A quick F1 beginners guide

One thing you might have noticed is that I haven’t been making any great attempt to explain how motorsport works to people who are new to it. Formula One is the form of motorsport you’ll see covered most often here, since it is considered to be the pinnacle of world motorsport and receives more worldwide coverage than any other series, so let’s go over some of the things you might want to know in order to enjoy the racing and make some sense out of this racing blog.

The Cars

The cars are powered by 2.4-litre V8 engines developing around 750 horsepower, around 6 times as much as a typical family car. These engines run on unleaded fuel similar to that used in road cars. Including the driver and all oils and fluids, cars must never weigh less than 640 kg when racing, around half as much as the vehicle you take on your daily commute. They have 7 forward gears (the gearboxes are sequential so gears can’t be skipped as they can be in cars with a traditional stick shift) and are capable of speeds in excess of 220 miles per hour. The driver changes gear using paddles mounted on the back of the steering wheel, shifting up with the right hand and down with the left, and does not have to lift off the throttle or manually engage the clutch.

Front and rear wings are fitted to each machine, designed to generate grip in corners by using air flowing over the car to push it into the ground. The more air pushes down on the wings, the more grip, but the more air resistance the car faces. Teams will therefore run wings with lower, flatter profiles on tracks where straightline speed is more important than cornering performance. In 2011, drivers will also be allowed to flatten the rear wing on straights for greater speed. They can do this freely during practice and qualifying, but will only be allowed to use it during the race in a designated part of the track and with another car less than one second ahead.  This is known as the Drag Reduction System, or DRS.

As a cost cutting measure, teams are only allowed to use 8 engines per season for each car and each engine is rev-limited to 18000 rpm. Any car requiring more than 8 engines will be penalised 10 places on the starting grid for the race in which their extra engine is first used. Gearboxes must last for 5 races and any unscheduled gearbox change during a race weekend brings a penalty of 5 places on the starting grid for that race, though individual gears can be replaced under supervision with no penalty.

Cars are not permitted to run turbochargers and have no mandatory power boost systems, but are allowed to run kinetic energy recovery systems – KERS for short – to provide a temporary increase in power. These systems convert heat energy produced while braking into a boost worth around 90 horsepower. This boost is made available for 6.6 seconds every lap, the time being reset as the car crosses the start line. The driver activates KERS with a button mounted on his steering wheel, and does not have to use the 6.6 seconds in one go or on every lap.

The Championship

Formula One races take place mainly on purpose-built road courses, though a couple of races each year are held on city streets. All of the tracks are circuit based, the number of laps at each event being set to the minimum number needed to cover a distance of 190 miles. The only exception to this is the street circuit in Monaco, which is limited to a distance of 160 miles. As the tracks are of different lengths, the number of laps required can range from just over 40 to just under 80. Where races are badly affected by wet weather or other delays, the race will end two hours after starting regardless of whether the scheduled race distance has been completed.

There are currently 20 races, or Grands Prix, in a season. Unlike NASCAR, IndyCars and many forms of sportscar racing, Formula One races begin with a standing start, cars lining up in a staggered two-by-two formation. The top 8 drivers at each Grand Prix score points, 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 from 1st to 10th, and the driver with the most points from the 20 races is crowned world champion. Teams compete for the constructors championship using the combined points total of their two drivers. The reigning world champion driver is Sebastian Vettel of Germany, the youngest-ever world champion. Red Bull Racing are the reigning champion constructor.

Testing and Practice

As a means of reducing costs, teams are not allowed to run their cars in test sessions between races, though they do have computer simulations and restricted use of wind tunnels to aid the development of new parts. Teams must therefore use 2 90-minute practice sessions on the Friday of each race weekend (Thursday in Monaco, where the Friday of the Formula One weekend is traditionally a holiday) and a further hour on Saturday morning to test parts and change elements of the car to suit the circuit being raced on. The driver can adjust the amount of braking force being applied to the front and rear wheels and the fuel/air mixture being delivered to the engine from inside his car, but wing angle changes, tyre pressure adjustments and suspension tweaks can only be made by the mechanics in the pitlane.

