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Why Do F1 Drivers Slow Down In Qualifying? (8 Reasons)

Qualifying is one of the most exciting parts of an F1 race weekend. The cars run on low fuel and they are sent around on the softest compound of tires to set the fastest possible lap times. So, you might be wondering why F1 cars sometimes drive around the track slowly during qualifying.

The 8 reasons F1 drivers slow down in qualifying are:

  1. Out laps
  2. In laps
  3. Cooldown laps
  4. Yellow flags
  5. Blue flags
  6. Abandoned laps
  7. Problems with the car
  8. Creating space

While qualifying is about setting the fastest time of all the drivers, going slowly is still an important part of qualifying. Every car will be going around the track slowly at some point during qualifying, and below we go into more detail about why this is the case. 

How F1 Qualifying Works 

Qualifying is used to determine the grid for the Grand Prix on Sunday. All drivers will take part in qualifying, which is usually held on Saturdays. The only exception to this rule is when qualifying is hosted on Friday afternoon during a Sprint race weekend. If a driver does not take part in qualifying, there is a chance that they could be prevented from participating in the race.

Drivers also need to complete a lap time that is within 107% of the pole position time. If drivers are too slow, the FIA can decide that they are not allowed to participate in the Grand Prix, unless the driver and the team can prove that they are fast enough to participate in the race without causing danger or obstruction to other drivers.

Q1

Qualifying is all about lap times, much like a time trial. Drivers will start off in Q1, which is the first session of qualifying. Q1 consists of all drivers (20 in most cases) and the session lasts 18 minutes. If a driver does not set a lap time during Q1, they will be starting from last place or from the pit lane. This can happen if a driver crashes or if their car has mechanical issues.

The slowest five drivers in Q1 are eliminated from qualifying. This means that the positions from 16th to 20th on the grid are locked in. These drivers have their starting positions set, unless other cars are given grid penalties, in which case there is a chance that they could start higher up the grid.

Q2

The top 15 drivers from Q1 will progress into Q2. All the lap times are reset which means that every driver will need to head out onto the track once again to set a lap time for Q2. This qualifying session lasts just 15 minutes, so the pressure begins to build as drivers have less time to get the perfect lap time in.

Once again, the five slowest drivers will be eliminated from qualifying, setting grid positions 11-15. The top ten drivers will be promoted to Q3, which is the final round of qualifying. Q2 is a more difficult session as the gaps between the drivers’ lap times begin to get narrower. 

Q3

For the final time in qualifying, the lap times will be reset as the top ten drivers head into the shootout for pole position. Q3 is the final qualifying session and will determine the top ten positions on the grid, including the driver that starts from pole position.

Q3 lasts 12 minutes, which is normally enough time for drivers to get two flying laps in. Drivers will often complete one lap early in the session before heading back into the garage, refueling their cars, bolting on fresh tires, and heading out for a final push to try to get pole position. But at some point in all of these sessions, you’re bound to see drivers going slowly.

8 Reasons F1 Drivers Slow Down In Qualifying

1. Out Laps

In order to get onto the track to do a flying lap, drivers need to first do an out lap. An out lap is the driver’s first lap onto the circuit as they leave their garage. Since they are leaving the pit lane, the driver won’t be on a flying lap. In other words, their lap time won’t count. But an out lap is still incredibly important.

Drivers don’t just drive slowly on their out laps for the sake of it. Drivers need to drive their car slowly because there is a very strict procedure that they need to follow. Formula 1 cars are incredibly sensitive, and the slightest change in temperature can have a massive impact on the performance of the car.

The first element that the drivers will pay attention to is the engine temperature as well as the temperature of all the other internal components. The engine must be in the right temperature range in order for the car to work properly and perform at its best. Drivers must do a slow out lap and make sure to warm the car up enough before setting off on a hot lap.

Drivers will also be paying close attention to their tire temperatures. In Formula 1, the Pirelli tires are incredibly sensitive, and they need to be in the perfect operating window otherwise they won’t give the driver enough grip. If the tires are too cold, the driver won’t have grip at the start of their lap. If the tires are too hot, they will overheat and lose grip at the end of the lap.

So, drivers may do some weaving from side to side on their out laps to get some temperature into the tires, but they’ll also take the lap fairly slowly. This ensures they don’t put too much heat into the tires, but also that they don’t wear them excessively by sliding in the corners. 

