One of the most exciting elements that can be thrown at a Formula 1 race is rain. It presents a unique challenge to the drivers, and many people believe that this is where the drivers’ true skill can be showcased. However, one thing F1 drivers must contend with in the rain is aquaplaning.
Aquaplaning in F1 is when a layer of water gets underneath the tires, causing them to lose contact with the tarmac, therefore taking away all their grip. With a sudden loss of grip, the car will be sent into an uncontrollable spin. F1 races are usually red flagged if lots of cars start aquaplaning.
Wet tires can help with aquaplaning, but depending on how much water there is on track it is not a complete solution to the problem. Below, we discuss aquaplaning in F1 in more detail, but first let’s discuss what driving in the rain is like for F1 drivers.
Do F1 Cars Drive In The Rain?
Formula 1 cars do drive in the rain, and any session that is affected by rain will continue if it’s deemed safe to do so. The only time a session will be stopped is if the rainfall is too heavy and the track conditions are considered to be too dangerous for the cars to drive in.
While Formula 1 cars can handle the rain quite well, they can sometimes have some issues when the rain starts to fall. The drivers need to take extra caution as the cars do lose a lot of grip when it starts to rain, especially if they are still out on track with slick tires fitted to their cars.
Downforce In The Rain
The massive downforce produced by the floor and the wings of Formula 1 cars mean that they are still pushed into the circuit by downforce. This gives them enough grip to be able to withstand the rain, but only up to a certain extent. For the downforce to work, F1 cars need to be in contact with the track surface, which is why wet and intermediate tires are used when it rains.
An F1 car won’t get very far in the wet if it’s still on slick tires, as we have seen in many races in the past. Wet and intermediate tires are constructed in a way that allows them to disperse water away from the tires, and their tread blocks maintain contact with the track’s surface. These tires offer much more grip in the wet than dry tires would, but not as much as dry tires do on a dry track.
Another element that helps the cars cope with the rain is the fact that all FIA Grade 1 circuits, which is the minimum requirement to host a Formula 1 race, must have good drainage systems in place. This will ensure that there is as little standing water and as few puddles on the circuit as possible.
How Fast Do F1 Cars Go In The Rain?
With lower grip levels Formula 1 cars do go slower in the rain. However, it completely depends on the amount of rain there is at the time, as well as the overall track conditions. For example, some circuits provide less grip than others, which will cause the lap times to become even slower in the rain.
In light rain, the cars can be anywhere between three and six seconds slower than they are in the dry. However, in heavier rain, when the cars need to put on the extreme wet tires, they could take much longer. F1 wet lap times are often much longer than dry times, but it depends on the length of the circuit and how wet it really is.
F1 Wet vs Dry Lap Times
To see the difference between wet and dry lap times in F1 let’s compare two laps at the Spa circuit. Lewis Hamilton’s 2020 pole lap time in the dry at the Belgian Grand Prix was 1:41.252. Max Verstappen’s pole lap time in the wet at Spa in 2021 was more than 18 seconds slower, at 1:59.765.
Spa is the longest circuit on the calendar, so this is perhaps an unfair example to use. However, even a shorter circuit like Istanbul Park in Turkey can see large differences in the wet and the dry. Bearing in mind the recently laid track surface was exceptionally slippery in 2020, Lance Stroll’s wet pole time was beaten by 24.8 seconds a year later in the dry by Valtteri Bottas.
Track Surface & Layout
This example illustrates how the track surface itself can also influence the differences in lap times in the wet and the dry. However, the average speed at which the cars normally travel also must be considered, and this has a lot to do with the track layout.
The fastest average speed in the dry over one lap at the twisty Istanbul circuit in 2021 was 212.5 kph (132 mph), whereas in the dry at Spa in 2020, a track that is notoriously fast, the fastest average speed was 234.6 kph (146 mph). So, how fast a driver can go in the rain is largely dependent on the track itself.
In terms of raw speed, the cars will be slower in the rain. The cars will struggle for traction out of the corners, which will cause them to accelerate slower. This will also impact their overall top speed down the straight, and they will likely be anywhere between 10 and 30 mph slower on the straights.
