The Beginner’s Guide to Formula 1 Racing

The 2013 Formula 1 season begins with the Australian Grand Prix on March 17th. I have decided to cover the upcoming season here at HFTE by providing a weekly race recap/preview once the season gets underway. In the meantime, I realize that one of the reasons that not many Americans pay attention to F1 is because very little is known about it here in the States. This is largely due the minimal amount of coverage that it receives, as well as its sporadic television schedule.

My perspective is that of the fan. There are a lot of people – probably some of you reading this – who know a lot more about the nuances of F1 than I do. My goal with this post is to equip you with just enough information to appear knowledgable, and help you develop enough of an understanding of what’s going on during a race weekend to enjoy watching it.


At its core, the appeal of Formula 1 is that it combines the best race car drivers in the world with the most technologically advanced race cars on the planet in a 20-track, worldwide racing circuit over a nine-month span.

If you’re the type of person who only watches auto racing for the crashes, I have some bad news – Formula 1 probably isn’t for you. That’s not to say that there aren’t crashes, there certainly are, but the beauty of F1 lies within the pursuit of the flawless race. Any number of factors, from a botched pit stop to an unfortunate tire lockup, can make all the difference between victory and a disappointing finish outside of the top 10.



Formula 1 races begin with a warm-up lap, after which the cars all come to a standstill in a grid. A series of 5 lights progressively light up, and after the fifth one has been illuminated, they are turned off and the race begins:

The difference between a good start and a bad start can make all the difference between success and disappointment at the end of the race. The start of the race – especially the first few turns – frequently produces some of the most action-packed moments of the race, as drivers in close proximity to each other that are all jockeying for position will occasionally make contact with each other. Such instances can potentially change the entire dynamic of a race. The start of the 2012 season finale in Brazil is a prime example of this:

Vettel was able to recover and finish well enough to secure the 2012 Drivers’ Championship, but because of his collision on the first lap, the entire race became an incredibly dramatic and exhilarating viewing experience.



A panel of race stewards monitor all F1 races as they are underway, and will give out penalties when it has been determined that an infraction has occurred. These fractions may include jumping the start, causing an unnecessary collision, corner cutting, passing under caution, speeding in pit lane or blocking another driver who is attempting to pass. The punishment for infractions range from “Drive-Through” penalties, where a driver must drive through pit lane within three laps, to race disqualification, where a driver can be black flagged, and not be permitted to continue the race. has a more detailed summary of driver protocol and penalties, and I would recommend reading it over to familiarize yourself with the rules.



Formula 1 cars do not refuel during the race. However, fuel management is still a major consideration in the development of a race strategy. Tire and brake wear are critical as well, and are all accounted for during the planning stages before a race. Teams must possess the ability to adapt on the fly as well.

On July 7, 2012, the McLaren team set a new world record by completing a Jenson Button pit stop in 2.31 seconds. Here is the video:

This is an incredible feat, and according to the website, the team rewarded its 22-man pit crew by giving each member a Tag Heuer Carrera watch. In the aftermath of that pit stop, Button summed it up perfectly by saying (from

“A Formula 1 pitstop is the perfect representation of seamless teamwork. Every movement needs to work in perfect sync for a stop to be a success… Getting it right has become an art-form, and I’m incredibly proud that the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team has worked so hard to become the best in the pit lane.”

Three months later, while racing in the Indian Grand Prix, McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton was having radio-communication issues with his team. To fix the problem, McLaren opted to swap out the malfunctioning steering wheel during his next scheduled pit stop in addition to executing the planned tire change. The entire process was completed in an astonishing 3.3 seconds.



The qualifying process for Formula 1 is an hour-long, three-part event that eliminates the six slowest drivers after each of the first two sessions.

Q1 is the name for the first qualifying session. It is twenty minutes long, and at the conclusion of the session, the six slowest cars are not permitted to continue onto Q2. They will make up the 17-22nd spots on the starting grid based on their best lap times during the session. It is not uncommon to see some of the best drivers stay in the garage until the final 5-10 minutes of the session, in order to preserve their tires for later sessions and give the surface of the track enough time to warm up.

The 107% Rule is also enforced based on the results of the Q1 session. This rule entails that if a driver’s fastest lap time is not within 107% of the fastest lap time from that session, that driver will not be allowed to participate in the race. Exceptions to this rule can be made, but those judgments are left up to the race stewards.

A seven-minute break occurs, after which Q2 commences with the 16 remaining drivers. The second session is fifteen minutes long. Lap times do not carry over between sessions. At the conclusion of Q2, the six slowest drivers are placed into the grid based on their lap times, filling the 11-16th spots.

