

Bahrain 2022 Top Speeds

RankTeamTop Speed
1Red Bull323.2 kph / 200.8 mph
2Alpine321.5 kph / 199.7 mph
3Williams319.4 kph / 198.4 mph
4Haas318.4 kph / 197.8 mph
5AlphaTauri318.1 kph / 197.6 mph
6Ferrari316.6 kph / 196.7 mph
7McLaren315.7 kph / 196.1 mph
8Alfa Romeo315.5 kph / 196.0 mph
9Mercedes315.4 kph / 195.9 mph
10Aston Martin311.5 kph / 193.5 mph

Pole Position: Ferrari | Race Win: Ferrari

Baku 2022 Top Speeds

RankTeamTop Speed
1Alpine323.6 kph / 201.1 mph
2Aston Martin323.5 kph / 201.0 mph
3Williams320.6 kph / 199.2 mph
4Red Bull320.2 kph / 198.9 mph
5Ferrari319.4 kph / 198.4 mph
6Haas317.3 kph / 197.4 mph
7Alfa Romeo316.8 kph / 196.8 mph
8AlphaTauri 314.6 kph / 195.4 mph
9Mercedes311.2 kph / 193.3 mph
10McLaren310.5 kph / 192.9 mph

Pole Position: Ferrari | Race Win: Red Bull

Hungary 2022 Top Speeds

RankTeamTop Speed
1Williams311.1 kph / 193.3 mph
2Mercedes305.2 kph / 189.6 mph
3Red Bull304.6 kph / 189.2 mph
4Haas304.3 kph / 189.0 mph
5McLaren303.5 kph / 188.5 mph
6Ferrari 302.6 kph / 188.0 mph
7AlphaTauri301.0 kph / 187.0 mph
8Aston Martin300.9 kph / 186.9 mph
9Alpine300.3 kph / 186.5 mph
10Alfa Romeo299.8 kph / 186.2 mph

Pole Position: Mercedes | Race Win: Red Bull

The tables above should illustrate one key thing: Top speed isn’t everything.

While Red Bull were fastest in Bahrain, they didn’t get pole position or win the Grand Prix (although the latter point is due to both cars breaking down at the end of the race). While Ferrari were fifth fastest in Baku, they were the fastest car in qualifying. And while Williams were the fastest in a straight line in Hungary, both cars were knocked out in Q1, and both were lapped in the race.

Teams that set the fastest lap times (as we’ll see in more detail below) often don’t have the highest top speed on the straights. In some cases, the top teams aren’t even in the top three when it comes to straight line speed. In Formula 1, it’s all about being fastest in the corners.

Having competitive straight line speed is still vital for being able to attack and defend in the race, but it’s not the most important factor in Formula 1. Oftentimes, the drivers who have the highest straight line speed struggle through the corners because of the compromise they need to make with their downforce levels to reach that high top speed.

The Most Important Factor

What makes Formula 1 cars the fastest in the world is their ability to corner at higher speeds than any other car. This mainly comes from the downforce they can produce at high speeds. Formula 1 cars produce so much downforce that they can sometimes even corner at speeds of over 190 mph.

Formula 1 cars produce immense amounts of downforce, which is necessary if they’re going to corner as fast as they can. However, the tradeoff to having more downforce is that they will be slower in a straight line. This is because while cars want to be draggy in the corners to have more grip, this drag gets worse the faster they go, meaning it becomes powerful on the straights.

Car Setup

You may have noticed that the top speed of each team is different from circuit to circuit. While it’s true that each track has a different length in their main straight (and other straights around the track), there is another factor that influences this difference in speed between the tracks – the car’s setup.

Car setup is incredibly important in Formula 1, and it’s something that changes between all race tracks, teams, and drivers. The car setup is the one element that every driver has control over in terms of adapting the car to their liking, whether that’s for more oversteer or understeer, and even when it comes to the top speed of the car.

Drivers can adjust the angle of their front and rear wing, which will influence the amount of downforce the car produces. The higher the wing angles are, the more downforce the driver will have at the expense of top speed down the straights, with the opposite also being true.

