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How F1 Qualifying Works – The Ultimate Guide

The centerpiece of any F1 racing weekend is the race on Sunday. The race is what viewers are prepared to wake up at 3am for, to be able to watch all the action live. However, qualifying on Saturday can be just as exciting to watch! But how F1 qualifying works can be somewhat confusing.

F1 qualifying works using three separate sessions within an hour, labeled Q1, Q2 and Q3. Formula 1 qualifying sets the starting order for Sunday’s race, with Q1 deciding positions 16-20, Q2 deciding positions 11-15, and Q3 deciding who gets pole position and positions 2-10.

Qualifying ranks drivers according to the fastest lap time they can achieve in the various qualifying sessions. But in previous decades of F1 history, it was even used to decide which drivers were actually allowed to race at all. We go through how F1 qualifying works in more detail below.

How Does Qualifying For F1 Work?

Qualifying for an F1 race happens over a 1-hour session, usually on a Saturday afternoon. The hour is split into three periods, where the slowest five drivers are eliminated in the first period (Q1), then the next slowest five are eliminated in the second period (Q2), and finally the remaining ten drivers have a shootout for the fastest lap (pole position) in the final period (Q3).

The drivers are ranked according to the lap times that they managed to set during these qualifying periods, and this is what determines the starting order (the grid) for Sunday’s race. But before we get into all the details of the rules around how this is decided, let’s get familiar with the terms used in the paddock. This will make it much easier to discuss Formula One qualifying.

F1 Qualifying Terms And Abbreviations

  • FP1 – First free practice session (1 hour on a Friday)
  • FP2 – Second free practice session (1 hour on Friday, usually 2 hours after FP1)
  • FP3 – Third free practice session (1 hour on a Saturday, usually 2 hours before qualifying starts)
  • Q1 – First period of the qualifying session, usually on a Saturday, unless there is a Sprint (18 minutes)
  • Q2 – Second period of the qualifying session (15 minutes)
  • Q3 – Third period of the qualifying session (10 minutes)
  • Sprint – Special qualifying session consisting of a 30-minute race on a Saturday, after normal knockout qualifying, this time on a Friday
  • Grid – The order that the cars are arranged in for the start of the race
  • Pole position – The driver that starts the race at the front of the grid

A Typical F1 Weekend Schedule

Formula 1 travels to more than 20 different locations around the world in the space of only 9 months and does this consistently, year in and year out. This ‘traveling circus’ of F1 therefore has a fairly standard race weekend format that is predictably applied at each location. Times of the individual sessions may vary, but within defined limits.

Thursday

Historically, Thursday was the press day. All the teams’ personnel would be present at the track on Thursday, and the drivers’ press conference and team principals’ press conference would be held. From 2022, in order to make the travel between races on successive weekends more feasible, this shifted to Friday morning.

Friday

The cars first hit the track on Friday for the first free practice session (FP1). The teams use this time to try out any new parts, and to begin trying to set the car up (wing settings, brake balance, etc) the way they want it. The tires are a major focus, as each driver wants to see how they can manage and reduce the tire wear, and for their teams to gather data on the expected life of each tire.

Later that afternoon or evening, the second free practice session takes place. This is often considered the session that gives the most representative view of where each team’s performance is for the weekend. This is because track conditions during this session (due to the time of day) are often the most similar to race conditions, and so teams may undertake long runs and test their race pace.

Saturday

On Saturday, the third free practice session happens in the early afternoon, and is generally used for fine tuning the set-up, and gathering whatever remaining data the teams didn’t get to during Friday’s sessions. It is often one last ditch attempt at trying to iron out any worrying or confusing things seen in those sessions, like understeer or high tire wear.

Then on Saturday afternoon, it is time for qualifying! The details of the hour-long qualifying session are discussed in detail below, but it is often exciting and frantic, with pole position only decided after the clock on the hour has run out.

