Similar to the way that you need a driving licence in order to drive your car on public roads, you also need a licence to drive a Formula 1 car. However, racing in F1 requires a special type of driving licence, called the Super Licence.
An FIA Super Licence is required in order to race in Formula 1. Among other requirements, a driver must be at least 18 years old, have obtained at least 40 Super Licence points in qualifying racing series over the last 3 years and pass an FIA theory test.
We will go through each of these requirements in more detail below, along with all of the other requirements as well. We will also consider how difficult it is to get a Super Licence, and some general information about keeping one.
What Is A Super Licence?
The Spelling Matters
The first thing to note here is the spelling. As it is an official FIA certification, it holds the European spelling of the word ‘licence’. In order to avoid any confusion, this will be the spelling used throughout the article, as opposed to the American spelling of ‘license’. But what makes the Super Licence different to your normal driving licence?
Key Requirements To Meet
It is essentially the key to getting into a Formula 1 race, as without one it is simply not possible. Like your standard driving licence, it comes with theory requirements as well as practical ones, albeit much more intense and centered around motorsport. The licence can’t just be obtained by anyone, as there are key requirements which we will discuss below.
The terms of the licence and the requirements for obtaining one have changed a lot over the years. They will continue to change as motorsport evolves, and there are lots of motorsport disciplines that can act as a gateway to getting the F1 Super Licence. But let’s get into the absolute requirements in more detail and discuss just how difficult it is to obtain one.
What Are The Requirements For An F1 Super Licence?
Must Be 18+
The first requirement that could be deemed to be the deciding factor involves the driver’s age. They must be at least 18 years of age at the time of their first Formula 1 race weekend. This means even if they meet all of the requirements outlined below, they still need to be over 18 come their first F1 race weekend in order to compete in it.
This is often dubbed as the Max Verstappen rule, as it only came into effect after he joined F1 in 2015, as a member of Scuderia Toro Rosso aged just 17. He then went on to join Red Bull and won his debut race in Barcelona in 2016, adding to an already very impressive start to an F1 career, never mind the F1 career of an (at the time) 18-year-old.
While he did perform very well, it turned a lot of heads in the sporting body, and the rules were changed to require the driver to be 18 come their first F1 race weekend to gain a Super Licence. This is in place to stop young drivers being fast-tracked into the sport, in theory to ensure they have enough experience to compete at the highest level in F1.
The next requirement is that the driver already holds an International Grade A Competition Licence. This licence comes with its own costs and requirements, and the path to getting one of these usually involves years of racing in lower-level national racing competitions. Working your way up to an International Grade A Competition Licence is still no mean feat.
Valid Driving Licence
Aside from this licence, a driver will also need to of course have a valid driving licence from their respective country. This licence must be clean, having never been suspended or revoked in any way that would prevent the driver from being able to drive on public roads, never mind high-speed race tracks.
Similar to many national driving tests, the Super Licence also has a theory aspect which the drivers need to pass as well. This is a test that involves questions about the sporting codes and regulations of F1, and it is really there to ensure that the drivers are well aware and educated about the sport they are getting into, as F1 is very different from other racing disciplines.
The 80% Rule
Another requirement involves the experience of the driver. They need to have completed at least 80% of two full seasons of a single seater championship. This usually means F2, as that is the final step most drivers take before joining F1. However, F3 and other single seater events do count towards this, and the FIA has a long list of qualifying motorsports.
While they need to have completed at least 80% of two full seasons, they also need to have achieved at least 40 points over the course of the previous three seasons in a combination of any of these qualifying championships. These points are FIA Super Licence points, and we will explain them in more detail below.
In 2020, there were several subtle changes made to this final requirement in order to accommodate the effect of Covid-19 on motorsport calendars. With many tournaments being cancelled or shortened, the points requirement was shifted to account for those that would have otherwise qualified for a Super Licence had these competitions not been affected.
The 40-point requirement is decreased to 30 for those that the FIA deems would have obtained all the required points had their seasons not been affected by what they call a Force Majeure – in other words an extraordinary event.
The 3-year component will also be changed to 4 years if need be, if their 2020 season is included in the consideration when they apply for a Super Licence. In this case, the driver can take their three highest scoring seasons over the last 4 years, discounting the shortened 2020 season if the FIA deems this to be suitable.
Free Practice Super Licence
There is also something called the Free Practice Super Licence as well. This was introduced in 2019 and is required for drivers that are only participating in free practice sessions on F1 weekends. This is a popular way for F1 teams to give their academy drivers a chance to test in a live F1 session, alongside other drivers, rather than in private testing.
The same age and competition licence requirements hold for this Super Licence too, but the driver only needs to have amassed 25 points in qualifying series over the last 3 years or have completed at least 6 races in F2.
How Do F1 Super Licence Points Work?
There is a long list of qualifying motorsports and their associated Super Licence points for each position, which is detailed in the table below.
The Popular Routes
The most popular route for F1 drivers involves karting at a young age, and then working their way through motorsport series of their choice. The goal is usually to get into the various Formula series as early as possible, with them and the IndyCar series awarding the most F1 Super Licence points.
Very often, drivers in F1 will have gone through the lower Formula series, such as F3 and F2 (and potentially the W Series) and become champions in order to seal their Super Licences. This was the case with current F1 drivers Charles Leclerc and George Russell, who won the F2 Championship in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
The Importance Of F2
It is still proving to be a popular route into F1 today, as Mick Schumacher proved in 2020 when he won the F2 Championship and subsequently signed for Haas F1 Team for 2021 and beyond. Yuki Tsunoda is an example of not having to win the championship to still gain enough points to race in F1, having come third in the 2020 F2 Championship, building on his points total from previous years.
The Cost Of An F1 Super Licence
Meeting the requirements for an F1 Super Licence is only one piece of the puzzle, as drivers still need to pay for it as well. The Super Licence (and the Free Practice Super Licence), are both renewed on an annual basis. They are also issued using a 12-month probationary period for first-time licence holders, meaning they can be revoked if the FIA deems sporting standards are not being met.
The current cost of a Super Licence is a flat rate (probably in the range of $10,000-20,000) plus an extra fee dictated by how many points the driver scored in the previous year’s championship (if they are an existing F1 driver of course), meaning the better they perform the more they need to pay. The specific figures have been up for speculation for the past decade or so.
The fees have caused a lot of discussion inside and outside of the sport, mainly due to the fact they seemed to be constantly rising for a period around 2010. 2009 World Champion Jenson Button reportedly ended up having to pay at least double his 2009 fee in 2010 simply because he had performed so well and won the World Championship that year.
But costs are not the only thing drivers need to pay attention to, as they also need to avoid penalty points. With one more similarity to your standard diving licence, the F1 Super Licence uses a points system, with the maximum number a driver can receive being 12 points within a 12-month period, or else they face a ban on their next race.
Penalty points can be applied to a driver’s Super Licence for various offences, usually anything in a race that incurs a time penalty, such as causing a collision or breaking a rule in the sporting code. The number of penalty points applied is at the discretion of the FIA, usually coming in the form of 1, 2 or 3 penalty points.
The number of points will thus depend on the offence itself, and what the FIA deems the intent of the driver was, if and how dangerous it was and just how unsportsmanlike it was too. So far, no drivers have been required to serve a ban due to reaching the 12 points in 12 months limit, but a few have come close, notably Sebastian Vettel and Romain Grosjean.
Obtaining an F1 Super Licence involves drivers meeting a set of requirements set by the FIA, and on top of meeting these the driver also needs to pay a fee. While the rules do change from time to time, the driver basically needs to have enough experience, talent and money in order to get a Super Licence and eventually race in Formula One.