“Lights out and away we go.” – This classic commentary from the television will send shivers up your spine for years to come. You can’t forget the tension of the first few laps, the intricacy, and skill required to handle millions of dollars’ worth of mechanical genius around a circuit at blistering speeds and forces, where one mistake can cost one-tenth of a second – or, in Formula 1 terms, a year.
Formula 1 is well-known as the pinnacle of track-based motorsport. If you’re a newcomer to the sport, here’s a brief guide on all you need to know.
Table of Contents
- What You Need To Know
- Quick Facts to Impress Your Friends
- Organizations Within and Related to Formula 1
- The Cars
- Famous Faces
- Famous Constructors
What You Need To Know
The “Formula” in the name Formula 1 comes from the rules and regulations which all competitors must follow. Teams may race against each other and are free to develop their cars in different ways, but they must abide by a specific set of rules. For example, every car must use the same engine and gearbox. For every race, teams can choose from a specific set of Pirelli tires – in 2021, these range from C1 (the “hardest”) to C5 (“the softest”) – as well as two tires designed for wet weather.
A Formula 1 race is also known as a Grand Prix (or GP). It’s a French term meaning “grand prize,” associated with the most important sporting event in the country.
Formula 1 Grand Prix races are always on a Sunday. The teams will arrive at the track during the week, and begin to get set up there. On Friday, a scheduled practice session gives the drivers the chance to familiarize themselves with the layout of the circuit, and experiment with different vehicle setups and tires.
On Saturday, the drivers compete for their grid position in the qualifying session. Currently, this is set up as three sessions where every driver tries to set the fastest time they can around the track. At the end of the first two of these sessions, the slowest five drivers are eliminated, and their grid position decided.
At the end of the third session, the driver with the fastest lap time will be in pole position on the starting grid, with the slowest of the remaining ten drivers in tenth, and so on. On Sunday, the race will begin – the number of laps is different for each track.
Every Formula 1 year is known as a “season,” usually running from March to October. In 2021 there are 22 planned Grands Prix.
In each season, the drivers all compete with each other to win the Drivers’ Championship. In each race, a driver wins points, depending on the position in which they finish. The number of points to win per position can change year by year. At the end of the season, the driver with the highest total of points wins the Drivers’ Championship. Currently, the race winner takes 25 points, second place takes 18 points, all the way down to 1 point for the driver who finishes tenth.
At the same time as this, the Constructors’ Championship is also running. In the Constructors’ Championship, the teams compete with each other to get the most points from races. The constructor receives the same amount of points as both of their drivers put together.
For example, if Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas both compete in a race for the constructor Mercedes in a Grand Prix, and they secure a 1-2 finish (one driver finishes first, and the other second), then the drivers would receive 25 points and 18 points respectively. Mercedes then would be awarded 43 points towards the Constructors’ Championship.
You can see how sometimes a driver’s aspirations towards being the Drivers’ World Champion could go against their constructor’s strategy and vice versa. A particular example of this is when one driver is stuck behind their slower team-mate, but the team might order the driver behind not to overtake, to not risk a crash. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were an ultimate example of this from 2014 to 2016, when racing for Mercedes.
Quick Facts to Impress Your Friends
• F1 cars can accelerate from 0mph to 100mph and return back to a dead stop in 4 seconds. They can easily exceed 200mph.
• The average cost of a base level car is about $7.2 million.
• During a race, the brake discs can reach 1000 C – the same temperature as molten lava.
• Cars can brake so hard that tears are forced out of the drivers’ eyes.
• The fastest ever pit stop – in which Max Verstappen drove his Red Bull into the pits and had four tires replaced before driving off again – took 1.82 seconds! This happened at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix.
• The average driver is 4kg lighter at the end of a race than at the start. This is due to high cockpit temperatures (about 50C) and the G-Forces acting on them.
• 46 drivers have lost their lives while racing in Formula 1.
• Because of the huge 3.5G of downforce, it’s theoretically possible for an F1 car to be driven upside down, in the right conditions. This has never been attempted because the fluids around the engine and car would behave differently. Also, what driver would sign themselves up to try it?
There are few governing and organizational bodies dotted around the sport that will be useful to know about. The FIA, or the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, was set up in 1904 to bring motorsport under sets of governing rules to promote both competition and safety.
