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The Complete Guide To Understanding Formula 1

Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Formula 1! The pinnacle of motorsport! But what’s the deal? Isn’t it just cars driving around a track? Is it safe? Is red really the fastest color?

The second race of the 2021 season is this Sunday, so there’s no better time to get into it. Let’s go, go, go! 

The Goal

At its core, Formula 1, like most motorsports, is pretty simple to understand: car drive fast, first car across the line wins! Drivers and their teams are awarded points based on where they finish, and the driver and team with the most points at the end of the season are crowned world champions!! Seems simple enough, but there’s so, so much more to it!!!

The Cars

First off: you don’t need to be a car expert to enjoy Formula 1! I’d be absolutely no help looking under the hood of my car if it broke down, and F1 is one of my favorite sports. There’s plenty to appreciate if you are that way inclined, but it’s absolutely optional: the racing, drama, rivalries, and controversies are plenty to keep up with.

At Formula 1’s core, it is a sport which combines the capabilities of the drivers with the performance of their machines. The cars must be built in adherence to extremely detailed technical regulations, but there is a lot of room given to creative freedom and technical innovation, and much of the beauty of F1 lies in the relentless pursuit by the teams’ technical departments to push both the rules and their research and development capabilities to the limit in order to find every little incremental advantage. And, since the cars are so incredibly difficult to drive, an elite driver will prove their worth in spades in extracting every last bit of performance out of their car.

Some defining characteristics of the cars: they are single-seaters, open-wheel (meaning that the wheels sit outside the body of the car), and open-cockpit (like a convertible, in a way). They must have four wheels: the fronts for steering and the rears for propulsion (though the Tyrrell team employed a 6-wheeler in the 1976 and 1977 seasons, the most famous car in F1 history).

Since 2014, Formula 1 power units have been based on 1.6 liter V6 direct fuel injection turbo-hybrid engines—the defining feature of this era of F1. The internal combustion engine is linked to a turbocharger (the “turbo-”), and is allied to two electric motor generator units, which recover kinetic energy of the car under braking and heat energy from the exhaust and convert that energy to propel the car (these electric components constituting the “-hybrid”). The battery pack houses lithium-ion cells. These are, F1 never tires of reminding us, the most efficient engines in the world.

To keep the center of gravity as low as possible, the drivers are seated right on the floor of the car, leaning back with their feet stretched out in front of them, such that it almost looks like they are laying in a hammock. The driver is cocooned in the monocoque (single-shell) chassis, made from ultra-lightweight carbon fibre, with the fuel tank located immediately behind their head, deep in the middle of the car so as to minimise the chance of it being breached in a crash and causing the car to explode in flames.

The cars have eight gears (plus the reverse gear), with only two pedals down by their feet: the accelerator and the brake. So, then, how do the drivers change gears? The up-shift and down-shift levers and the clutch lever are hidden on the back of the steering wheel and operated by hand.

Oh shit, check out what an F1 steering wheel looks like:

The steering wheel of Mercedes British driver Lewis Hamilton is seen, during the first free practice session of the Brazil Grand Prix, at the Interlagos racetrack in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on November 9, 2018. (Photo by NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP)

The cars are two meters wide (fine, fine, you want that figure in imperial? 0.000124 miles wide, OK?), a bit under one meter (3-foot-3-inches) tall, and roughly 5.7 meters (18”8’) long. They must weigh at least 752 kg (1,658 lbs) when unfueled, and the driver must weigh at least 80 kg (176 lbs) (including ballast if required). 

Formula 1 cars are fast, reaching speeds of up to 360 km/h (223 mph), going from 0-100 km/h /0-60 mph in about 2.6 seconds. The straight-line speed is incredible, yes, but F1 drivers will tell you that it’s the braking and the cornering that will blow your mind: slow-speed corners might be negotiated at around 140 km/h (87 mph).

Car Development

Integral to the DNA of Formula 1 has always been, and will always be, the teams’ quest to push the boundaries of automotive design, to either create better and more efficient cars, or to find loopholes in the technical regulations and cynically exploit them for maximum benefit before the regulators catch on. We’ve come a long way since Enzo Ferrari said in 1960 that “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines”.