The car setup will change from one circuit to another, so while having a high downforce setup is faster at tracks like Monaco or the Hungaroring, other tracks might require a low downforce setup. Circuits with longer straights and faster corners like Monza will yield faster lap times with a low downforce setup.

Differences Between The Teams

But the teams will all set their cars up differently, both between races and at the start of the season. Teams are limited in what they can change from race to race as well, so if a team comes to the first race with a radical design, it’s not always possible to make big changes if it doesn’t work as well as they’d hoped.

This means the changes teams make between race weekends are usually marginal, and because every team makes similar changes, the advantages gained by tweaking the setup are small compared to the main differences between the cars that are there all season long.

For example, if a team builds a car with a focus on straight line speed, they’ll likely have a decent top speed (and potentially qualifying result) at most tracks, but they might struggle with race pace. This is exactly what we saw with Ferrari in 2022. While they nabbed plenty of pole positions, their race pace just wasn’t enough to beat the Red Bulls on a Sunday afternoon. 

Likewise, while Williams are often some of the quickest cars in the speed traps, they struggle to make it out of Q1 most weekends, and points are few and far between. But now that we know why there can be big differences between the raw speeds of F1 cars, let’s consider the differences in qualifying pace. 

F1 Team Qualifying Time Comparisons

Bahrain 2022 Qualifying Pace 

RankTeamFastest Qualifying TimeDifference (seconds)
1Ferrari1:30.558+ 0.000
2Red Bull1:30.681+ 0.123
3Mercedes1:31.238+ 0.680
4Alfa Romeo1:31.560+ 1.002
5Haas1:31.808+ 1.250
6Alpine1:32.195+ 1.637
7AlphaTauri1:32.338+ 1.780
8McLaren1:32.008+ 1.450
9Williams1:32.664+ 2.106
10Aston Martin1:32.777+ 2.219

Race Win: Ferrari

Baku 2022 Qualifying Pace 

RankTeamFastest Qualifying TimeDifference (seconds)
1Ferrari1:41.359+ 0.000
2Red Bull1:41.641+ 0.282
3Mercedes1:42.712+ 1.353
4AlphaTauri1:42.845+ 1.486
5Aston Martin1:43.091+ 1.732
6Alpine1:43.173+ 1.814
7McLaren1:43.398+ 2.039
8Alfa Romeo1:43.790+ 2.431
9Haas1:44.643+ 3.284
10Williams1:44.719+ 3.360

Race Win: Red Bull

Hungary 2022 Qualifying Pace 

RankTeamFastest Qualifying TimeDifference (seconds)
1Mercedes1:17.377+ 0.000
2Ferrari1:17.421+ 0.044
3McLaren1:17.769+ 0.392
4Alpine1:18.018+ 0.641
5Alfa Romeo1:18.157+ 0.780
6Red Bull1:18.823+ 1.446
7Haas1:18.825+ 1.448
8Aston Martin1:19.137+ 1.760
9AlphaTauri1:19.240+ 1.863
10Williams1:19.256+ 1.879

Race Win: Red Bull

Every team has their strong and weak circuits. In the examples above, it’s clear that Mercedes were quick at Hungary because the track suited their car much better than the other circuits. Because of their ride height issues, they struggled at the high speed circuits like Baku, Spa, and Monza.

Perhaps the most striking thing to notice from the tables above is that, while Williams were in the top three in terms of highest top speed at each of the three circuits, they were also in the bottom two when it came to qualifying pace. While Ferrari and Red Bull didn’t always nail it in the speed traps, they consistently finish at the top during the race.

But just because a team can qualify well doesn’t mean they’re destined to finish at the top either. The opposite is also true, with Williams often struggling in Q1, but Alex Albon has regularly managed some points come Sunday. We know these differences exist between the teams. What we now need to look at is where these differences really come from.

The Differences Between F1 Cars 

Every single Formula 1 car is unique, which is why there is such a difference in their speed. Formula 1 is made up of 10 different teams, each with their own factories and staff members that build their cars. 