KEY FACT: F1 out laps tend to be about 20-30% slower than laps taken at full speed in qualifying

2. In Laps

During qualifying, drivers will be in and out of the pits several times. Between small setup adjustments, refueling the cars, and fitting new tires onto the car, the drivers will be going slowly on their way into the pits

Formula 1 drivers go slow on in laps so that they don’t put the car under any unnecessary strain. During qualifying the drivers don’t need to push their cars when they’re not on a flying lap, and going into the pits at the end of the lap does not require them to drive as fast as they would on a hot lap. However, drivers won’t be crawling back to the pits on their in laps.

Drivers will take it easy on their in lap while still keeping up some speed so that they can cool down their car and, to an extent, the tires (as they may reuse them for another lap). This will help to preserve the engine life, which is incredibly important for the race. Drivers also have a higher chance of crashing and damaging their car if they’re driving faster, so it’s just not worth the risk.

3. Cooldown Laps

With all of these tricky temperature ranges and parameters that drivers need to get right, there’s very little room for error. But during a qualifying lap the driver is usually pushing themselves and their cars to their limits. The harder the driver pushes their car, the more the temperatures will build.

When the temperatures get too high, performance is lost. In terms of the engine, there is the risk of damage being done to it and to other internal components as well. Managing engine temperatures is therefore incredibly important, and so a slower cooldown lap might be needed to bring the car’s internal temperatures down before the driver can then go for another flying lap.

Oftentimes drivers need to use a cooldown lap to get their tire temperatures down and back into their correct working range. Cooldown laps are common in Q1 and Q2 as the cars normally carry enough fuel for drivers to do multiple laps at a time. But that cooldown lap in between flying laps is incredibly important when it comes to maximizing the performance of the car.

While a cooldown lap may seem to serve the same purpose as an out lap, an out lap generally refers to the lap the driver performs immediately after they leave the pits. In contrast, a cooldown lap will be after a flying lap, but followed by another flying lap, rather than an in lap to the pits.

4. Yellow Flags

Qualifying is used to determine the starting grid for the race. As such, every driver will be pushing the limits to set the fastest possible lap time. The further forward you start on the grid, the better your chances are at getting a good result in the race. So, naturally every driver will be aiming to perform at their best to start higher up the grid.

Formula 1 drivers will be pushing the limits of their cars to fight over tenths of a second during qualifying. Oftentimes the difference between making it to the next round of qualifying can be as little as a thousandth of a second – faster than the human eye can blink!

When drivers are fighting for such small margins, they are bound to make mistakes. Whether it’s locking the brakes, running wide, or spinning, human error will happen when drivers are pushing their limits. There are also instances where drivers might crash, although likely not into other cars during qualifying. 

If a car ends up in the barriers, or if there is some debris left on the track from a damaged car, the marshals have to bring out the yellow flags. Yellow flags mean that the drivers must reduce their speed and they are not allowed to overtake other cars. This would mean that all cars must go slower through that section of the track.

5. Blue Flags

Another reason a driver might be going slow in qualifying is because they are letting a faster car go past them. In qualifying, lap times are everything, so when another car blocks you and ruins your lap, you will be left frustrated – and possibly further back on the grid. This is especially true in the latter stages of qualifying when there isn’t much time left on the clock.

Marshals will use blue flags to indicate to drivers that there is a faster car approaching and they should move to the side of the racing line. The driver will also be told about faster cars approaching by their team through the team radio. This ensures that the driver is always aware of when they need to get out of the way of faster cars.

While the driver is already going slower due to being on an out lap or a cooldown lap (as discussed above), seeing blue flags means they often need to slow down even more to get out of the way of the faster car behind them. While not as important in the middle of a long straight, if they’re coming up to a corner, they’ll often have to slow almost to a stop to let the faster car through.

Drivers who impede others can be penalized through grid penalties. If a driver is found to have purposefully or accidentally blocked another driver and caused them to abandon a flying lap, they will be visiting the stewards and it’s likely that they will also receive a grid penalty for the race on Sunday.

6. Abandoned Laps

During Formula 1 qualifying, drivers are up against the best in the business. 20 of the best drivers seeking the fastest lap time mean that perfection is an absolute must. One small mistake such as a lock up can mean the difference between setting the fastest time or ending up in 16th place.