Sunday

Then it is only the race to come, the main spectacle of the weekend, which is always held on a Sunday afternoon.

Of course, this is only the generic formula of a race weekend for most locations around the world. Recently there have been more night races added to the calendar, typically in the Middle and Far East. A night race here has the benefit of taking place at a better time slot for the predominantly European TV audience, and in the Middle East, it also avoids the hottest track and air temperatures.

Monaco

Monaco is another example of a different weekend schedule. Traditionally, Monaco started with track action a day earlier on the Thursday, with a rest day on Friday. This dates back as early as the first Monaco GP held in 1929 on the same weekend as the Feast of the Ascension, when the Friday was the Ascension Day holiday.

Practically, although the race at Monaco is still held on roughly the same dates each year, it no longer has the public holiday on the Friday. The Friday rest day has remained the tradition regardless – until 2022. The 2022 Monaco race weekend follows the same format as all other races, with the first two practice sessions taking place on Friday.

Sprint Weekends

We discuss F1 Sprint in more detail later on in the article, but it’s worth noting here too that there are occasions where knockout qualifying (Q1, Q2 and Q3) is held on the Friday. This sets the grid for a 30-minute sprint race on the Saturday, which then sets the grid for the race on the Sunday. This only happens at around 3 races each year and is still a fairly new format.

Q1, Q2 And Q3 Explained

So, we’re on to the nitty-gritty now – the details of how Q1, Q2 and Q3 work. As mentioned before, they are three periods within a single 60-minute qualifying session. Q1 starts as an 18-minute period, followed by a 7-minute rest before the second period of Q2 for 15 minutes. After a further 8-minute break, the Q3 shootout takes place for the final 10 minutes of the session.

Q1 – Positions 16-20

In Q1, all 20 cars are required to set a lap time. After the 18 minutes are up, the 5 slowest cars are eliminated, and the remaining 15 cars progress to Q2. The eliminated cars are assigned their grid slots for Sunday according to their ranking on the timesheet for Q1.

Drivers often have multiple attempts within a qualifying session, as they don’t always nail their timed lap on the first try, and the track will evolve over time. Essentially, track temperatures might fluctuate, and as the cars go round the track they lay some rubber down on the racing line, which gives it more grip and allows for progressively faster lap times.

The real goal in Q1 is to avoid the elimination zone to be able to move on to Q2. Drivers will often put in a lap that they are happy with, then wait to see if it is fast enough to keep them out of the elimination zone (the slowest 5 cars).

There is always a flurry of new lap times being set as the period comes to a close, so there can often be an upset if a driver has misjudged the need for another qualifying attempt, or doesn’t manage to get their last run in due to yellow flags or a safety car, or even mechanical issues, and they get bumped down the order as other drivers improve their times.

Q2 – Positions 11-15

The remaining 15 drivers then start with a blank slate for Q2. They are all required to once again set a lap time within the 15 minutes of the period. Again, the slowest 5 cars are eliminated, and those drivers are assigned their grid places based on their ranking in Q2 (positions 11-15). Again, the aim is to avoid being in the bottom five in order to make it through to Q3.

Q3 – Positions 1-10

Only the top 10 drivers remain to battle it out in Q3. In recent years, these slots have normally been taken by the six cars of the top three teams (Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes) with the remaining four being hotly contested by the midfield teams behind them. It is quite an achievement for a driver from a midfield team – or indeed backmarker team – to make it into Q3.

With only 10 minutes in Q3, each driver usually only has the opportunity to get two qualifying laps in. Generally, they try to put in an opening ‘banker’ lap – one that’s not quite on the edge but a good lap with no mistakes in order to make sure that there is a reasonable time on the board. The second lap then needs to be a proper flying lap where they give it absolutely everything.

Most drivers aim to improve on their second lap, and so the dying minutes of Q3 often sees a flurry of faster lap times and the final qualifying order changing rapidly. It can be really thrilling to watch! It also keeps the suspense until the last moment because pole position is only decided once every car has set their fastest lap time in Q3.