Another eight-minute intermission takes place, prior to the final qualifying session. Q3, more commonly referred to as the “Shootout,” is a 10 minute session involving the ten fastest cars from Q2. The remainder of the starting grid is determined based on these drivers’ best lap times in the session.



The precision engineering that is present in the modern Formula 1 car is mind boggling. I’m not going to go into too much detail regarding this, largely due to the fact that I only have an elementary understanding of it, but Formula 1 cars are widely considered to be the most technologically-sophisticated race cars on the planet. Seriously, take a look at this article from Road & Track that breaks down the underside of an F1 car. That’s only the bottom of the freakin’ thing!

Anyway, there are really only two things about the Formula 1 technology that you’ll need to know about when you watch. DRS and KERS.

  • DRS (pronounced “D-R-S”), an acronym for “drag reduction system,” is a mechanism that allows drivers to open a flap in their back wings with the push of a button. When the DRS system is enabled, wind resistance against the car is reduced, as is the car’s downforce. Cars using the system generally reach a top speed that is about 10 mph faster than cars that do not have it enabled. This system was implemented in 2011 by Formula 1 to encourage passing, because without it, there were very few positional changes throughout the race aside from pit stops. Race tracks have “DRS Zones” where drivers are allowed to use the system during races, as long as they are within one second of the car ahead of them. These zones are often located on long straightaways, because the reduced downforce makes the car very difficult to control, and would result in certain doom if used during a turn. In 2012, drivers were allowed to use the DRS system at any point on the track during practice and qualifying sessions, but this will not be the case in 2013. This season, drivers will only be allowed to use the system in the aforementioned DRS Zones during practice and qualifying, as well as during the race. The Mercedes team had developed a unique “Double DRS” system that yielded even better results than the traditional DRS, but its use will not be permitted in 2013.
  • KERS (pronounced “Kerrs”), or Kinetic Energy Recovery System, is a system that, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even remotely understand from a technological perspective. Each driver is allowed to use it for about 6.67 seconds per lap, and it provides increased acceleration while enabled. Formula 1’s official website has a better explanation of how it actually works, so read up on it over there if you want to know more. It’s worth noting that in 2012, both the Marussia and the now-defunct HRT team did not have KERS systems on their cars. Technically, the previous sentence is a lie. HRT did have KERS on their cars while qualifying for the first race of the season, but were not allowed to run in the actual race due to their failure to meet the criteria of the 107% rule. In response to this, HRT opted to remove the system from their cars for the remainder of the season.



There are two Championships being sought out throughout the Formula 1 season. The World Drivers’ Championship, and the World Constructors’ Championship.

As you have probably inferred, the Drivers’ Championship is awarded to the individual driver that accumulates the highest point total throughout the season.

The point system is as follows, from

F1 Points System

The Constructors’ Championship, on the other hand, is determined by adding together the point totals for both cars that a team fields throughout a season. Unlike Nascar, F1 does take on elements of a team sport in that regard.

This is not an arbitrary award either. The payouts to each team in F1 are performance based. While the specific payouts have not been disclosed, it is believed that each point that a constructor earns throughout a season is worth somewhere around $1,000,000. This adds an element of drama toward the end of the season for all teams as well, as such payouts can make all the difference between whether or not the so-called “Junior Teams” (more on that later) will have the funds required to continue their operations into the following season. At the same time, the more Constructors’ points a team receives in a season, the higher their entry fee will be the following season. The entry-fee system has been altered dramatically for the 2013 season, and you can read about all of the changes at by clicking here. For your convenience, below is a screenshot of the individual teams’ entry fees:

Note: HRT has ceased operations and will not be participating in the 2013 season.



It is commonplace for drivers to change teams in the off-season, and this year has certainly been no exception to that. The most notable change for 2013 is the (2nd) retirement of legendary Formula 1 driver, Michael Schumacher, with superstar driver Lewis Hamilton leaving the McLaren team to take Schumacher’s place with the Mercedes AMG team. This was a surprising move, as McLaren traditionally outperforms the Mercedes team, but Hamilton has actually cited the challenge of transforming a struggling team into a championship contender as a motivating factor in his decision to switch.

The 2013 season will also feature three rookie drivers, with Max Chilton, Esteban Gutierrez and Valtteri Bottas each securing rides with Marussia, Sauber and Williams, respectively.