Oftentimes the problem is that drivers can’t risk overheating their cars, damaging their bodywork, or wearing out their tires after making a mistake. If a driver makes a mistake during their flying lap, or their flying lap is slower than their best lap, it’s sometimes best to abandon the lap and turn it into a cooldown lap instead, before trying again on the next run.

The driver will be driving slowly for the remainder of the abandoned lap as they prime their car for another go when they get to the final corner. Drivers will need to get their car’s temperatures into the optimum working range before they set off on their new hot lap, and if they abandon it too close to the end to charge their battery enough, they may instead do a cooldown lap first.

7. Problems With The Car

Formula 1 cars are sensitive machines. They often suffer from mechanical failures, whether it’s an engine failure or another internal component, such as a hydraulics problem or an oil leak. If there’s a problem with the car, the driver will be going slowly to ensure that they get the car back to the garage safely.

Depending on the severity of the problem, the driver may even be asked to stop the car on track. If the problem could cause further damage to the car, the driver will be instructed not to return to the pits, and instead park their car somewhere safe, such as on an escape road where it can be easily recovered by the marshals.

Drivers will drive their cars back to the pits slowly if there is a problem with it because it minimizes the chances of the problem becoming worse or causing further damage. When the car is driven fast, the internal components are under more pressure as more friction and heat is generated inside the car, and this could make the problem worse than before.

Once the car is back in the garage, the team can get to work on solving the issue. If the team can resolve the problem, the driver will be allowed to rejoin qualifying and set another lap time. However, if they don’t, the driver will either start last of their session (20th in Q1, 15th in Q2, and 10th in Q3) or they will start where their existing lap time places them.

8. Creating Space

Getting the temperatures into the right temperature windows is one element of setting the perfect lap, but another is ensuring that they have enough space ahead of them on the track. While it might sound simple enough, it’s not always an easy task, especially on shorter tracks like Monaco where there is no way to avoid traffic on a hot lap.

You’ll often see drivers slowing down before the final corner, almost coming to a stop as they wait for the car in front of them to start their flying laps. This is when the drivers are creating space in front of them so that they do not have any cars in front of them as traffic, allowing them to push much harder during their lap without being blocked by other drivers.

This tactic has been common in Formula 1, but it often causes a lot of problems for drivers who are nearing the end of their flying lap. Drivers coming to the end of a lap need to navigate the final few corners as well as the almost stationary cars getting themselves ready for their hot laps. F1 has since implemented rules to prevent this from happening. 

F1 Maximum Qualifying Lap Time Rules 

Formula 1 has strict rules on cars that are driving slowly during qualifying. While driving slowly is important for the reasons stated above, there are some rules that the drivers need to follow in order to do it all safely. This is ultimately for the safety of the drivers and the spectators, which is a major focus in Formula 1.

Drivers must go faster than a maximum delta time, defined as the time between two safety car lines on the track. Drivers will be given guidelines on the slowest possible lap time that they are allowed to set during qualifying. Drivers are not allowed to drive any slower than this maximum delta or they could be penalized by the stewards. This is essentially like imposing a minimum average speed limit.

No Blocking

Drivers are not allowed to block or impede other racers while driving slowly in qualifying. Since qualifying is about setting the fastest possible lap time, drivers must ensure that they abide by the blue flag rules and stay off the racing line when faster cars are approaching. There is a risk of causing a big accident if drivers don’t follow these rules.

If drivers don’t obey blue flags, they will also be blocking drivers who have worked hard to put together a good qualifying lap, leaving the other driver frustrated and angry. Drivers can be given grid penalties for impeding other cars, even if it was done by accident.

Examples Of The Slow Lap Rules

To better illustrate the rule, let’s consider its implementation in France in 2022. Race director Eduardo Freitas implemented a maximum lap time during qualifying of 1 minute and 48 seconds. This is almost 18 seconds slower than the time Charles Leclerc ended up setting in Q3 to take pole position, with his time of 1:30.872. 

This meant that drivers could not take longer than 1 minute and 48 seconds to go from the first safety car line to the second one (almost a full lap). In practice, it means drivers can’t simply crawl around the last few corners to wait for a gap to open up between them and the car in front

This is something drivers do a lot of in particular at Monza, due to its long straights where time can be gained by optimizing the gap to the car in front. This is because of the powerful slipstream effect which works best when you’re a few seconds behind the car in front. With every driver seeking this benefit, nobody wants to go out first, or be the first to go for it at the end of a warmup lap!