Regardless of how quick a driver has looked through the free practice sessions and even Q1 and Q2, all of that counts for nothing. If they don’t manage to put together a fantastic lap in Q3, they won’t get the starting grid position for Sunday’s race that their form promised all weekend.

In Laps And Out Laps

Qualifying laps are actually a set of almost three laps – the out lap, the timed lap and the in lap. Since the pits are parallel to the start-finish straight, when a driver leaves the pits, they need to complete almost a full lap (the out lap) before they cross the start-finish line to trigger the start of their timed lap.

The out lap gives the driver an opportunity to warm up their tires (and brakes) to get them to their ideal working temperature for maximum performance. The driver also focuses on getting a great exit out of the final corner so that they can cross the line with the most speed and momentum to start their timed lap.

On the timed lap, every corner needs to be as close to perfect as possible. The driver tries to be on the edge, hitting the apex of every corner, getting on the brakes as late as they can and applying the throttle as early out of the corner as possible. Just a single mistake can ruin a qualifying lap. The driver then has a final dash to the start-finish line, where his time is set.

He then needs to drive yet another almost complete lap (the in lap) to get back to the pit entry. Therefore, each driver actually takes almost three laps (4 to 5 minutes of track time) to set a single qualifying lap time and get back to the pits. So long as the timed lap has started before the end of the Q1, Q2 or Q3 period, that timed lap can be completed and the lap time counted.

A checkered flag is waved at the end of each session, and drivers that have crossed the start/finish line before this flag has been waved can do another timed lap, even though the session timer has stopped. Drivers that don’t make it to the line in time need to make do with their fastest time set before that.

Tire Restrictions In Formula 1 Qualifying

In modern F1, using the tires effectively is a key success factor. The Pirelli tires are designed to have accelerated degradation, in order to force the drivers to need to make at least one pit stop during a race. This high rate of degradation can mean that the performance and grip of a tire can drop off quite rapidly as more laps are completed.

This also impacts the way that tires are used during qualifying. Generally, the tires have the greatest grip when they are brand new, so the ideal qualifying lap would be set on new tires. Also, there are different tire compounds to choose from – from 2019 these compound choices have been simplified to Hard, Medium and Soft.

The harder compound lasts for more laps, but the softer compound has more grip, just for fewer laps. So, the ideal qualifying lap would be set on soft tires, where the highest grip levels allow pushing to the limit for just one lap.

Choose Wisely

However, in order to introduce some strategy, each team has a limited number of each tire compound available to them for the whole weekend. This means that they need to carefully choose when to use each new set of tires. They also need to ensure that they have the optimum combination of tires available for race day.

This limits the tires that they can use during qualifying. As a result, only a handful of a driver’s laps set during the qualifying session can be set on new tires. A driver must then decide which period and qualifying run he wants to save the new set of soft tires for, and which periods he feels he can clear using a used set of softs.

Old F1 Qualifying Tire Rules

To add to this strategic decision, the rules used to require the top 10 drivers to start the race on the same tires that they set their fastest Q2 time on. All other drivers beyond the top 10 had freedom of choice of which tire to start on. This was done to prevent all the top 10 cars qualifying on new soft tires, and to allow them to try to qualify on the medium tires.

It’s often the case that the medium tire is a better tire to start the race on than the soft as it still provides decent grip but also allows for a longer first stint before a pit stop. This meant the fastest cars would try to get out of Q2 on the medium instead of the soft in some cases, forcing them to risk not being fast enough to get into Q3 (as other cars would be on the faster soft tire).

However, this extra dimension of tire management has been done away with. The top 10 drivers are now free to choose which tires to start the race on, regardless of what they were using during qualifying. The restriction on the number of sets of each compound available to each driver for the whole weekend already forces drivers to try to be clever about which tires they use and when.

