Practice is an important part of the Formula 1 weekend. While many people believe that it’s just about the drivers getting their eye in, there’s much more to practice than you might imagine. It’s a crucial time for the F1 teams, but each F1 practice session doesn’t last long.
F1 practice sessions last an hour each. There are a total of 3 Free Practice sessions throughout the weekend (or 2 practice sessions on a Sprint weekend). Formula 1 drivers and teams need to use every minute to their advantage if they want to have a good race weekend.
Free Practice sessions have been shortened in recent years which gives the drivers much less time to prepare themselves for the race weekend. Below, we will discuss how this impacts the approach drivers must take heading into a race.
What Are FP1, FP2 And FP3 In F1?
FP1, FP2, and FP3 are Free Practice sessions in Formula 1. These are the 1-hour sessions where the drivers can get into their cars before the most important sessions of the weekend – qualifying and the Grand Prix. The 3 sessions also allow the teams to gather valuable data about the cars.
Free Practice sessions allow the drivers to go out onto the track at any time, as many times as they would like to. This means that if a driver wanted to, they could be out on track from the moment the session starts all the way until the end of the session.
Although it might not sound very important, Free Practice sessions are actually crucial to the driver and the team. If teams and drivers want to have a successful race weekend they need to make the most of all of the Free Practice sessions available to them.
With only 3 Free Practice sessions in one weekend, drivers do not have a lot of time to waste, so if they crash their cars or the car suffers a mechanical failure, it could put them on the back foot for the rest of the weekend.
How Long Is FP1?
FP1 is only 60 minutes long, so drivers don’t have much time to get laps on the board. With the average lap time in Formula 1 being close to 1 minute and 30 seconds, it’s often impossible to get more than 30 laps in a practice session when the cars also need tuning and adjustments.
Free Practice 1 usually takes place on Friday mornings or early afternoons, and it’s the first time that we get to see the cars out on track for the race weekend. As the first session of the weekend, there are some important steps that drivers and teams take during this session before they get started.
The drivers will start the session with an installation lap. This is where they drive the car slowly around the track and head back into the pits to ensure that everything is running correctly. The cars have been disassembled and rebuilt from the previous race, so it’s crucial for the teams to do an installation lap and check if everything is working as it should be.
The rest of Free Practice 1 session is used for the driver to get their eye in and test out the different tire compounds on high fuel runs. The driver will also be giving feedback on the car setup, and the team will be tuning the car to the driver’s liking.
How Long Is FP2?
FP2 is 60 minutes long, like FP1, and the drivers have to make sure that they get as much track time as they can in order to run their team’s specific program. Free Practice 2 is the second session of the Formula 1 weekend, and it takes place on a Friday afternoon (or a Saturday on Sprint weekends).
Each team will have a unique program, but most teams and drivers will be doing long runs during the second Free Practice session. This is when the teams fill the cars up with fuel to make them heavier as well as put on harder compound tires to simulate race conditions.
If a driver crashes their car during this session, or if the car breaks down, it’s likely that the team will need to stay overnight in order to repair it in time for the third practice session. Teams are only allowed to break their curfew a certain number of times per season before they receive punishments.
Drivers only have 60 minutes to simulate racing conditions, which of course is not ideal when the race itself could last up to 2 hours. The second Free Practice session is normally a busy one as teams try to gather as much data as they possibly can before the end of the session. This is even more true on a Sprint weekend, when the next session is the Sprint race.
How Long Is FP3?
FP3 is 60 minutes long and usually takes place on Saturday morning before qualifying. This is often the session where the teams add less fuel to the cars and send the drivers out to see what they can do at full pace. There is no FP3 session on a Sprint race weekend.
Free Practice 3 is often when teams run qualifying simulations. Teams will put the softest compound of tires on their cars and try to set some fast laps. This is the final preparation they have before they head into the all-important qualifying session that will determine the starting grid for the race.
However, drivers don’t want to show their cards just yet, and they could end up sandbagging ever so slightly in Free Practice 3. If the driver sets the fastest possible lap time, the other teams know what to expect, and they’ll still have time to adapt and change their setups to counter the pace that the fastest driver has.
The driver will also be using the third Free Practice session to get their eye in for qualifying. Track evolution is often at its best when it comes to FP3, and the driver will be braking later, turning more aggressively, and accelerating earlier out of corners.
Sprint Race Weekends
The exception to the Free Practice layout is Sprint race weekends. During a Sprint race weekend, there are only 2 Free Practice sessions for the drivers to take part in. That’s because the third Free Practice time slot is occupied by the Sprint race instead.