This results in massive differences between all of the cars, both in the way that they look and in how they handle on the track. All the teams are given rules that they need to follow in terms of the cars’ designs, but there is room for the teams to experiment and implement their own ideas into their cars.

Some teams will get their designs right and dominate at the top, while other teams will get their designs wrong and drop down the grid

Overall Design

Firstly, the overall designs of the cars will differ. Every car will look different, and this was especially true during the 2022 season when the teams entered a new era of aerodynamic regulations. From the scalloped sidepods on the Ferrari to Mercedes’ apparent lack of sidepods, the cars in 2022 looked very different indeed.

But Formula 1 cars aren’t designed in specific ways for good looks. The overall design has to follow the rules set out by the FIA, which gives a basic overview of the shape of the car. But within those rules there is some wiggle room which is how each team gets their unique car design, and why they can end up looking so different from one another.

The overall design is important because it will influence the aerodynamics of the car and how much downforce it can produce while it’s out on track. This will also affect the internal components and the engine that the team can carry because each car is custom built based on the parts that they need to use. For example, a Ferrari engine wouldn’t fit into a Mercedes chassis, and vice versa.

Engines

The engines of many of the cars are unique. There are four engine manufacturers in Formula 1: Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, and Red Bull Powertrains. There are also four teams known as “works” teams, who produce their own engines at their factories (with Renault corresponding to Alpine). These teams are responsible for researching, developing, and building their own engines every year.

All of these engines will be unique in terms of their design, performance, and reliability. The engines will differ in how they are designed and how they work, but they all need to abide by the regulations that have been set out by the FIA. 

The rest of the teams on the grid are known as customer teams. These teams buy their engines from the manufacturers because they do not have their own engine research and development facilities at their factories, which means that buying the engines from the other teams works out cheaper for them.

For example, teams like Aston Martin and Williams are customers of Mercedes. This means that the exact same engine that goes into the Mercedes cars goes into the other four cars too, and they need to fit it into their chassis design. You may have noticed that Mercedes’ downturn in performance correlated somewhat to a downturn in performance from Williams and Aston Martin too. 

Internal Components

Along with the engine, other internal components of the cars will also be unique. These will differ between all teams, but the teams with the same engines will tend to have a similar design. This is because of how each engine is built and designed, which often requires the other internal components, like the gearboxes, to be packaged in a specific way to suit that engine’s design.

Even the steering wheels are different from team to team. While the majority of the teams have incorporated the digital dashboard into their steering wheels, Williams are the only team to still use the older style digital dashboard that is separate from the steering wheel. The buttons will also vary between the teams, and often even between two cars on the same team.

Furthermore, even the seats will be uniquely designed from team to team. Oftentimes the seats and the cockpit are designed differently between drivers because of their different heights and weights. For example, George Russell will have a different seating position and cockpit arrangement compared to Lewis Hamilton because of their different heights.

Aerodynamics

Aerodynamics is where we normally see the biggest differences between the teams. The aerodynamics on the cars are crucial because they will affect how much downforce the cars produce, which could make them faster or slower than the other cars on the grid.

The major aerodynamics components that will differ from car to car are the front wings, rear wings, side pods, and the floors of the car. All of these parts are crucial, and the slightest adjustments will have an effect on how the car handles, how much downforce it can produce, and how fast it can go on the straights.

Floors & Diffusers

In 2022 the dramatic aerodynamic rule changes made the floor of the car more important than ever before. The cars switched from using primarily over body downforce to incorporating the ground effect. The ground effect relies on the floors of the cars containing complex systems of Venturi tunnels and vanes that optimize the airflow under the car to suck it towards the ground.

Formula 1 teams are incredibly secretive about their floors, and many engineers were trying to spy on other teams during preseason testing to get some ideas of how they can improve the design of their own floors. In the ground effect era, the teams with the best floor designs and the most efficient diffusers tend to be the fastest on Sunday.

