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How Does F1 Practice Work? (FP1, FP2 & FP3 Explained)

One of the most important sessions in a Formula 1 weekend is practice. It’s often overlooked because “it’s just practice,” as some might say. However, the free practice sessions are very important for teams and drivers, which may leave new fans wondering how F1 practice works.

F1 practice works using three 1-hour practice sessions over Friday and Saturday (unless it’s a Sprint weekend). These practice sessions help drivers fine-tune their car setup and help the team gather crucial data for qualifying and for the race. Practice is a very important part of the weekend.

Free practice sessions are important for drivers because they help them understand the track conditions. Oftentimes, teams also use practice sessions as an opportunity to get some younger drivers into their cars. In the article below, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about F1 practice.

What Is F1 Practice For?

F1 practice is a chance for drivers and teams to make any necessary adjustments to their cars or strategy before the Grand Prix on Sunday. Practice is more important than drivers just putting in some laps to get a feel for the track and to learn the circuit.

For the drivers, practice serves as the perfect opportunity to perfect their car’s setup. The setup of the car is very important in Formula 1, and it can mean the difference between winning and losing in this sport. Each driver has a unique driving style, and they will set up their car according to what gives them the best lap times as well as comfort.

The teams, on the other hand, use practice sessions to gather crucial data that they will be using throughout the course of the weekend. They will test the car in different settings to see how it reacts on track with the weather conditions, as it can be different from circuit to circuit.

The team will keep track of how quickly their car burns through fuel and how quickly the tires wear out. Teams also often test their new upgrades to determine whether they improve the performance of the car. Teams usually don’t compare their lap times to others during practice, as they’re often all running different programs.

F1 Practice Rules

When it comes to practice, a lot of the same rules apply as the rest of the race weekend. If a driver exceeds track limits their lap time will be deleted and, if they impede another car on track, they will be given a grid penalty. This means that drivers can’t just drive as they please just because it’s a practice session.

Time Limit

Drivers have 60 minutes to complete as many laps as they would like to during practice sessions. However, drivers are rarely out on track for the entire 60 minutes because they often sit in the garage and fine-tune their setups. Drivers can do practice starts at the end of the pit lane if they are done in a safe manner.

Unlike in qualifying and in the race, the session timer will not be stopped if there is a red flag. This means that if there are a couple of red flags during the sessions, the drivers will lose valuable lap time and data. Drivers need to get as much track time as they can possibly get in practice to set themselves up for a good result.

Flags In Practice

Drivers must pay attention to blue flags, which are waved at slower drivers (or drivers on a cool down lap) and indicate that another driver who is on a hot lap is on their way, and they must move over without impeding the faster driver. This is crucial in practice, as the drivers are all running their own various programs involving fast and slow laps.

What Do FP1, FP2 And FP3 Mean?

FP1, FP2, and FP3 mean Free Practice 1, 2, and 3. Free Practice 1 and Free Practice 2 usually take place on a Friday morning and afternoon accordingly. FP3 usually takes place on Saturday morning, but on a Sprint weekend, normal qualifying takes FP2’s place, and FP2 replaces FP3 before the sprint.

Free Practice 3 usually takes place on a Saturday morning before qualifying, except for Sprint weekends when it becomes FP2. There is no fundamental difference between any of these sessions. All of them are 60 minutes long and the drivers can do as many laps as they would like to.

How The Teams Use Each Practice Session

However, in terms of how the teams use each session, there is a big difference between all these sessions. FP1 is usually used by the driver and the team to get the car setup nailed, and they often take their time to get it as perfect as they can so they don’t need to waste any more time on it during the weekend.

FP2 is when the drivers and the teams usually do their race simulations, where they fill the car with fuel and drive it for longer stints. FP3 is when the teams do their qualifying simulations, and we usually begin to see more representative lap times during the Saturday morning session as the drivers prepare for fast laps later in qualifying.

How Many Laps Do Drivers Do In F1 Free Practice?

The number of laps each driver does in F1 free practice varies based on several factors. The first is the weather, but if a driver isn’t as comfortable on a given racetrack, they might do more laps than the others. Mechanical issues are a big reason we often see some drivers sit out FP sessions.

If there is rain during one of the practice sessions, but rain is not expected during the race, then drivers tend to stay in the garage during practice because the track conditions will change and the practice session becomes less valuable for gathering meaningful data.