Drivers still have 60 minutes in both Free Practice sessions, but they lose the extra 60 minutes that they would have got from the third Free Practice session. This makes the practice sessions even more important as they will have less track time.
The Sprint weekend moves Free Practice 2 from Friday afternoon to Saturday morning. However, this does cause some trouble for the drivers. When it comes to qualifying, the cars go under Parc Fermé rules, which means that no more major changes can be made to setups.
This essentially renders the second Free Practice session useless because qualifying takes place on Friday afternoon. Parc Fermé rules are in place for the second practice session which means that drivers won’t be allowed to change much of their car setup or fine-tune it to their liking.
Why Aren’t Drivers Always Out On Track During Practice?
Drivers aren’t always out on track during practice because they need to go into the garage to tune their cars and perfect their setup as they and the team gathers more data. The car setup is incredibly important when it comes to extracting the maximum performance out of the car.
When it rains during practice, drivers will often also sit in their garages as the time ticks away on the practice session clock. This mostly happens when there is 1 practice session with some rain, but the rest of the weekend (qualifying and the race) is predicted to be in dry conditions.
This is because the car setups required for wet and dry conditions are completely different. There’s no point for the drivers to drive the car in wet conditions when their car is set up for dry conditions. There is also the risk of the drivers crashing and damaging the car in wet conditions, which could set them back and cause a lot of hard work for their crew members.
How Long Was F1 Practice In The Past?
Free Practice 1 and 2 each used to be 1.5 hours long. Free Practice 3 has always been 60 minutes and has not changed when the new shortened Free Practice timings were introduced in 2021. Before the Sprint races were introduced, every weekend featured 3 practice sessions.
The shorter sessions took some getting used to for many teams and drivers as they were forced to complete all of their practice programs in a shorter space of time. Everyone quickly adjusted to the shortened practice times. However, there is still the risk of a driver losing out on track time due to mechanical issues or crashes.
With the longer practice sessions, there was much more room for error. If a driver had to sit in their garage for half an hour while an engine problem was being fixed, they would still have another hour of practice to go before the session ended.
Why Were F1 Practice Sessions Shortened?
The primary reason why F1 practice sessions were shorted was to condense the F1 race weekend and get the cars out on the track more often. The idea was thrown around for a couple of years before it was finally implemented in 2021, and it also fits well with the Sprint race format.
With a longer Free Practice session, we often saw very little track action as it was spread out through the session. Some cars would do a few laps at the beginning of the session and then there would be long periods of time with no action out on track. With a global live broadcast and paying spectators, this was not ideal for Formula 1.
Shortening the first 2 Free Practice sessions would mean that drivers need to make the most of the track time that they have available to them on Friday. There’s no time to waste if you want to do some laps in your Formula 1 car, so we would then see more cars on track during practice.
In addition, there was a need to create more time for the support races that were taking place in between practice sessions. With too little on-track action, F1 was taking too much time away from Formula 2, the Porsche Supercup, and the W Series which has also since been added to the list of support races.
Why Is F1 Practice Session Time Not Stopped During A Red Flag?
The session timer is not stopped during F1 practice sessions because drivers won’t lose anything besides practice time (unlike qualifying and the race where they need to fight for position). There are also support races that take place in between F1 sessions, so they must stick to 1-hour sessions.
During Free Practice sessions red flags are much more common than during the race. That’s because there is less control over the cars with the lack of a safety car. If there is a car stopped on track and marshals need to it, or a crane is needed, the session will be red flagged.
Drivers will need to return to the pits in a slow and controlled manner. They are only allowed to leave the garage and head back onto the track once the green flag has been waved, indicating that the track is clear it’s safe for cars to go out again.
However, during the red flag period, the session timer will continue to run down. The session time is not stopped for a red flag during practice as it is in qualifying or the race. If the red flag lasts half an hour, it means that the drivers have all lost half an hour of track time that they won’t get back.
What Do F1 Teams Do During Practice Sessions?
During practice sessions, F1 teams are essentially trying to gather as much data as they can about how their car performs. The information they collect focuses on track conditions and car setup, to ensure they have the best chance of performing well in qualifying and the race.
Without Free Practice sessions, teams would have no data or information going into a Grand Prix weekend, which would lead to a lot more guesswork when it comes to strategies rather than calculations.
Formula 1 teams have always valued their Free Practice time as it’s a time where they can work on the cars and figure out what steps they need to take to improve their performance over the weekend. However, the shortened sessions have put many teams in a more difficult position.
With less Free Practice time, teams need to make sure that they get everything right. One wrong step can set them back for the rest of the weekend. On top of that, mechanical failures and damaged cars take up unnecessary time where the car could have been out on the track instead.