As the governing body of Formula 1 (as well as Formula 2, Formula 3, WRC, and many other world-renowned motorsport events), it’s responsible for the general “rules” of the sport. The Formula One Group itself was recently purchased by an American company, Liberty Media, which also currently owns Virgin Media.
Other important organizations include the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA – see Bernie Ecclestone), the Formula One Team’s Association (FOTA), and the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA).
Formula 1 cars are built to be as aerodynamically efficient as a car can physically be. Taking a corner too slowly in a Formula 1 car can make the tires go cold and lose grip while also providing inefficient downforce to keep the car planted on the road. All this means is that going too slowly actually makes you crash.
Formula 1 cars are hybrid cars. Yes, like a Prius – but an extremely fast and technologically advanced Prius. Instead of just an engine, the whole system – which is used to provide power for the car – is called a power train.
It’s made up of a V6 internal combustion engine (often abbreviated to “ICE”), the turbocharger (TC), and the Motor Generator Unit-Heat (MGU-H), which collects heat energy from the exhaust and stores it, ready to be reused).
It also includes the Motor Generator Unit-Kinetic (MGU-K), which collects heat energy, this time from the brakes, and stores it for re-use. There’s also the Energy Store (ES – something which holds the energy from the Motor Generator Units, like a battery) and the Control Electronics (CE – this includes all the software for telling the power unit what to do).
In summary, all you need to know is that the turbocharged engine is supplemented by electrical power generated by the waste heat energy from the car.
Your average Formula 1 racing driver would have been competing in professional karting races since the tender age of about 8. They would have worked their way up from karting to a single-seater Formula, such as Formula Ford or Formula Renault. From there, the most successful drivers would have progressed onto Formula 3, then Formula 2, and then finally Formula 1.
All of these Formulae are incredibly competitive, and therefore it’s understandable why the vast majority of racers never make it up to Formula 1.
Drivers need to be incredibly fit, due to the forces their bodies are put through. During sharp, fast cornering, the force applied to the side of a driver’s head would be equivalent to lying on your side, with 25kg on the side of your head, while trying to keep your neck straight.
During a race, a driver’s heart rate will be between 160 and 200bpm. Therefore, F1 drivers need to have incredibly strong necks and core muscles, while also having the cardio levels of a marathon runner. It’s not easy being one of these guys.
Bernie Ecclestone is a name that might pop up quite a few times if you’re new to F1. He was not a racing driver, but he’s been involved with the running of Formula 1 for a very long time. Whether you see him as ruthless or a genius, he worked his way up from humble beginnings and through various businesses, eventually buying the F1 team, Brabham, in 1972.
While here, he set up FOCA (the Formula One Constructors’ Association), which was designed to unite the British teams with a chance of competing against the bargaining power of Ferrari. The president of the FISA (the previous name of the FIA mentioned earlier) at that time was a man named Jean-Marie Balestre, who lived a lavish lifestyle and often gave unfair advantages to European cars.
In what would eventually become known as the FISA FOCA war, Ecclestone and Balestre constantly attempted to outsmart each other. Dirty tricks were common on both sides – the world saw that Ecclestone was a force to be reckoned with. Eventually, Ecclestone and FOCA won, and the Concord Agreement essentially gave Ecclestone access to the FIA committee.
In short, the FIA would continue to govern the rules and regulations, while Bernie took control of mostly all of the commercial aspects. This made him, and most of the team owners, extremely wealthy. Ecclestone was eventually removed from his position when Liberty Media took over Formula 1 in 2016.
Jim Clark was in a league far above his peers when he raced in Formula 1 between 1960 and 1968. Clarke was Scottish and was a master of maintaining the vehicle’s momentum through corners to provide the quickest routes around the tracks. He won two world championships in 1963 and 1965, spending his entire racing career with Lotus.
He was sadly killed in an accident while racing in Formula 2 in Germany, which many believe was due to a rear tire deflating, causing him to lose control and the car to fly into a densely wooded area. Many people consider him to be one of the greatest drivers ever.
Niki Lauda won three World Championships in 1975, 1977 and 1984. He was best known for his resilience to keep on racing even after suffering a traumatic crash in 1976, which left him scarred from burns, and almost dead. In 1971, he secured a loan to buy his way into the March team in Formula 2, after working his way up through Formula Vee and Formula 3.