However, if there is a threat of rain for the entire weekend, then we often see drivers going out even when it’s raining. The cars need different setups in the wet, so it’s worth finding the perfect setup for wet weather to be ready for the race. It also helps the drivers to acclimatize to the wet track.

The second factor to consider when it comes to how many laps each driver does is the amount of running the driver gets. Red flags can prevent the cars from going out even though the time keeps ticking away. Mechanical failures can also limit a driver’s running during Free Practice sessions.

Finally, every driver will be on a different program, which means the teams have different plans, tests, and data they need to gather. Drivers can usually complete anywhere between one and 30 laps during 60-minute Free Practice sessions, and this number will vary greatly across the grid, and obviously they will manage fewer laps on longer tracks.

Do Lap Times In Free Practice Mean Anything?

Lap times are very important during Free Practice sessions, but not necessarily to fans. For the teams and drivers though, lap times in practice are crucial. That’s because the teams use their lap times to gather their own data and make their own analysis about the performance of their cars.

We never know the true pace of any specific driver, as they might be sandbagging during a Free Practice session. This happens relatively often in Formula 1, but not necessarily always because the driver wants to hide their pace. It could simply be because the team is running a specific program.

From the outside, we can only speculate as to how the car is performing by looking closely at the lap times and how the car seems to be handling. If the driver seems to be struggling to wrestle the car around the track, then it could be a clear indication they are not comfortable in the car and need to make some changes to their setup. In this case, lap times are important.

It’s not uncommon to see a driver like Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton down in tenth place during Free Practice sessions, only for them to blitz the competition and end up with pole position by Saturday afternoon. This is why you can’t read into Free Practice times too much from the outside. Lap times are often more than a second faster in qualifying too.

Qualifying Simulations

When it comes to free practice sessions, there are some important programs the teams run in order to gather data and measure the performance on their cars. Qualifying simulations usually take place during Free Practice 3. There’s no rule enforcing this, but it’s simply how the teams operate.

During qualifying simulations, the goal is to see how fast the driver can go with a light fuel load and soft tires. Teams will usually use this as an opportunity for their final preparations for the flying laps the cars will do later that afternoon. Teams will measure how much fuel they can put in their cars and how quickly the tires lose their grip from degradation.

Qualifying simulation is just as important for the driver though, as they need to get a feel for their cars and how they can find the fastest way around the track. Formula 1 cars handle very differently when they have lighter fuel loads on board, and this is a chance for the driver to get a hang of what the car is like just before they head into the crucial qualifying session.

Drivers can also pinpoint some final setup changes during the final Free Practice session of the weekend to make them more comfortable in the car. This is their last opportunity to do so, as parc fermé rules will come into force during qualifying, which prevents the teams from making any major setup changes to their cars.

Race Simulations

Another crucial part of Free Practice sessions is preparing for the race. After all, the Grand Prix on Sunday is the most important part of the weekend, and that’s the part of the weekend where the team wants to extract optimum performance from their car to achieve the best possible result.

Another important element of the Grand Prix is strategy. Modern Formula 1 is all about managing the tires and being able to predict when the perfect time is to head into the pits for a fresh set of tires before the old one wears out. However, the problem is that the tires behave differently at each track.

In addition to this, the tires also behave differently when the cars are heavier, such as when they are filled with fuel for example. In order to get a better understanding of the tires and how quickly they wear out, the teams need to go through race simulations to gather as much data as they can on how the tires work for that track.

Race simulations are usually done during Free Practice 1 and 2 on Friday. Teams will fill their cars with fuel and send their drivers out on track to do longer stints. From there, the team can analyze lap times, cornering speeds, and tire temperatures to gather data and form a prediction on how they will degrade and wear under race conditions.

Car Setup

Free Practice 1 and 2 are also important when it comes to setting up the car. While most drivers focus on the feeling they get from the car, lap times also play a crucial role in getting the perfect car setup for the track that they are on. Getting the setup right can make a huge difference in both qualifying and the race.

The car setup is extremely precise. Drivers can fine-tune their cars in thousands of different ways for grip, understeer or oversteer, higher top speed, and faster acceleration. At the end of the day, there needs to be a balance in order to achieve the fastest possible lap times.

In some cases, drivers may need to sacrifice some areas to be quicker in others. For example, setting the car up for a higher top speed could help the driver achieve faster times in the first and third sector, but they might lose out in the second sector, which requires more downforce. Drivers will analyze their lap times to see how they can extract the best performance from their own car.