Formula 1’s Q2 Tire Rules Explained

While the Q2 tire rule is no longer enforced, it’s an important reason as to why drivers used to drive slowly during their Q2 sessions in the past. In 2014, F1 brought in a rule that forced drivers in the top 10 to start the race on the tires they used to set their fastest Q2 lap time

In other words, if a driver used medium compound tires to get into Q3, they had to start the race on that exact set of medium tires. The same rule applied if they set their fastest lap time on the soft tires. It might seem confusing, but the rule was ultimately introduced to bring some strategic variance into the sport

Implications For Race Strategy

Without the rule (as the situation is now), the fastest drivers would simply use the softest compound tires to easily get into Q3, and then start the race using any tires they wish, allowing them to use whatever tire strategy suited them best. However, with this rule in place, drivers had to think about their race during Q2. 

If they wanted to extend their first stint, they would need to set their fastest time on the harder medium compound tire (which has less grip and is therefore slower than the softest compound). This often put drivers at risk as the midfield teams would use the softer tire, meaning they could push faster drivers on slower tires out of the top 10.

Why Would They Slow Down?

So, to cover this possibility, the fastest drivers would set Q2 lap times on the medium compound (in the hopes of being fast enough to advance to Q3) before then bolting on soft tires towards the end of the session. 

They would then begin a fast lap on the softs, and if their engineer told them they were ‘safe’ – i.e. their medium compound lap was fast enough to advance to Q3 – they would slow down and abandon their lap. But if their medium lap wasn’t fast enough, they would need to complete the lap on the softs, therefore setting their fastest time on the softs, forcing them to start the race on those tires.

Why Are F1 Cars Faster In Qualifying?

F1 cars are faster in qualifying for 3 reasons:

  1. The cars have low fuel
  2. They are using the softest tires available
  3. Drivers are pushing the cars to the limits 

Qualifying is where we see the fastest laps in F1. We often see the pole position lap times being several seconds faster than the fastest lap in the race. Additionally, the pole position lap time is usually faster than lap times set in any of the free practice sessions (unless it rains during qualifying of course).

This is because the cars are set up for qualifying trim in order for them to achieve the fastest possible lap time. Teams maximize the performance of their cars in two main ways when it comes to qualifying. Major set up changes are not allowed due to Parc Fermé rules, but teams can control the tires they use and how much fuel they put in the tank.

Soft Compound Tires

Teams will fit their cars with the softest compound of tires that they have available. This will give the cars the most grip while they are out on track, and it allows them to set much faster lap times. The tires will be set to the ideal pressures and warmed up to the right temperatures for a flying lap to be done as fast as possible.

Even though the cars may use the soft compound tire during the race, they’ll never be used to go as fast as they do in qualifying. Drivers push harder during qualifying because they don’t have to make their tires last for many laps. The tires often overheat at the end of the lap, which is something they can’t afford to do during a race because they need their tires to last longer.

Fuel Loads

Every car will be running with as little fuel as possible to make them lighter. The lighter the car is, the faster it can go around the track. We often see such big differences between qualifying lap times and lap times at the start of the race because of the heavy fuel loads that the cars need to be on during the Grand Prix in order to last until the end of the race.

Of course, there is no refueling allowed in Formula 1, so the fuel that the car has onboard at the start of the race needs to take it the entire 190 miles (305 kilometers) to the checkered flag. This makes the cars much slower and less nimble, which results in slower lap times. In Q3 the cars normally only have enough fuel for one flying lap at a time, making them as light as they can be.

Track Evolution

Another factor that contributes to the faster lap times is track conditions. As the cars complete laps during free practice sessions, they will lay rubber down on the surface of the tarmac. When the track is rubbered in, the tires will have much more grip, which is why we often see the cars at their fastest during Q3.

It’s one of the reasons there is such a big difference between the times we see in Q1 and the times we see in Q3. Much of it comes down to track evolution and how much grip the tires get from the track being rubbered in. The severity of track evolution varies from one circuit to another, and being the last car to set a lap time can make a huge difference in some cases.

Final Thoughts

Qualifying is when Formula 1 cars are at their fastest. However, there are times when the drivers must drive slowly. There are many different reasons they might be driving slowly during qualifying, but in the majority of cases it’s because they are on an in lap, an out lap, a cooldown lap, or they are adhering to yellow or blue flags.