Formula 1 engineering is a never-ending game of compromises and a search for optimisation: Modifications which create downforce are good, but they often also create drag, which is bad. Too much frontal downforce creates oversteer; too much rear downforce creates understeer. Thousands of holes are drilled into each brake disc to maximise surface area and therefore cooling, but those holes give the discs a higher thermal mass, meaning they get hotter easier. Air passing through the brakes cools them down, but that heated air then passes by the wheels and tires, which may cause them to overheat. 

Teams design an entirely new car for each season, and dedicate significant resources to continually improving. Such is the rate of improvement that new rules are often introduced—such as this year’s mandated changes to the shape of the cars’ floor—to deliberately slow the cars down (the current crop of cars were generating more downforce than the tires could handle). 

Some components of the car must be developed by the teams themselves or outsourced to a non-competitor, while other “non-listed” parts may be purchased from other teams or suppliers. Most notably, power units are shared amongst the teams: Mercedes and Ferrari currently provide engine power to a total of five of their rivals, while under F1’s rules Renault would have been compelled against its will to provide Red Bull and its sibling team AlphaTauri with power units if their engine partner Honda had followed through on its publicly-stated intention to walk away from the sport after last season.

The technical side is truly a team effort: Mercedes’s technology center in Brackley, England, houses more than 950 employees who work on design, development, manufacturing, assembly, and operation of their cars. 

Many defining characteristics of today’s cars are the result of innovation and imitation. In the 1950s, Cooper was the first to house the engine behind the driver rather than the front in order to achieve a more favorable weight distribution, and its competitors soon copied; driver Michael May tried out the first-ever inverted wing in order to create more downforce on his own Porsche in 1955, which—after being banned for a period—soon became the standard; Ferrari invented the paddle-shift system in 1989 so as to eliminate the clutch pedal and save room at the driver’s feet. Every team soon copied.

Sometimes, innovation proceeds faster than regulation, and teams are able to get away with component designs that are outlawed after they have been employed with success: Brabham’s famous Fan Car of 1978 (which won the only race it ever started before being outlawed); McLaren’s second brake pedal scandal of 1997; and Brawn GP’s legendary double-diffuser, which won them the double world championship in 2009 in one of the best sports stories of recent times.

But pushing the boundaries can easily go too far. In 2007, McLaren was caught receiving stolen technical information from Ferrari’s disgruntled chief mechanic in the delectable tabloid scandal known as “Spygate,” (not to be confused with the New England Patriots’ videotaping misadventures).  McLaren was fined a tepid $100 million and suspended from the constructors’ championship for its troubles. 

The Race

This part is largely self-explanatory! 

Just prior to the scheduled race time, the cars set off from their grid spots for a formation lap, where they canter around the circuit, warming up their tires (which have gone cold sitting on the grid waiting for the start), checking that their engine is humming, testing the team radio, and so on. After that lap they line back up in their slots, and when everyone is in position, five red lights are counted out before it’s go, go, go! Automatic sensors built into the cars determine whether anyone has false-started and are therefore to be penalised, but otherwise it’s all up to the drivers as the cars hurtle along the straight toward the first corner in an attempt to gain track position.

Races last for a set number of laps (totalling 305 km/190 miles), or two hours of racing time, whichever occurs sooner. If there is a delay in the action, for example because of a crash, there’s a cap at three hours of real time.

So: the drivers race each other, gear-shifting their little hearts out to drive around the track faster than all the other cars. The drivers can’t cut corners like a game of Mario Kart: if they go outside the defined track limits (the white lines are in; the curbs are out) they risk being penalized for not safely re-joining the race or trying to use off track areas to gain an advantage.

Cars may start the race with up to 110 kg (242 lbs) of fuel (being unleaded fuel akin to that which you put in your road car); in-race refuelling has been banned for safety reasons since 2010. The cars therefore travel much faster toward the end of a race, as they chew through that fuel and become lighter.

Various penalties may be levied against drivers by the race director for rule infringements, depending on their severity: 5- or 10-second time penalties (which must be served at the driver’s next pit stop, or, if they do not pit again for the rest of the race, is added to their total race time); a drive-through penalty, whereby the offender must drive through the pits (at the mandated lower speed); or a stop-go penalty, which compels the driver to drive into the pits and sit stationary for 10 seconds before re-joining the action. 

