Nick Heidfeld and Nico Rosberg on the street circuit of Albert Park in the 2008 Australian Grand Prix.
A Formula One Grand Prix event spans a weekend. It begins with two free practice sessions on Friday (except in Monaco, where Friday practices are moved to Thursday), and one free practice on Saturday. Additional drivers (commonly known as third drivers) are allowed to run on Fridays, but only two cars may be used per team, requiring a race driver to give up his seat. A qualifying session is held after the last free practice session. This session determines the starting order for the race on Sunday.
The new rule for F1 tyre in 2016 is that the regulations would allow Pirelli to select three different tyres for each race, and each team could choose the tyre from those three depending on the strategies. This concept would continue in 2017 but with Pirelli’s thicker and wider tyres that tested extensively last year.
Tyre selections are announced over a month before each event, with rules stating Pirelli must announce compounds nine weeks before a European round and 15 weeks before a long-haul event. Drivers ordinarily select 10 of the 13 sets available for a race weekend, though Pirelli’s new tyres means the Italian company will force each driver to stick to the same allocations for the first five races as it learns about the new tyre.
That means for the opening five races, drivers will have seven of the softest compound, four of the middle compound and two of the hardest compound available. Pirelli has backup compounds for introduction later in the season if its initial batch proves to be too conservative in terms of performance or leads to greater levels of degradation than expected.
A typical pitwall control centre, from which the team managers and strategists communicate with their drivers and engineers over the course of a testing session or a race weekend.
For much of the sport’s history, qualifying sessions differed little from practice sessions; drivers would have one or more sessions in which to set their fastest time, with the grid order determined by each driver’s best single lap, with the fastest on pole position. Grids were generally limited to 26 cars – if the race had more entries, qualification would also decide which drivers would start the race. During the early 1990s, the number of entries was so high that the worst-performing teams had to enter a pre-qualifying session, with the fastest cars allowed through to the main qualifying session. The qualifying format began to change in the late 1990s, with the FIA experimenting with limiting the number of laps, determining the aggregate time over two sessions, and allowing each driver only one qualifying lap.
The current qualifying system was adopted in the 2006 season. Known as “knock-out” qualifying, it is split into three periods, known as Q1, Q2, and Q3. In each period, drivers run qualifying laps to attempt to advance to the next period, with the slowest drivers being “knocked out” of qualification (but not necessarily the race) at the end of the period and their grid positions set within the rearmost five based on their best lap times. Drivers are allowed as many laps as they wish within each period. After each period, all times are reset, and only a driver’s fastest lap in that period (barring infractions) counts. Any timed lap started before the end of that period may be completed, and will count toward that driver’s placement. The number of cars eliminated in each period is dependent on the total number of cars entered into the championship. Currently, with 20 cars, Q1 runs for 18 minutes, and eliminates the slowest five drivers. During this period, any driver whose best lap takes longer than 107% of the fastest time in Q1 will not be allowed to start the race without permission from the stewards. Otherwise, all drivers proceed to the race albeit in the worst starting positions. This rule does not affect drivers in Q2 or Q3. In Q2, the 15 remaining drivers have 15 minutes to set one of the ten fastest times and proceed to the next period. Finally, Q3 lasts 12 minutes and sees the remaining ten drivers decide the first ten grid positions. At the beginning of the 2016 Formula 1 season, the FIA introduced a new qualifying format, whereby drivers were knocked out every 90 seconds after a certain amount of time had passed in each session. The aim was to mix up grid positions for the race, but due to unpopularity the FIA reverted to the above qualifying format for the Chinese GP, after running the format for only two races.
Each car taking part in Q3 receives an ‘extra’ set of the softest available tyre. This set has to be handed in after qualifying, drivers knocked out in Q1 or Q2 can use this set for the race. The first ten drivers, i.e. the drivers through to Q3 must start the race on the tyre which set the fastest time in Q2, unless the weather requires the use of wet-weather tyres. In which case all of the rules about the tyres won’t be followed. All of the drivers that did not participate in Q3 have free tyre choice for the start of the race. Any penalties that affect grid position are applied at the end of qualifying. Grid penalties can be applied for driving infractions in the previous or current Grand Prix, or for changing a gearbox or engine component. If a car fails scrutineering, the driver will be excluded from qualifying, but will be allowed to start the race from the back of the grid at the race steward’s discretion.