Penalties Applied

There is another element that affects starting position for the race – when certain penalties are applied to drivers. Most often these are penalties for taking extra components of their power unit (not meeting the reliability requirements) or having to work on the car during the restricted time between qualifying and the race (such as replacing a gearbox that might have been damaged).

Grid place penalties can also be applied for driving infringements during the qualifying session. For instance, if one driver was in the way of another driver on a flying lap, the first driver can be penalized for impeding. Also, if there are other infringements such as not respecting pitlane rules or causing a collision, these can also drop a driver further down the order for Sunday.

What Is Pole Position In F1?

Pole position in F1 is the position at the very front of the grid for the race. The advantage is that pole position is at the head of the field of competitors, giving the best opportunity to be in the lead of the race at the first corner. The driver with the fastest time in Q3 gets pole position.

The name ‘pole position’ originates from horse racing many years ago, when the best position to start from was next to the pole of the inside fence. There have been many wins in F1 that are called ‘lights to flag’ – where a driver has effectively led the race from the starting lights (starting from pole position) throughout the race until winning at the checkered flag.

There are particular tracks where pole position is more valuable. The most well known of these is Monaco, although it tends to be true for most street tracks. Street tracks are narrower and more difficult to overtake on. Therefore, whoever starts the race in pole position, if they can keep the lead through the first few corners, has a good chance of winning the race.

It is incredibly difficult to win a race like Monaco from a lower grid position, and this usually only happens when something unusual has happened during the race. In all of F1 history, since 1950, only 10 races at Monaco have been won by a driver that started outside of the top 3.

What Is The 107% Rule In F1?

In order to keep the entries into a Grand Prix as competitive as possible, there is a rule that all cars who qualify for the race must have set a time within 107% of the pole sitter’s lap. This ensures that, if there are cars that are uncompetitive, they will not be entered into the race, as excessively slow cars cause a hazard and risk impacting the race.

However, the F1 sporting regulations do provide some exemptions. If the qualifying session is classified as ‘wet’ by the race director, the rule does not apply. This is because, in wet conditions, otherwise competitive cars may not have the opportunity to set representative lap times in the hour-long session.

Also, in exceptional circumstances (such as an incident disrupting the qualifying session), the stewards can choose to still allow a car to enter the race provided that they had posted a time during one of the Free Practice sessions within 107% of the pole position time.

Why Does The 107% Rule Exist?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there were more cars attempting to enter each race than the number that were allowed to start. For many years, the limit on the number of cars that would be allowed to start a race was 26. This limit could vary depending on the track – for instance, Monaco would only allow 20 race starters.

Therefore, qualifying was used to select the 26 fastest cars from among the entrants as those that were allowed to start the race. However, by the time of the 90s, the number of entrants to each Grand Prix had dwindled to within the limit of 26 cars that were allowed to start. This meant that every car that entered would be allowed to race, even if it was uncompetitive.

Therefore, in 1995, the 107% rule was first suggested as a means to ensure that any car that started a Grand Prix was at least close to competitive. The smaller teams fought the introduction of the rule, but it came into effect for the 1996 season. The rule immediately prevented two cars from the Forti team from starting the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

In 2002, the qualifying format was overhauled (more on that later) and the 107% rule was removed. This was mainly due to the requirement for this qualifying format that times be set with a full race load of fuel, introducing some disparity in times. However, for the 2011 season the rule was reintroduced as qualifying at that time was once again at minimal fuel loads.

The last time that the rule prevented a driver from entering the race was in 2012 at the Australian Grand Prix. Both cars from HRT failed to set a qualifying time within 107% of the pole time and were denied permission to start.

However, there have been multiple instances since then that a car has breached the rule, but still been allowed to race. This was often due to rainy weather during the qualifying session. As a result, the rule now states that it does not apply if the session has been declared ‘wet’.

How Did F1 Qualifying Used To Work?