In the event of a crash or other safety concern, it may be too dangerous to permit full-speed racing to continue while the matter is addressed. The race director may therefore deploy the safety car, which is a sufficiently-equipped road car (driven by a gentleman named Bernd Mylander since 2000) which comes out on track to control the speed of the cars on track while an incident is being attended to by safety crews. The cars must slow down and follow behind the safety car (which travels as fast as it can, but still much, much slower than the racecars), and no overtaking is permitted. A safety car throws a spanner into the works of a Grand Prix—it bunches up the pack, and since the cars on track must slow down to follow the safety car, drivers may pick up a cheap pit stop: less time is lost by ducking into the pits, since everyone on track is travelling much slower than usual. A well- or poorly-timed safety car can make or ruin a driver’s race.

A less dangerous track incident may result in the deployment of the virtual safety car, a measure introduced after the fatal crash of Jules Bianchi at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. It is (as the name suggests) not a real car, but a procedure whereby drivers are compelled to drive at a mandated speed of around 70 percent of their standard with no overtaking, in a manner which maintains the gaps between the cars but does not risk further incidents at insanely high race speeds. The drivers must, essentially, keep time with an imaginary car, and are shown through their steering wheel’s screen how their pace compares with the virtual safety car’s pace (and must make adjustments accordingly).

At an even lower level of seriousness, race marshals may wave yellow flags, which requires drivers to slow down and prohibits them from overtaking. If an incident is of such seriousness as to make racing too dangerous (for example if a crashed car is in the middle of the track), the red flag is flown, meaning that the race is suspended and the cars are to return to the pits until further notice.

Most races feature dry tracks; by contrast, rainy (or “changeable-weather”) races are awesome, as they introduce a variable element under which anything can happen. Former F1 chairman Bernie Ecclestone famously suggested installing sprinklers at every corner in order to liven up the racing.

Points are awarded to the top 10 finishers in each race, which count toward the championship races: 25 points for the winner, 18 for second and 15 for third, down to a solitary point for 10th place. An additional point is awarded to the driver who earns the fastest lap, so long as they finish in the top 10.

Grand Prix winners won’t technically be spraying champagne on the podium for at least the next three years, with Italian sparkling wine company Ferrari Trento signing the latest sponsorship deal with F1 to supply the post-race refreshments for 2021 on. (The only time we’ll be seeing Ferrari on the top step for a while, am I right, folks?) For races held in Middle Eastern countries where alcohol is banned, the podiumed drivers are supplied carbonated rose water.

So those are the rules of a race, but how is it actually fought out on track?

Driving and Cornering

These machines are, uh, not easy to drive. The tolerances are so fine that small timing errors can cause a driver to lose one end of the car and send it into the barriers. When driving flat out, there’s no time for a pause between accelerating and braking (coasting), and missing a braking point by a few meters can cause the loss of a few tenths of a second, or, cause a crash. 

Cornering is a fine art, which requires the precision of a surgeon and the gumption of an insane person who lacks any regard for their own safety. Ahead of the turn, you’ll need to suss out the racing line (the preferred, shortest, route through the corner), and pick your braking point (which will be affected by the profile of the corner, how fast you’re approaching it, whether you’re travelling downhill, uphill, or are on a banked surface, and whether you’re battling with any other cars). Brake as late as possible, and down-shift as you brake. Only start turning once you’ve lifted off the brake, hit the apex of the corner (roughly akin to the geometric middle), and then accelerate your way to freedom (taking care not to jump on the gas too hard too early). Oh, but! Don’t brake too late, or else you’ll put your car into the wall.

Repeat this up to 1,400 times per Grand Prix, at hundreds of miles per hour, while battling nineteen other cars, and have fun!

Overtaking and Battling

In order to execute an overtake of an F1 car, it’s not just enough to be travelling faster than the driver in front: as you may know from driving behind a slower car on your own commute (or walking behind a slow person on the footpath), you’ve got to be a lot faster than your target in order to execute a successful overtake. Some tracks are more conducive to overtakes than others, and some (most notably Monaco) are so narrow as to barely allow for overtaking opportunities.