Is F1 Free Practice Worth Watching?

F1 Free Practice sessions are worth watching, especially if you’re new to the sport. Many of the teams give commentary to the fans with great insight into how the sport works, especially behind the scenes. This can help to develop your understanding of the sport.

For many people, Free Practice in Formula 1 is just practice. For casual fans this might not be the most important part of the sport, but for those hardcore fans Free Practice is crucially important and it helps them get an idea of how their favorite driver and team is going to perform during the race weekend.

Many hardcore F1 fans don’t want to miss a single second of Formula 1 content, even if it’s a seemingly “insignificant” session such as Free Practice. In the past, Free Practice sessions lasted 90 minutes, which made them feel too long and drawn out, as most drivers didn’t get on track until the final 60 minutes.

However, with Free Practice sessions now being half an hour shorter, there is much more action on track. Drivers spend much less time in their garages because they know their track time is limited, especially if the session is red flagged.

Entertainment

One of the main reasons to watch Free Practice sessions is entertainment. Unlike other sports, seeing Formula 1 cars out on track is limited to 23 times per year, often less. Compared to the NFL or NHL, that means you have a lot less opportunity to sit and enjoy the sport.

Free Practice sessions give you more Formula 1 content to watch throughout the year. If you love seeing the cars out on track, then you might want to start watching Free Practice sessions more regularly. Formula 1 also sometimes tests new graphics and camera angles during Free Practice, so you’ll be among the first fans to see these.

Free Practice sessions can often provide spectators with some entertainment as the drivers push their limits to find their braking points and to try and find the perfect racing line. This often results in some spins and big moments that we don’t often see during the race.

Predictions

If you’re a big fan of predictions, or you’re just wondering how your favorite driver or team might be performing at a new track, then watching Free Practice sessions is worth it. By watching Free Practice, you can get a grasp of how the car is handling on the specific track they are racing at.

While lap times aren’t necessarily representative, you can understand how the team is performing in their program if you know what to look for. The commentary of teams and pundits will also give great insight as to how each team is performing relative to their opponents.

There’s something special about monitoring your favorite team and driver’s performance throughout practice sessions and anticipating how their qualifying and race will unfold. Watching these Free Practice sessions builds up excitement for the upcoming qualifying sessions and the Grand Prix on Sunday.

Data

If you love to analyze data and crunch some numbers, then watching Free Practice will be incredibly satisfying to you. As we’ve seen, the data that teams gather is crucial to help them understand how the car works and how the tires wear on a particular track.

Free Practice sessions will provide you with graphics that give you all the details on the mileage of the tires compared to their lap times in a particular stint. This gives you some insight as to how the driver is performing in their race simulation and how consistent they can be.

When it comes to qualifying simulations, it’s all about pace. Drivers set out to set the fastest possible time, but you never know how much fuel each car is carrying. After all, you don’t want to show your hand too early and risk giving your opposition an advantage.

There’s a whole different strategy that teams play when it comes to Free Practice sessions. All the teams want to get as much information and data on their rivals as they possibly can without giving away too much of their own information.

Young Drivers And Free Practice

Another important aspect of practice is giving the next generation of drivers a chance to try out Formula 1 cars during a real race weekend in front of thousands of fans. One of the key elements to gaining a super license for Formula 1 is to drive at least 100 kilometers in a Formula 1 car, and this is the perfect opportunity to do so.

Young drivers need to have some form of experience in Formula 1 cars before they can step up into the sport. Free Practice 1 on Friday morning is the time when young drivers are usually given some seat time during a couple of race weekends throughout the year.

This means the main driver doesn’t get that extra seat time, but oftentimes it’s the smaller midfield and backmarker teams that allow academy drivers in their cars for a practice session, so it does not affect the title contenders at the front of the field. At least, this was the case until 2022.

The sporting regulations were updated in 2022, stating that all teams must have at least two practice sessions during the season where a driver that has not completed more than two F1 championship events in their career is given the use of their car for the full 60-minute session. This rule will hopefully further promote young drivers to have more opportunities in Formula 1 in the future.

Final Thoughts

There are three 60-minute free practice sessions (two on Friday, one on Saturday) before an F1 Grand Prix where drivers and teams can run laps. These sessions are crucial because teams need to perfect their car setups, gather data for the race, and test the true pace of the car for qualifying.