Testing Track Conditions
An important part of Free Practice sessions is for the teams to get a gauge on the track conditions. Formula 1 cars are extremely sensitive and the slightest change in ambient air temperature could mean that the car needs to be set up differently. Practice gives the team an opportunity to fine-tune the car based on the conditions they’re experiencing.
Teams will need to monitor their car’s engine temperatures to ensure that it is staying cool enough. They’ll need to keep an eye on the tire degradation to predict how the tires will wear on the track, and they will need to look into many more factors that have an impact on how the weather and track conditions affect the car.
The track itself might also have changed compared to when they have raced there before. In some cases, a track can be resurfaced with brand new tarmac, or a track could have a new section built onto it. In this case, it’s incredibly important for the teams to understand how this will affect the handling of their car.
New tracks are also sometimes added to the calendar which presents a brand new challenge for Formula 1 teams. Without any real, non-simulation data from previous years, Free Practice is crucial for them to figure out how to deal with the brand new track conditions.
Free Practice is an important time for the setup of the car. This is crucial for the driver as they need to feel comfortable in the car, and the car needs to be fast at the same time. Different setups can be used by the team to achieve faster speeds on the straights or better handling in the corners.
The team will get a rough direction on which way they need to go with their car set up long before they get into the race weekend. They do this through the simulator at their factory, and it’s often the reserve driver that works on the setup in the simulator.
However, in reality, the setup could be different from the testing that they have done in the simulator. This is mainly because of the change in track conditions that they would experience in real life. Drivers also have their own preference when it comes to car setups, so the team still needs to make some changes.
Teams are only allowed to adjust their car setup during the 3 Free Practice sessions. After qualifying Parc Fermé rules come into effect. From there, no major setup changes can be made by the teams and drivers.
Formula 1 strategies are all about collecting data. Data is the key factor in developing the right strategy for the Grand Prix on Sunday. Free Practice 1 and 2 is where teams have time to collect as much useful data as they can.
The main element that teams will be looking at here is the tires. Formula 1 tires are incredibly sensitive, and they change from venue to venue. Teams need to gather data on how long they last and how the operating temperatures influence the driver’s lap times.
From there they need to decide how long they can run on each set of tires and how their lap times compare to other teams. Using this data will allow them to come up with a strategy that they will be using in the Grand Prix on Sunday.
However, all of this data collection could go out the window with a mechanical failure or a red flag. An interruption in the team’s practice program means that they do not get track time that allows them to collect the required data to craft a perfect strategy.
Is It Worth Watching Free Practice?
Free Practice are worth watching as you can learn a lot about what goes on behind the scenes of an F1 race. It’s much more than just cars going around the track as drivers practice their racing lines and braking points, and you can learn how F1 teams prepare for the other sessions.
On top of that, there is some incredibly important data that you can analyze from home. For example, you can see who has the best race pace in Free Practice 2 based on the long runs done by each driver. This will give you a good indication as to which driver will be fastest during the race.
It’s also worth watching practice when a new track is added to the calendar. Watching the practice sessions will help you to become more familiar with the track and what it looks like, and drivers often push the limits to see how late they can brake into corners.
Free Practice 3 is arguably the most exciting to watch as the cars are dialed in and the teams send the drivers out on soft tires for low fuel runs. This is where drivers begin to push their limits and set faster lap times, which can often lead to mistakes and crashes, but also some spectacular driving.
Can F1 Drivers Practice Outside Of FP1, FP2 And FP3?
F1 drivers are not allowed to practice in real F1 cars outside of the Free Practice sessions at official events. This is because the FIA banned private testing in 2009. Drivers are not allowed to drive modern F1 cars outside official events. This was done to help equalize spending across the grid.
However, Formula 1 teams will always try to find loopholes and ways to bypass the rules, so with private testing being banned teams began developing simulators. F1 simulators have now become incredibly accurate with laser scanned tracks, full motion rigs, and real Formula 1 cockpits for the drivers to sit in.
While it might not be the real thing, it’s close enough to give the driver the sense of driving a Formula 1 car. It’s often used for drivers who are learning new tracks or doing some testing to find the right car setup that suits their driving style.
Despite a lot of time in simulators, drivers will still need to spend time in the real car before the Grand Prix if they want to have a successful weekend. The car still needs to be set up, data needs to be collected, and the driver needs to acclimatize to the track conditions.
F1 free practice is made up of three 1-hour sessions. Free Practice sessions are incredibly important in F1. With limited time available, teams need to quickly get their cars set up and ensure that everything is ready for the rest of the weekend. FP1 and FP2 were reduced to 1 hour in 2021.