That’s before even considering aerodynamics: air flow plays a huge role in an F1 race. If you can imagine a stream of air flowing at ground level toward an oncoming F1 car, it gets thrown up and over the car, kind of like a ski jump. A car following very close behind, therefore, largely avoids that air, and can slipstream its way to a potential overtaking opportunity. A car travelling at an awkward distance behind, however, will find themselves hit by the leading car’s dirty air, as it comes down from its little ski jump and hits the trailing car in a turbulent state, causing drag and slowing the trailing car down. A car affected by dirty air will find it difficult to breach the gap required to effect an overtake—one of the most pressing challenges in modern Formula 1.

Overtaking in the corners is a game of skill, which often requires drivers to get into a good position and then just fuckin’ send it—waiting until the absolute last second, and then a little bit longer, and then a bit later than that, and then closing their eyes and hoping—before stamping on the brakes later than the car in front in order to sneak past them around the apex and into the lead. Going down the inside of a turn is obviously the geometrically shorter route, but sometimes a pursuer can catch their rival napping by taking the long way ‘round the outside, for maximum highlight reel effect. (Daniel Ricciardo is the best overtaker on the current F1 grid, in case you were wondering.)

So to defend from a pursuing rival in approaching a corner, a driver in front can make one (and only one) lateral move (e.g., sweeping across the track so as to block their pursuer), using the whole width of the track if they wish. Double-moves are not allowed, and nor are abnormal moves made under braking. 

When vying for position, the car ahead has priority into a corner, and so the onus is on the opponent to cede track so as to avoid crashing into one another; at the same time, the lead car must leave a space so that the opponent is not forced off the track. When side-by-side (or wheel-to-wheel), cars must make sure as to not bang into one another. Dangerous driving (determined at the race stewards’ discretion) is prohibited.

The Drag Reduction System (DRS) was introduced in Formula 1 in 2011 in order to counterbalance the effect of dirty air and to promote overtaking. DRS was greenlit largely in response to the season-concluding 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, when Ferrari title leader Fernando Alonso emerged from a pit stop behind the much-slower Renault of Vitaly Petrov, and couldn’t manage to pass his rival for nearly 40 utterly excruciating laps on a track known to be notoriously difficult for overtaking. Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel miraculously brought home the first of his four consecutive titles (having started the final race in third place in the standings and having never led the title race throughout the course of the season), and it was decided that something needed to be done to level the playing field. DRS permits a car to open a letterbox-shaped gap in its rear wing, permitting air to travel through the gap, reducing drag and therefore aiding overtaking. DRS is only available in predetermined zones on the track (usually long straights) when the trailing car is less than one second behind its leader at a defined DRS zone checkpoint. (Why isn’t DRS available to all cars all the time, you ask? There would then be no comparative advantage which would aid overtaking, duh.)

Tires

All teams are supplied race tires by a single (non-partisan) manufacturer (Pirelli, since 2011), which provides a set allocation of tires for each race weekend. For dry-weather racing, teams are offered three compounds: the white-striped “hard” tires; the yellow-striped “medium” tires; and the red-striped “soft” tires. 

Each driver must employ at least two types of tire compound during a dry race. In wet weather, that rule falls away (for safety reasons), and teams can elect to be shod with green-striped “intermediate” tires, which displace 30 liters of water per second at top speeds, or the blue-striped wet (of “full-wet”) tires, which disperse up to 65 liters of water per second. 

In a vacuum, thinner tires are faster (because they provide more grip), but wear down faster, as the tires experience degradation (or “deg,” for the cool kids). Therefore, a lot of the strategy of a Formula 1 race lies in the choice of tires: depending on the particular characteristics of the track, different tires may offer an advantage. 

A driver will only be able to get maximum performance out of a set of tires when they are in the optimum temperature window: the teams cosy them up in tire blankets when sitting in the garage (leaving the blankets on as long as possible). A massive part of a driver’s skill rests in successfully heating up the tires and keeping them in the window (that’s why you’ll notice drivers zig-zagging around the track during the formation lap, as the lateral forces feed heat into the tires). 

