The start of an F1 race is an exciting, adrenaline-fuelled moment with everyone on the edge of their seats. Five red lights turn on, and then off, and the drivers hit the throttle for the start of the race. During this excitement, you’d be forgiven if you never wondered how F1 start lights work.
F1 start lights are five red lights drivers need to keep an eye on at the start of the race. As soon as the lights go out, the race begins, and they need to try to get away as quickly and as smoothly as possible. The lights are controlled by the race director in a box above the start/finish line.
The starting procedure in Formula 1 is important, but also very strict. Drivers who jump the start are punished, and in some scenarios, the race start could even be abandoned. Below, we will discuss how the start lights in F1 work and the rules drivers must follow.
How Do F1 Races Start?
Formula 1 races start with a formation lap to help the cars and tires get warmed up for the long distances and fast speeds that a race demands. At the end of the formation lap, the drivers will stop in their designated grid slots, before getting ready for the five red lights to go out.
After every car has come to a complete stop, the green flag will be waved by a marshal at the back of the grid and the race is ready to begin. The race director is positioned in the box next to the start/finish line, and they are in control of the start lights.
The red lights will go on one by one. When all five lights are on, the race is moments away from starting. As soon as the lights go out, the race gets underway. The drivers drop their clutch and carefully modulate their throttle to prevent spinning their wheels, which will inhibit their start.
Are F1 Start Lights Random?
F1 start lights are random. The timing between each individual light is not random, but the delay between the final light going on and them all going off is decided by a random timing system. Using random timings ensures drivers need to rely on their reaction times and can’t predict the race start.
There is one second between each red light going on in an F1 start sequence. The time between the lights going off is completely random, and it could happen at any moment once all five lights are on. In some cases, drivers must wait several seconds before the lights go out and the race gets underway.
This system is the best way to keep the race start as fair as possible by giving everyone the same time to react. This system prevents drivers from guessing when the lights go out or memorizing the timing and simply starting through muscle memory.
Are F1 Starts Automated?
Formula 1 starts are automated to an extent. The lights are automated, and the random timing of them going off to signal the start of the race is automated. However, there needs to be human involvement too to ensure that a start can be safely aborted if there is a problem on the track.
Formula 1 starts cannot be fully automated, even though the random timing system is, as there are some scenarios when the start may need to be abandoned and another formation lap is needed. This requires quick thinking, and a person is needed to monitor the situation at the start of the race and make the decision.
What Happens If An F1 Driver Jumps The Start?
A jump start is when a driver reacts too early and pulls away before the rest of the grid. This is strictly against the rules and F1 drivers are punished for jumping the start. The start of the race will be reviewed using replay footage to determine whether they should be given a penalty.
The stewards will also use telemetry to analyze whether the driver reacted before the lights went out. The rules state that if the car moves before the signal is given, the driver will be penalized. The penalty is usually a five or ten second stop/go penalty. Jump starts are usually easy to identify, as even the slightest movement of a car can be classified as one.
F1 Jump Start Examples
At the start of the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso reacted too early. He let go of his clutch and his car inched forward, but quickly came to a stop. He stood stationary on the grid and got away at the same time as the rest of the cars, making his way past Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber for the lead of the race. However, he was later given a drive-through penalty for a jump start.
But there are tolerances built into this system. In 2020, Valtteri Bottas escaped any penalties at the start of the Hungarian Grand Prix. He moved slightly forwards before the lights went out, but managed to stop immediately before starting again. The stewards deemed his movement to be within the tolerances allowed, meaning he wasn’t given a penalty.
Abandoning Or Delaying The Start
There are some scenarios though, where the race director has no choice but to abandon the start of a Grand Prix. In these situations, the cars will be required to do an extra formation lap and return to their designated grid slots to give the marshals time to sort things out.
One of the main reasons there would be a false start in Formula 1 is if one of the cars stalls or fails on the grid. It’s simply too dangerous to start a race with a stricken car on the grid, especially considering the rate at which Formula 1 cars accelerate. Most drivers won’t have enough time to react to avoid a stopped car in front of them that they’re not expecting.
If a car crashes or fails during the formation lap, the race start will also be delayed. This is done for the same reason as a car being stuck on the grid. With the entire pack tight together and fighting for position, there’s too much of a risk one of the cars could crash into a stationary car on the track.
Why Do Some Cars Start From The Pit Lane?
When a car starts from pit lane, it usually means adjustments have been made on the car that aren’t allowed to be made under the F1 Parc Fermé rules. In other cases, the driver may have a small issue on the car, or they may be pitting to change tires for the race start.
If a driver is unhappy with the balance of their car, they can choose to change their set up, but would then have to start from the pit lane for the Grand Prix. Another scenario could be when a car has been damaged and needs to be repaired after qualifying. This would require the driver to start from the pit lane.
Starting from the pit lane is a huge disadvantage. They are also starting last, far behind the rest of the grid. If a driver starts from pit lane, they must wait for the race to start, and they must also wait for the last car on the grid to pass the pit exit before they can drive out on track and join.
F1 starting lights work by having five individual red lights come and the driver’s waiting for them to all go off simultaneously to start the race. The timing of the lights turning off is random so that drivers cannot anticipate the start. A driver that jumps the start will receive a penalty.