While racing for them that year, he also had his first race in a Formula 1 car and competed in 12 F1 races in 1972 before joining the BRM F1 team in 1973. In 1974 he switched to Ferrari and finished the season in fourth place. After winning the 1975 championship, the infamous 1976 season began.
Lauda was leading the championship by some margin. But, at the German Grand Prix that year, he called a meeting to cancel the race because of safety concerns. He was outvoted, and the race went ahead. In the second lap of that race, Lauda lost control and crashed into an embankment, his car bursting into flames.
Although he was pulled from the wreckage, he had inhaled noxious gases and sustained terrible burns. His last rites were read at his bedside in the hospital, but he survived and came back to race after missing only two events.
His well-known rivalry with British driver, James Hunt, had intensified, as Hunt had caught Lauda up in the driver standings while he’d been in the hospital. When the last race of the year (the Japanese Grand Prix), came around, Lauda was leading by 3 points.
But he withdrew from the race due to safety concerns again, having learned from his previous mistake in Germany. Hunt went on to race and finished third, winning the championship by just 1 point. After retiring, he focussed on the airlines which he’d set up, and eventually became the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team. He passed away in May 2019.
Ayrton Senna was also one of the greats of the Formula 1 world. The Brazilian was born in March 1960 and began racing in Formula 1 in 1984. Over the next ten years, he won the World Championship three times, publicly falling out with other drivers such as Alain Prost.
He always returned to Brazil and was known there for being a kind man who donated millions of personal finances to help those in need. He was sadly killed in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix on the infamous track Imola, when his car, which had been having problems all season, left the circuit without apparent reason and crashed into a concrete barrier.
After this event, the circuit was modified to reduce the speed that the cars would carry through the Tamburello bend, where his crash occurred. Senna was considered by most Formula 1 drivers to be the greatest of all time, and theirs is an opinion which, let’s be honest, is probably right.
Michael Schumacher is perhaps the most famous of all Formula 1 racers. The German began his Formula 1 career in 1991, and between 1994 and 2004 won a record 7 World Championships, 5 of these consecutively with Ferrari between 2000 and 2004.
He was one of the masters of driving the car perfectly on the edge of the limit, and he was well known for his desire to win. Schumacher retired at the end of 2006, briefly returning between 2010 and 2012 to race with Mercedes, before again retiring. In December 2013, he suffered a traumatic brain injury while skiing. Very little is now known about his personal life upon the requests of his family.
Kimi Raikkonen is a man of few words, and so we shall use only a few words to describe him. Known as the Ice Man because of his cool head and open boredom with the press, he won one World Championship in 2007 after taking Michael Schumacher’s place with Ferrari when he retired. He still races today, with Alfa Romeo.
Fernando Alonso came onto the scene of Formula 1 during the end of the Schumacher era. He won his first Drivers’ Championship with Renault in 2005, winning another the following year, in 2006. Although he wasn’t won any more championships since then, Alonso continued to race in F1 until 2018 when, after a long dry spell with McLaren, he decided to leave the sport. He remains one of the most respected drivers in racing.
Lewis Hamilton is probably the most well-known of today’s Formula 1 grid line-up. Lewis began his F1 career in 2007 when he signed with McLaren, finishing second in the championship by only one point to Kimi Raikkonen. In 2008, he won his first Drivers’ Championship dramatically, overtaking Timo Glock on the last corner of the last lap of the last race of the season.
He claimed fifth place and won the championship by 1 point. After 4 more years with McLaren, Hamilton made the switch to Mercedes in 2013 and was reunited with his old karting team-mate, Nico Rosberg. In 2014, new regulations in F1 meant that all the teams had to completely redesign their engines and power units, which brought about the current period of dominance that Mercedes have in the sport. Since 2014, Hamilton has won 5 out of the 6 Drivers’ Championships, 2016’s championship going to his team-mate Nico Rosberg, who then promptly retired.
Max Verstappen is the wonder-boy of this current generation of drivers. His natural racing instincts can be seen as brash, but the results speak for themselves. He shines in wet weather, with his ability to perfectly control the car in situations where it, quite frankly, should not be possible.