That leads us to pitstops: a true symphony of teamwork. A pit crew feature 16 players: a jack operator patrols each of the front and rear of the car to lever it off the ground; the four tires are each serviced by a wheel gunner (who uses a pneumatic wrench to unlock and then lock the tire’s lug nut) and two tire carriers (who remove the old wheel and replace it with the new wheel, respectively); and finally each side of the car is staffed by a stabiliser who holds the car steady. Red Bull’s pit crew is considered the best in the sport, and they hold the record for the shortest stationary pit stop time at a mind-bending 1.82 seconds. Taking into account the entry and exit from the pit lane (at a mandated maximum of 80 km/h, or 50 mph), a pit stop may take a driver up to 25-30 seconds, depending on the track.

If two (or more) drivers are vying for track position coming up to the end of their stint on a tires, they may aim for one of two pit stop strategies: the undercut or the overcut. An undercut is where a driver pits a lap or two before their rival, in the hopes that their time gain over the one or two laps where they are on a fresh set of tires against their rival’s older tires will mean that their rival will come out behind them on track. The overcut is the opposite (and less common): where a driver feels they will gain more time by staying on track while their rival pits (perhaps because tire wear is less of an issue for them, or their rival will exit the pit lane into traffic from other drivers who have not yet stopped), and using the clear air to punch in a few mega-quick laps and hope to complete their pit stop ahead of their competition. 

How about this: the track itself gets faster as a race (or qualifying session) plays out: a concept known as track evolution. As the cars drive around the track, their motion sweeps away assorted debris, and they lay down a thin layer of tire rubber on the racing line as the cars race across it, building a nice flat welcome mat for the cars to drive across. This makes for a smoother and grippier surface than the inconsistent surface of the remainder of the track, making the tires handle better and wear less. In qualifying, teams will often wait until the very end of the window to conduct their runs in order to take advantage of every last iota of track evolution.

Drivers, Teams, and Championships

Currently the Formula 1 grid is comprised of 10 teams, which field two cars each. 

Half of the teams on the grid are owned (or majority-owned) by car companies (Ferrari, Mercedes, Alpine/Renault, Alfa Romeo, and Aston Martin), while the others are variously owned by an energy drink company which uses Formula 1 as a fun marketing tool (Red Bull and its sibling team AlphaTauri), a rich American guy (Haas), the Bahrain royal family and other investors (McLaren), and, inevitably, private equity vultures (Williams). 

Drivers are rock stars, and (most of them) get paid accordingly. It’s reported that Lewis Hamilton’s salary this season will be around $30 million (excluding bonuses and his myriad endorsements), with half of the grid taking home more than $10 million in salary. At the other end of the table, AlphaTauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda will be paid a (still none-too-shabby) half-million dollars.

The somewhat quirky characteristic of having two teammates compete directly in a (largely) individual sport provides some of the best and most gripping storylines in Formula 1. After all, in motorsport the only real way to test skill is comparing yourself against someone operating the same piece of machinery. Formula 1’s history is littered with memorable intra-team rivalries: Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost fought out one of sport’s greatest rivalries during their years at McLaren; Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello had a Simon-and-Garfunkel thing going on during the former’s record-breaking streak of five consecutive drivers’ championships at Ferrari; and Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg went from childhood best friends to sworn enemies during the final years of their epic rivalry at Mercedes. 

Oh, and don’t for a second underestimate: Formula 1 is a physical sport. The drivers experience gravitational forces of up to 6G (!) in heavy corners, and so they train their neck muscles until they look like World’s Strongest Man competitors (Fernando Alonso’s party trick is to crush a walnut with his neck). Braking from speeds of 360 km/h, the drivers have to absolutely stamp down on the brake pedal with mighty force (the equivalent of performing a huge leg press) at each corner, and push all their force into the steering wheel to counteract the inertial force on their body. They need considerable grip strength to be able to handle the wheel effectively through an entire race. The drivers can lose 4 kg (9 lbs) in sweat over the course of a race (especially on humid tracks, such as Singapore). It goes without saying their reaction times are far beyond those of mere mortals. 