As for the teams themselves, parity is minimal between the 11 of them. Powerhouses such as Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari routinely find themselves at the top of the Constructors’ Championship standings, whereas the oft-referred “Junior Teams” like Caterham, Marussia and formerly HRT – an active team in 2012 that has ceased operations – operate with much smaller budgets, and almost always find themselves near the bottom of the standings.



The single biggest perk of Formula 1 flying under the radar in American culture is that you don’t need to worry about accidentally stumbling across spoilers prior to watching it yourself. F1 is the only sport that I regularly watch on DVR instead of live. This is out of necessity, due to the international makeup of the schedule. I recommend setting up a Season Pass/Record Series/whatever your provider calls it for the entire F1 Season.

While you can get away with skipping the practice sessions, I highly recommend watching the qualifying sessions as well as the race. Depending on when the actual broadcast airs, I usually watch as soon as I wake up on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It does a great job of filling that downtime early in the morning on weekends when nothing good is on TV, and your day hasn’t really started up yet. Eventually, it is likely that you will come to like certain drivers more than others, and naturally develop your own rooting interests as the season progresses.



From Wikipedia:

Schedule as of 12/30/2012
Schedule as of 12/30/2012
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13 Responses to The Beginner’s Guide to Formula 1 Racing

  1. Peter Larato says:

    Nice of you to put such a good effort into a clean presentation…Thank you.

    I’m a criminal defense attorney operating in Colorado and I don’t have a hell of a lot of time to watch television with the exception of Formula One…as a child I got to see Grand Prix in the movie theater three times and F1 was ingrained in me.

    But I hate paying for all the other slop spooned out on cable…do you know if there is a way for me to just pay for F1 and flush cable? Thank you in advance. Nice job! Power to Ferrari.

  2. VBMG says:

    This is really a good introduction to F1. Nice to see HFTE taking an interest, it really is something to behold. Saw the USGP live in 2001, been hooked since.

    A few things I’d add:

    1. Anyone getting into the sport should go watch Senna immediately. Actually even if you don’t like racing, it’s just an amazing film.

    2. The team with Adrian Newey wins.

    3. Fuck Red Bull.

    4. Mercedes started on their 2013 car about 60% of the way through the 2012 season, way earlier than any other meaningful team. The last time a Ross Brawn-led team did this was Brawn GP in 2009, which put out a car that smoked everyone. Hamilton and Mercedes could very well own right out of the gate.

    5. Fuck Red Bull again.

    Nice work Sgt.

    • Sgt. Hammerclaw says:

      Yup. All good points. Thanks for chiming in.

      For everybody else, Senna is definitely worth watching. It is currently available on Netflix Instant Streaming for those who have the service.

    • Anonymous says:


  3. Joe Jones says:

    the entire brazilian grand prix of 2012 was insane! im glad you used that as an example of hectic moments 🙂

  4. Big Sloppy says:

    I still play the shit out of my Sega. NBA Action 95, for my money, was much better that NBA Live. Graphics weren’t as great, but better stats. NHL games were much better on Sega.

    But I further digress…nice explanation of F1. I can’t wait to give it a shot armed with a bit of basic knowledge.

    • Big Sloppy says:

      This was supposed to be part of that video game thread. Internets are hard when math is involved.

  5. Same Sad Echo says:

    This was really helpful, but I still have a few questions:
    – Is it true I shouldn’t heat it up in the microwave?
    – Why do we always have to solve for x? Y is pretty awesome too.
    – Was the first Coke really made with cocaine?
    – In your opinion, who made up the most successful back court of all time?

    • Sgt. Hammerclaw says:

      Glad I could help. I’ll tackle these for you one at a time.
      1. The only actual risk from using a microwave is uneven heating for the Formula. I still wouldn’t recommend it.
      2. Because Y never seems to understand things without further explanation.
      3. I like to believe that it was.
      4. I’ll be honest, I used to make some pretty shrewd moves as a GM in NBA Live 95 for Sega Genesis back in the day, so I’d probably have to nominate myself as the person responsible for making it up.

      • PostApocalypticRecSpecs says:

        It does not surprise me in the least that you were a Sega guy.

      • Sgt. Hammerclaw says:

        Yup. The progression was as follows: 8-bit NES > Sega Genesis > Sega Saturn (very short lived) > Nintendo 64 > PC (Only for Battlefield 1942, though.) > Xbox > Xbox 360 > Xbox 720 (Late 2013)

      • PostApocalypticRecSpecs says:

        Intellivision (!) – Atari – NES – Super Nintendo – Play Station. I quit playing video games, ya know, when I became an adult.

      • Sgt. Hammerclaw says:

        Well, that was certainly foolish of you.

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