KEY POINTS

• There are lots of differences between the various F1 teams’ cars

• These differences are apparent in the internal components and the overall design of the cars

• The teams that can produce the best overall car design will usually come out on top

F1 Top 3, Midfield & Backmarkers

In every F1 season there is a top three, a midfield, and the backmarkers. This generally happens every single season, but there have been some seasons where the midfield and the top teams have mixed together. For example, in 2012, there were seven different winners in the first seven races of the season, with Williams even in the mix.

The Top 3

Recently, the top three teams have been Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull. These teams have consistently been at the top since the hybrid era began. Ferrari have always been a top team, and Red Bull emerged as title contenders in 2009, and haven’t dropped back to the midfield since. Mercedes have dominated the sport since 2014 due to the hybrid engine regulations.

The Midfield

The midfield is the best of the rest. These teams can sometimes compete for a podium on a good day, but they can also sometimes finish in the lower end of the standings. These drivers often have to fight hard between themselves to make it to Q3. The midfield often consists of McLaren, Alpine, AlphaTauri, Aston Martin, and sometimes Alfa Romeo.

The Backmarkers

The backmarkers are the teams that are consistently at the back of the grid with the slowest cars. These are the drivers that are almost always eliminated in the first part of qualifying and they tend to be lapped by the end of a lonely Grand Prix at the back of the grid. Haas and Williams have consistently occupied these spots in recent years.

Why Don’t Slower F1 Teams Copy The Leaders?

Slower F1 teams don’t copy the leaders because the teams are not allowed to blatantly copy one another’s designs, as it goes against the sporting regulations and the goals of the sport. F1 is all about innovation and fairness, and teams will be punished if they are found to have copied others.

The best team works hard to get where they are on merit, so it would be unfair on the engineers who have worked tirelessly to design a car that has the capability to win world championships, only for their rivals to simply copy what they have done. It’s a bit like copying someone’s school project and receiving the same grade (or better) for the work that was “stolen” from the other person.  

Some Teams Still Do It

But that hasn’t stopped teams from copying others. In 2007, McLaren and Ferrari were caught in the controversial “spygate.” McLaren acquired documents that detailed the designs of Ferrari’s title challenger, which helped them to design their own car to be just as competitive as Ferrari. McLaren were disqualified from the constructors’ title and fined $100 million.

More recently, Racing Point were accused of bringing the “Pink Mercedes” into the 2020 season, as it seemed like they simply copied the successful 2019 Mercedes design. They were fined and docked points in the constructors’ standings.

Should All F1 Cars Be The Same?

Many people in the Formula 1 community have called for Formula 1 cars to be made more equal. This is a concept that is often used on the junior single seater ladder, specifically in Formula 2 and Formula 3, which are known as spec series. The idea behind it is that young drivers can showcase their talents in equal cars rather than having to compete against drivers in faster cars.

The reality is that Formula 1 cars will never be equal. The whole point of the sport is to promote innovation and development among engineers at the pinnacle of motorsport. Much of the technology development in Formula 1, such as KERS, DRS, and even ABS, has worked its way into the general automotive world.

The Argument For Equal Cars

The argument for the cars being equal is that drivers won’t have to go up against cars that are much faster than others. As an example, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes would not have dominated from 2014 until 2020 if all the cars were equal. This way, the grid would be mixed up, and the fastest driver would constantly be at the top no matter what car they drove.

The Argument Against Equal Cars

The argument against equal cars is that Formula 1 is a team sport, and the team behind the car is just as important as the driver. On top of that, the pinnacle of motorsport is about innovation and developing technology, which means that teams need to have the freedom to research and develop their cars rather than just building equal cars for all drivers to use.

KEY POINTS

• F1 teams generally fall into the categories of the top 3, the midfield, and the backmarkers

• Slower teams can’t copy those faster than them

• The innovation required to get to the top is one thing that sets F1 apart from many other motorsports

• If you make all the cars equal, you take away some of the most important aspects of Formula 1 

Final Thoughts

Some F1 cars are faster than others due to the way they are designed. Different teams will interpret the rules differently, and this leads to drastically different car designs and performance levels. Some cars are also just faster than others because they have a faster driver.