It won’t surprise you to learn that women are criminally underrepresented in Formula 1: only two women have ever started a Grand Prix, the last in 1976. It’s also an extremely white sport—Lewis Hamilton is still the only black driver to ever race in Formula 1, though this year’s grid includes two more non-white drivers in Yuki Tsunoda and Sergio Pérez.

How does one get to be a Formula 1 driver? Well, for starters, you’ll need to get into karting as a kid to learn to drive. Eventually, as you rise through the ranks and graduate to single-seater cars, you’ll need to earn yourself a superlicense, which is just what it sounds like: a driver’s license, but supercharged, for Formula 1. (It’s dangerous out there!) To earn a superlicense a driver must rack up sufficient experience and results in various prescribed championship series, such as Formulas 2 or 3, IndyCar, the World Endurance Championship, and so on. They also need to be 18 years old and have a valid road driver’s license; before this requirement Max Verstappen debuted in Formula 1 at 17 years old, and won the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix at 18 before he was licensed to drive on the roads at home. Therefore, alas—you won’t be driving in Formula 1 any time soon, even if you win the lottery and buy your own team. 

That said, bagfuls of cash are indeed the surest way to driving an F1 car: the sport thrives on money, and, since there are only 20 seats to fill, with only a few opening up each season, oftentimes it’s the drivers who can command sponsorship who find themselves in a seat. Three of the twenty drivers currently on the grid owe their seat directly to having a rich Daddy who invested in their team: Lance Stroll, Nicholas Latifi, and Nikita Mazepin. (I don’t really begrudge these guys: they had to earn a superlicense after all, just like everyone else, and almost every driver is money-connected in some way. It’s just that these three gentlemen can probably sleep with a little more security than the drivers who owe their seat to dispassionate profit-hungry corporate overlords.)

Two championships are awarded at the end of every season (which this year will last a record 23 races): the drivers’ championship (to the driver who earned the most points over the season); and the constructors’ championship (to the team whose drivers combined earned the most points). The two championships almost always go hand-in-hand: only once this century have they gone to different teams when Lewis Hamilton won the drivers’ title with McLaren and Ferrari won the constructors’ championship in 2008.

Mercedes have dominated the turbo-hybrid era (since 2014), winning every single championship and a whopping 74 percent of races, with Hamilton winning six of his record-equalling seven titles in that span.

Race Weekends

On race weekends, the action is scheduled across three days: Friday hosts the first free practice sessions of one hour each (“FP1” and “FP2”); Saturday hosts FP3 and qualifying; and Sunday is race day. The races are mainly scheduled to accommodate the European television audience, but it works out well for North America: the European races on the calendar start at 8.00 pm EDT.

The free practice sessions are just what they sound like: the teams test out their cars as they please, experimenting with different setups, tires, and fuel loads, as they try to gather data to best make decisions as to how to attack qualifying and the race. The cars are equipped with a host of sensors and equipment to collect telemetry data to measure every conceivable data point.  

Qualifying is a lot of fun! The current format sees qualifying broken up into three legs. First, in “Q1,” all 20 cars have 18 minutes to undertake flying laps to set their best time around the track. A qualifying time counts so long as the driver starts their lap before the expiration of the time limit, but will be deleted if they exceed the track limits by cutting corners. The slowest five cars at the end of Q1 are slotted into the 16-20 grid positions for the race accordingly. Q2 lasts for 15 minutes, and the teams again aim to set their fastest time, with the slowest five again being given their corresponding starting position in the race. The top 10 then head to the final qualifying round for pole position, which lasts for only 12 minutes and determines the pointy end of the starting grid. Crucially, the 10 cars which qualify for Q3 (but not the others) must start the race on the same tires (not just the same compound, but the same actual tires) on which they set their fastest Q2 time. 

This season, three Grands Prix will feature, for the first time, “Sprint Qualifying” races instead of traditional qualifying, where a half-(or less) length race will be held on the Saturday, which will award a small number of points toward the overall championships, and serve as qualifying for the actual race on Sunday. Full details have yet to be hashed out, but it’s sure to be interesting either way. 

Safety

Formula 1, like many motorsports, used to see safety as a secondary concern to speed. Its early years were littered with deaths amongst not only drivers, but also track marshals and spectators. Jochen Rindt is the only driver to win the drivers’ championship posthumously: he was leading the 1970 title race before suffering critical injuries in practice at the Italian Grand Prix.