Due to the fact that there is very little grip in the rain, these conditions can often be the great equalizer in Formula 1. The advantage of the car is largely taken away, and the drivers’ skills become the most important element. A prime example of this is George Russell out qualifying Lewis Hamilton at Spa in 2021 in a much less competitive car.
Why Are Cars Slower After The Rain?
We can sometimes see cars going significantly slower once the track has dried out after some rain. This is because the track will still have very little grip, even when the track has dried out again in the sunshine.
Every lap that a Formula 1 car does in the dry puts some rubber down on the tarmac. The more rubber there is on the track the more grip it has to offer. This is why we often see the drivers’ lap times become much faster as the weekend progresses. This is known as track evolution.
However, if it begins to rain, the water washes away all the rubber that has been placed on the circuit throughout the weekend, including that laid down by other series that may race alongside F1, like Formula 2. This means that the track becomes “green” again and essentially becomes brand new as if no rubber has been put down on it.
If the qualifying session on a Saturday has rain, the drivers will struggle for grip on the Sunday during the race as the track evolution has been reset if there is no session dry between qualifying and the race. This can pose a real challenge for drivers as they may have adapted their car setup to have more grip in the dry, and then the grip is suddenly gone after the rain.
What Is Aquaplaning In F1?
Aquaplaning is something that many Formula 1 cars experience in the rain, when a layer of water gets under their tires, removing their grip. It is extremely dangerous in Formula 1 due to the high speeds that the cars reach while they’re out on track. Aquaplaning can happen in your average road car.
Aquaplaning, also known as hydroplaning, is when the tires lose contact with the tarmac. This happens when there is too much standing water on the circuit, which will lift the car’s tires off the ground and cause it to instantly lose grip.
A layer of water will get underneath the tires, and since it has nowhere to go it becomes trapped underneath the tires. As the tires have no grip on top of this layer of water it essentially becomes like driving on ice. The car will instantly lose all grip and simply slide off the circuit.
When aquaplaning becomes more frequent driver skill does not make much of a difference as there is often no way to keep control over the car once it has hit the standing water.
Other Challenges Drivers Face In The Rain
Aquaplaning is not the only challenge that Formula 1 drivers face when they are driving their cars in the rain. The rain presents some of the most difficult conditions to handle a Formula 1 car in, and when it becomes too heavy the session will be stopped.
However, these conditions also highlight the drivers that are extremely skillful. Drivers like Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, and Jenson Button have been known to be better than all the drivers around them when it starts raining. They seemed to find grip in places where other drivers simply couldn’t. Lewis Hamilton is also famously good at driving an F1 car in the wet.
Visibility is one of the biggest issues when it comes to driving a Formula 1 car in the rain. It’s not a problem for the average road car as they have a windshield with windshield wipers that can quickly clear the raindrops and improve the driver’s visibility.
However, Formula 1 drivers have nothing but their visors, which can sometimes become dotted with rain drops. When they accelerate down the straights the rain drops tend to be wiped away by the oncoming air, but it can still be distracting.
However, by far the biggest challenge in Formula 1 is the visibility when driving behind another car. Formula 1 cars have open wheels, which means that the water on the track is kicked up into a “rooster tail” behind the car. In very wet conditions, the following car will be essentially driving blind due to the excessive amount of spray from the car ahead.
Another big challenge to driving in the rain is grip. Grip will naturally be lower on a slippery surface, but since F1 cars do not have any traction control there is more of a focus on the drivers’ car control.
When it starts to rain the cars will be much twitchier and more sensitive to driver inputs. This is where the more skillful drivers become faster as they are able to find the grip on the circuit, whereas the more inexperienced drivers will make more mistakes, or simply be slower.
Aquaplaning is a sudden loss of grip that F1 drivers sometimes experience in heavy rain. Aquaplaning happens when a layer of water separates the tires from the tarmac, which causes them to lose grip. This can cause cars to spin or slide off the circuit, and it’s often described as driving on ice.