There have been many iterations of F1 qualifying, particularly in the period from 1996 to 2010. Before 1996, the qualifying arrangement was very simple – there were two separate sessions of an hour each. The first session was on the Friday, and the second session on the Saturday. The fastest time of each driver from either session decided their grid position for the race.

There were occasional variations here and there during this period, but largely the concept remained the same. However, it was not very entertaining to watch and gave a very predictable result. It was particularly disappointing if the weather on the Saturday meant that faster times than Friday were unlikely, meaning that pole had actually been decided the day before without realizing it.

Single One Hour Session

In 1996, this format was changed to only a single hour on a Saturday. The single session was then guaranteed to produce the grid order. Drivers were limited to 12 timed laps. It still produced predictable results – any driver who made a mistake on one lap could simply go out and try again. There were no restrictions on fuel loads or tires, so teams just set the car up for the fastest one lap pace.

Unfortunately, the best times were usually set at the end of the session, when the most rubber had been laid on the track and the racing line had been cleaned up. Therefore, most of the hour saw the teams waiting in the garage for other cars to put the rubber down and improve track conditions, with a flurry of laps late in the session. Once again, not great for the fans at home.

One Lap Qualifying

So, in 2002, one lap qualifying was introduced. Each driver had a scheduled window to put in a single qualifying lap. This guaranteed running on track throughout the hour. One session on Friday had the drivers starting in championship order, which was then reversed for a second session on Saturday, where the slowest went first. Pole position was given to the fastest lap in the Saturday session.

The reverse order on Saturdays gave the fastest cars the cleanest track. However, with the forced order of running, if there were any changing weather conditions, drivers were unfairly disadvantaged based on their scheduled running time. In 2004, both sessions were held close together on the Saturday, but it still allowed fluctuation according to evolving track conditions.

Current Knockout Format

There was another tweak in 2005 in an attempt to get a system that worked. This was to aggregate the two lap times set during the two sessions. But finally, in 2006, the first iteration of the current knockout format of three periods was introduced. However, in Q3 the laps had to be set on race fuel loads.

This was in the days of refueling, when race strategy was dictated by how much fuel each car carried. Full fuel loads in Q3 meant that the drivers were still not able to give their all. In 2010, refueling was done away with, and tires instead governed the race strategy. Q3 then allowed drivers to complete their flying laps with low fuel, giving their all to squeeze out the absolute fastest lap.

There have still been some minor adjustments to the format since then, such as a brief two races in 2016 where additional timed knockouts were introduced (and promptly dropped). However, for over a decade, the knockout format has introduced great on-track action across the full hour of Saturday qualifying, with a great dose of unpredictability to spice up Sunday’s race.

Is F1 Qualifying A Race?

F1 qualifying is not a race. The drivers do not all start at the same time, and they do not race against each other to be the first to cross the line after a number of laps. Rather, they each have the opportunity to set lap times individually, and those lap times are compared against each other.

However, in 2021, a new twist to qualifying was introduced in the form of a sprint race at selected weekends. This is a short race which does set the order of the grid for Sunday’s race, but it is separate and additional to the well-known knockout qualifying format. We’ll go into more detail about the sprint races shortly.

How Many Laps In F1 Qualifying?

How many laps a driver completes in F1 qualifying largely depends on which session they get through to, as a driver that gets to Q3 will naturally complete more laps than a driver knocked out in Q1. A driver will set few timed laps, but they will perform many out laps and in laps in qualifying too.

The number of laps that a driver completes in qualifying has traditionally depended on the qualifying format in use for that season. Prior to 1996, the drivers were able to record any number of lap times. From 1996 to 2002, each driver was limited to record only 12 laps in the hour-long qualifying session.

However, from 2002 to 2005, drivers were only allowed to post a single timed lap in each of two hour-long qualifying sessions. Once the knockout format started in 2006, the drivers did not have a limit on the number of laps they could complete, but did have limited time in which to complete them (e.g. only 10 minutes in Q3).