Three-time world champion Jackie Stewart was one of the loudest advocates for safety in F1, inspired by a scary incident in 1966 which left him pinned upside down in his car for 25 minutes, his car soaked in fuel. Stewart campaigned for the mandatory introduction of seatbelts and full-face helmets, and for improvements to track safety. Progress was slow: Niki Lauda attempted to lead a driver boycott of the 1976 German Grand Prix over safety concerns; his colleagues refused to support him, and in a cruel turn of events Lauda suffered a horrific crash in which his car exploded in flames, leaving him with permanent facial burns. In the final race of that season, leading the championship, Lauda withdrew from contention rather than risking his life for another title; his great rival James Hunt raced and ultimately took the title by a single point. 

Since the infamous weekend at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 where crashes claimed the lives of rookie Roland Ratzenberger and iconic three-time world champion Ayrton Senna, Formula 1 has gotten serious about safety. To its credit, it’s probably fair to say that its commitment to safety prioritization is genuine, and that it has delivered on its mission. Since that fateful weekend, there has been one death in Formula 1: Jules Bianchi suffered a freak collision with a tractor crane which was removing another crashed car in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, and succumbed to his injuries nine months later. 

How is it possible to make Formula 1 safe? Start with the drivers’ uniforms: helmets are obviously compulsory, and must be subjected to vigorous heat and stress tests before being deemed safe; the carbon-fiber HANS (head and neck support) protects a driver’s vertebrae in the event of a crash, their suit (like those that must be worn by each pit crew) is made of multi-layered fireproof material, and their biometric gloves measure their vital signs and transmit them to medical staff. The seat belts are so tight that the drivers need a team member to strap them in. 

The technical regulations place greater emphasis on safety considerations than performance, and cars themselves undergo rigorous stress and fire-proofing testing. The car’s survival cell is designed to protect the driver in case of a crash, and the cars are equipped with fire extinguishers. The courses themselves are meticulously planned and improved so as to protect drivers, marshals, and spectators.

The halo was introduced before the 2018 season: a three-pronged bar which sits over the top of the driver’s cockpit to protect them from contact from above. There was predictable griping from fans and even drivers in the lead-up to the halo’s introduction about how it was unnecessary overkill and whether it meant that Formula 1 cars were no longer truly open-cockpit; but when Fernando Alonso was shunted over the top of Charles Leclerc’s car a few weeks into the season it was universally accepted that the halo had prevented another tragedy, and the halo is now widely accepted as a modern necessity. Amongst other incidents, the halo likely saved Romain Grosjean’s life in his utterly terrifying crash at last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

McLaren’s Spanish driver Fernando Alonso (TOP) crashes ontop of Sauber F1’s Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc (C/16) during the first lap of the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Spa on August 26, 2018. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

Circuits and Cities

Formula 1 travels all around the world, for better or for worse, which at the very least provides a lot of variety in the characteristics of the racetracks. Some are power-hungry circuits which prioritise straight-line speeds; some require a larger emphasis on cornering. The best tracks obviously offer a little of everything.

Teams will change the set-up of their cars depending on the specific characteristics of each track: to take one example, cornering speed is most important at the twisty Monaco circuit, and so teams bring their widest rear wing (which maximises downforce) to that race, and use their narrowest rear wing (which minimises drag) at the power-hungry Monza and Spa circuits. The team will make refinements over the course of a race weekend in order to best adapt their car to the task at hand in order to squeeze every extra millisecond of performance.

Most races are held during the day, but some (in Singapore and in the Middle East) are held at night under lights, while Abu Dhabi’s race traditionally starts shortly before sunset and transitions from a day race to a night race. 

Most tracks on the calendar run ‘clockwise,’ featuring more right turns than left turns—the 2021 calendar features 15 clockwise circuits, seven counter clockwise circuits, plus the figure-eight Suzuka Circuit at the Japanese Grand Prix. Many F1 drivers therefore have strength imbalances across their body in favour of clockwise circuits (particularly since most of the European testing circuits are clockwise tracks).