As the son of former F1 racer Jos Verstappen, Max made his debut racing for Toro Rosso in 2015, before being promoted to a seat in the Red Bull team in 2016, winning his inaugural race, the Spanish Grand Prix. Being born in 1997 meant that he was only 17 years old when he made his debut in Formula 1. Ironically, he only got his driving license aged 18, which was after more than half a season of racing in Formula 1.
Ferrari essentially defines Formula 1. The team has competed in every Formula 1 championship since the first one, in 1950. They’ve won a record of 16 Constructors’ Championships. The last of these was won in 2007 with Kimi Raikkonen. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza, is regarded as the team’s “home race.”
Currently, drivers Sebastien Vettel and Charles Leclerc race for Ferrari, finishing second in the Constructors’ Championship in 2019. With big financial backing, Ferrari has always held significant influence in Formula 1. They are, historically, as you might imagine, the most successful team in all of Formula 1’s years.
McLaren is the second oldest Formula 1 team, behind Ferrari. The team, based in Surrey in England, won their first championship in 1974 with Emerson Fittipaldi, which was the same year in which Marlboro first sponsored them – a partnership that would last until 1997. In total, McLaren has won 12 Constructors’ Championships, with drivers including James Hunt, Ayrton Senna, and Lewis Hamilton. The team has also had success in North American racing series’, such as IndyCar.
Williams was founded in 1977 by Frank Williams and entered with just one car in its team in 1978. In 1979, Williams finished second in the Constructors’ Championship, only behind Ferrari. In 1980 and 1982, Williams won both Championships but struggled in 1983 to compete against the turbocharged engines of other cars with their naturally aspirated Cosworth V8.
They took another Constructors’ Championship in 1986, before another period of dominance ensued in the 1990s, when Williams won the championship in 1992, 1993, 1996 and 1997. They’ve not won another championship since and are currently struggling with poor performances and results.
Red Bull Racing
Red Bull is the final team worth a mention. We can trace their origins back to Stewart Grand Prix, founded by ex-racer Jackie Stewart in 1997. In 1999 Stewart sold his team to Ford Motor Company, who rebranded the team as Jaguar. After little success, Ford then sold the team in 2004 to Red Bull, an energy drinks company, which had also sponsored the team Sauber from 1995 to 2004.
Once they had acquired the team, Red Bull used Cosworth engines in 2005 and Ferrari engines in 2006, before switching to Renault engines from 2007 to 2018. After winning four consecutive Constructors’ Championships from 2010 to 2013, Red Bull eventually switched their engine supplier to Honda in 2019 after a large number of reliability issues.
In 2016, after falling out with Renault rather publicly, Red Bull Racing (often abbreviated to RBR) announced Aston Martin as their chief sponsor, and it has remained that way to this day. Although they don’t have the level of dominance that they may have had ten years ago, Red Bull Racing is still a force to be reckoned with.
No modern Formula 1 fan can not know about Mercedes. Mercedes returned to the newly branded Formula 1 in 1954, in which Juan Manuel Fangio, their driver, won the Drivers’ Championship, as well as in 1955. After the Le Mans disaster in 1955, Mercedes withdrew from motorsport and would not compete directly again until 2010, when they re-joined the field.
For their first few seasons, Mercedes struggled in the midfield pack of teams, but all that changed in 2014. In 2014 the rules for Formula 1 were changed in regards to the engines, bringing turbochargers back for the first time since 1988.
Mercedes capitalized immensely, producing a power unit and overall car which was in another league compared to all the opposition. Since 2014, Mercedes have won every single Constructors’ Championship and has dominated the opposition. Although Ferrari and Red Bull might be seen to be slightly closing the gap as we come into the 2021 season, Mercedes still just keep on winning.
Formula 1 has been criticized in recent years for being less interesting than other sports, in particular because whoever has the most money will usually win. New regulations to be issued in 2021 will introduce a budget cap for all teams, however, which will hopefully begin to level out the playing field.
The cars are the pinnacle of technology, and the drivers are incredible athletes, both mentally and physically. Formula 1 is all about thousandths of seconds, which, more often than not, is the difference between winning and losing.
There you have it – everything you need to know to begin watching Formula 1 and impressing your friends with your knowledge. Happy racing.