Cars will require different settings in different weather conditions. On a wet track, the suspension will be softened to provide better grip, different wing settings will be used and treaded wet weather tyres replace the slick, treadless dry weather rubber. Cars are also raised further off the ground to ensure that the floor does not come into contact with puddles of standing water and surf across it. This is known as aquaplaning or hyrdoplaning, and causes the driver to lose control of the car. Aquaplaning can also occur if the treaded wet tyres fill up with water, just as it can on your road car.

Qualifying

The qualifying session is split into 3 parts, commonly referred to as Q1, Q2 and Q3. In Q1 all 24 cars take to the track for a session lasting 20 minutes. The slowest 7 cars are eliminated and occupy positions 18 to 24 for the race start according to the order in which they ended Q1. The remaining 17 runners advance to Q2, a 15 minute session in which the slowest 7 cars are again knocked out, setting positions 11 to 17 for the race start.

The fastest 10 cars from Q2 advance to Q3, the final part of qualifying. Q3 lasts for 10 minutes, and determines the starting order for positions 1 to 10. Drivers competing in this session must start the race on the same set of tyres used during their fastest lap. At the completion of Q3, penalties for engine and gearbox changes or unsporting behaviour from drivers are applied. Cars eliminated from qualifying are free to choose any available set of tyres for the start of the race.

Flags

During practice, qualifying and racing, track marshals can be seen waving a variety of flags used to give drivers information. Here are the most common ones and what they mean in Formula One:

  • Yellow flags mean ‘danger’. A single waved flag is an instruction to slow down because of a minor problem, like a car broken down at the side of the road or a piece of debris. Double waved flags mean serious danger – an accident may have blocked the track, marshals may be in the road, and drivers must slow down and be prepared to stop. If a situation is particularly dangerous, yellow flags are accompanied by an ‘SC’ board and the Safety Car enters the track to pace the field. No overtaking is permitted where yellow flags are present.
  • A green flag means the danger is cleared and normal racing can resume
  • Red flags signify a race stoppage due to a serious accident or inclement weather. The race can be restarted but does not have to be.
  • Blue flags mean a faster car is approaching behind you. In a race they mean you’re about to be lapped by one of the leaders and you must yield. Passing three blue flags without yielding is considered blocking and will be penalised.
  • A black flag is waved when a car has been disqualified for a rules breach. The flag is displayed at the start/finish line with a board displaying the number of the car being disqualified, who must then return to the garage.
  • A yellow and red striped flag means the track is slippery. This can refer to oil, other fluids from damaged cars, rain or debris from a competing car.

Race Strategy

Through the race, cars will make at least one pit stop for new tyres, though as refuelling was banned in 2009 they’ll all start the race with enough fuel to reach the end.

Pirelli, Formula One’s sole tyre supplier, make four different types of dry-weather tyre, categorised as super-soft, soft, medium and hard. Super-softs are the grippiest and hards the most durable, though even the hardest F1 tyres won’t go much further than 100 miles before failing. They bring two types to each race, with one step between the chosen compounds (super-soft/medium or soft/hard), the softer of the two tyres being marked with a green band so that viewers know which tyres are being used. If the weather stays dry throughout the race, the rules state that the teams must use each of those two types at some point. A car that wears tyres heavily might want to spend as little time as possible on the softer tyre, whereas a car that has difficulty heating up its tyres will be more inclined to avoid the harder tyre where possible.

Pirelli are returning to the sport after an absence of 20 years and they’ve been instructed to make tyres that wear quite heavily. This could encourage teams to run different strategies. Drivers who wear their tyres out quickly through aggressive driving are likely to need more tyre changes and might find it better to run the slower but more durable hard compound for much of the race. The opposite is true for smoother, more conservative drivers, so we can expect to see many different approaches to tyre changes during races.

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