These days, drivers commonly complete two flying laps in each of the three qualifying periods, so for a driver that gets to Q3, that could mean 6 timed laps within the hour. If a driver did not progress past Q2, then he would likely only complete 4 timed laps. Some of the top teams are able to set quick enough times on their first laps within Q1 and Q2 to be safely through.

What Happens If F1 Qualifying Is Cancelled?

If F1 qualifying is cancelled, due to intense rain or otherwise inclement weather, the standard approach is to simply postpone qualifying until Sunday morning, a few hours before the race. If this is still not possible, the grid may be set using free practice times.

This happened most recently in the 2019 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, when all sessions scheduled for Saturday were cancelled, including FP3 and qualifying. Qualifying was therefore held on Sunday morning, about four hours before the scheduled start of the race.

Should the weather not allow qualifying to even take place on Sunday morning, and qualifying therefore be completely cancelled, there is no direct provision in the F1 sporting regulations.

Should it ever happen that qualifying is completely cancelled and cannot be held before the race (as unlikely a scenario as that is), then it is expected that the stewards would arrange the grid based on free practice times.

What Is F1 Sprint Qualifying?

Sprint qualifying in F1 is a 100 km race (around 30 minutes long) held on Saturday that decides the starting order for Sunday’s main race. It was introduced in 2021 and is designed to add to the spectacle and interest across a full race weekend. The Sprint race’s grid is set in Friday qualifying.

The F1 Sprint is specifically limited to “the least number of complete laps which exceed a distance of 100 km.” It is designed to be a fast paced, flat-out race to the checkered flag with no pit stops. Should anything happen during the sprint that extends the running, such as a suspension of the session or a safety car, there are other limitations to be sure that it does not go on too late.

When Will The F1 Sprint Happen?

In 2021, sprint races were held as the qualifying events at the:

  • British Grand Prix at Silverstone
  • Italian Grand Prix at Monza
  • Sao Paulo Grand Prix at Interlagos

In 2022, sprint races will be held at the following Grands Prix:

  • Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola
  • Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring
  • Sao Paulo Grand Prix at Interlagos

It is only planned to hold sprint races at a limited number of Grands Prix during the year. For example, at Monaco, where overtaking is particularly challenging, a sprint race would add very little interest, and would likely detract from the weekend instead. So, it is not planned that sprint races will ‘replace’ qualifying, but only that it will be occasional in order to add to the spectacle.

How F1 Sprint Works

F1 sprints shuffle the schedule of each of the sessions on Friday and Saturday. On weekends that an F1 sprint race is scheduled, only two free practice sessions occur instead of the traditional three. FP1 is then scheduled for the early afternoon on Friday.

The three traditional qualifying sessions (Q1, Q2 and Q3) then take place on Friday afternoon. This is quite different to normal race weekends, as the teams and drivers have had just one practice session to work on the setup of the cars before heading into the traditional qualifying format. Usually, they will have had three sessions and a lot more confidence in their setup.

The results of these qualifying sessions decide the starting order for the sprint on Saturday. However, before getting into the sprint, the second practice session is held on Saturday morning to give the teams further opportunity to prepare. The sprint race then begins, and the finishing order of the event is the order that the drivers start the main race in on Sunday.

Points are awarded for the sprint. From 2022, the winner gets 8 points, 7 points go to second place, and so on all the way down to a single point for the 8th place finisher. This is significantly more points on offer compared to 2021, where only the top three received points. The winner would receive 3 points down to 3rd place getting 1 point.

Final Thoughts

F1 qualifying usually involves three knockout sessions labelled Q1, Q2 and Q3. Usually held on a Saturday, these sessions decide the starting order for the race (or the Sprint). If there is a Sprint race on a particular race weekend, the Sprint will dictate the starting order for Sunday’s race.