Most Grands Prix are held on race circuits, but in some locations they race on the streets, utilizing tarmac which is otherwise used by the residents of the city. This season will feature six street races: in Monaco, Baku, Montréal, Singapore, Melbourne, and Jeddah. Street circuits can make things interesting, since the design of the track is largely limited by the existing city layout. If your car breaks down at the wrong part of the track in Singapore, it would be a near-impossibility to get back to your team’s pit wall, as you’re stuck halfway across a very densely-populated city which has shut down all of its transport due to the Grand Prix. Ayrton Senna famously walked straight back to his apartment in disgust after crashing out of the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix; Kimi Räikkönen went him one better and decided to crack a few beers on his yacht after retiring from the 2006 race.

Shipping a Formula 1 operation around the globe is a mind-boggling logistical effort, as teams need to ship their race day operations, including motorhomes, IT and communications equipment, mechanical equipment—oh, and the cars—to all corners of the globe.

Money

The terms under which the Formula 1 competition is run are agreed between corporate overlord The Formula One Group, the various teams, and the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) under the famed and highly secretive Concorde Agreement (named after the Paris boulevard on which the FIA is headquartered). The eighth version of the Concorde Agreement was signed last year after much haranguing, and will cover the 2021-2025 seasons. The new agreement reportedly introduced equalization measures such as the salary cap, and also paves the way for long-awaited sweeping regulation changes to be introduced at the start of the 2022 season (delayed one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

The Formula One Group, which was bought by Liberty Media in 2017, is listed as a tracking stock on the Nasdaq. 

Like many sports, spending largely corresponds with performance: higher-budget teams can spend more on development and personnel. As of this season, a budget cap (similar to a salary cap) has been imposed for the first time, in order to help midfield teams stay solvent: a maximum of $145 million can be spent by each team on developing their cars in each season. This figure excludes sums spent on “non-performance” items, including salaries of the drivers and the three highest-paid team members, marketing, income tax, and so on. The cap comes with strict reporting obligations and will be policed by auditing, but teams will absolutely skirt the rules—it will just become another regulation, like the technical regulations, that teams devote brainpower toward outmanoeuvring. 

Before the introduction of this year’s $145 million salary cap, the spending of the big teams was astronomical, with Mercedes ploughing $442 million into its successful 2019 campaign.

Prize money is allocated in a few ways. First, all teams that have been in the sport for at least two seasons (currently all 10 of them) receive a fixed base prize (2019: approx. $35 million). Secondly, prize money is handed out on a sliding scale according to the teams’ finishing position in the constructors’ championship: in 2019, Mercedes took home $66 million as champions, while poor Williams were awarded $15 million for tenth place. Finally, various bonuses are paid to certain teams: Ferrari are paid—get this— a “long-standing team” bonus, in recognition of their inherent value to Formula 1, which in 2019 was $114 million (!); Williams get a similar “heritage” bonus (totaling $10 million in 2019), and there may be other bonuses: Red Bull were reportedly paid a $35 million per year bonus as a reward for being the first team to sign the 2013 Concorde Agreement.

Formula 1 has never been accused of having any moral scruples, and deserves every bit of the awful reputation it has earned itself in that regard. It’s most obviously reflected in the disgusting deals that F1 strikes with moneyed rulers (Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Russia, Abu Dhabi, and, as of this year, Saudi Arabia), and don’t forget,  Formula 1 happily raced in South Africa during the apartheid years. Most despicable of all, in my view, is Formula 1’s ties to Monaco, that sleazy city-state which exists as a standalone nation in the Westphalian sense only to function as a tax haven for the chosen elite. Because of Monaco’s long-standing spot on the F1 calendar (and presumably also because the royal family are themselves fans of the sport), Formula 1’s financial affairs are permitted to operate out of Monaco, and drivers and high-ranking officials and team personnel are granted coveted residency status, and so most F1 drivers live in luxury by the Mediterranean, never having to contribute their share to the global economy. Awesome! 

Thanks for reading, folks! I hope you’ve enjoyed this scenic tour through Formula 1. Now get out there and do some neck crunches, put on your fire-proof underwear, and get watching!

Grazie, ragazzi!