The race begins with a warm-up lap, after which the cars assemble on the starting grid in the order they qualified. This lap is often referred to as the formation lap, as the cars lap in formation with no overtaking (although a driver who makes a mistake may regain lost ground provided he has not fallen to the back of the field). The warm-up lap allows drivers to check the condition of the track and their car, gives the tyres a chance to warm up to increase traction, and also gives the pit crews time to clear themselves and their equipment from the grid.
Once all the cars have formed on the grid, a light system above the track indicates the start of the race: five red lights are illuminated at intervals of one second; they are all then extinguished simultaneously after an unspecified time (typically less than 3 seconds) to signal the start of the race. The start procedure may be abandoned if a driver stalls on the grid, signalled by raising his arm. If this happens, the procedure restarts: a new formation lap begins with the offending car removed from the grid. The race may also be restarted in the event of a serious accident or dangerous conditions, with the original start voided. The race may be started from behind the Safety Car if officials feel a racing start would be excessively dangerous, such as extremely heavy rainfall. As of the 2017 season there will always be a standing restart. If due to heavy rainfall a start behind the safety car is necessary, then after the track has dried sufficiently, drivers will form up for a standing start. There is no formation lap when races start behind the Safety Car.
Under normal circumstances, the winner of the race is the first driver to cross the finish line having completed a set number of laps. Race officials may end the race early (putting out a red flag) due to unsafe conditions such as extreme rainfall, and it must finish within two hours, although races are only likely to last this long in the case of extreme weather or if the safety car is deployed during the race.
In the 1950s, race distances varied from 300 km (190 mi) to 600 km (370 mi). The maximum race length was reduced to 400 km (250 mi) in 1966 and 325 km (202 mi) in 1971. The race length was standardised to the current 305 km (190 mi) in 1989. However, street races like Monaco have shorter distances, to keep under the two-hour limit.
Drivers may overtake one another for position over the course of the race and are “Classified” in the order they finished 90% of the race distance. If a leader comes across a back marker (slower car) who has completed fewer laps, the back marker is shown a blue flag telling him he is obliged to allow the leader to overtake him. The slower car is said to be “lapped” and, once the leader finishes the race, is classified as finishing the race “one lap down”. A driver can be lapped numerous times, by any car in front of him. A driver who fails to finish a race, through mechanical problems, accident, or any other reason is said to have retired from the race and is “Not Classified” in the results. However, if the driver has completed more than 90% of the race distance, he will be classified.
When required, the safety car will lead the field around the circuit at reduced speed, until race officials deem the race safe to continue. The Mercedes-AMG GT safety car has been used in Formula 1 races since the 2015 Australian Grand Prix.
Throughout the race, drivers may make pit stops to change tyres and repair damage (from 1994 to 2009 inclusive, they could also refuel). Different teams and drivers employ different pit stop strategies in order to maximise their car’s potential. Three dry tyre compounds, with different durability and adhesion characteristics, are available to drivers. Over the course of a race, drivers must use two of the three available compounds. The different compounds have different levels of performance, and choosing when to use which compound is a key tactical decision to make. Different tyres have different colours on their sidewalls; this allows spectators to understand the strategies. Under wet conditions, drivers may switch to one of two specialised wet weather tyres with additional grooves (one “intermediate”, for mild wet conditions, such as after recent rain, one “full wet”, for racing in or immediately after rain). A driver must make at least one stop to use two tyre compounds; up to three stops are typically made, although further stops may be necessary to fix damage or if weather conditions change. If rain tyres are used, drivers are no longer obliged to use both types of dry tyres.
As of 2017, the race director in Formula One is Charlie Whiting. This role involves him generally managing the logistics of each F1 Grand Prix, inspecting cars in parc fermé before a race, enforcing FIA rules and controlling the lights which start each race. As the head of the race officials, he also plays a large role in sorting disputes amongst teams and drivers. Penalties, such as drive-through penalties (and stop-and-go penalties), demotions on a pre-race start grid, race disqualifications, and fines can all be handed out should parties break regulations.
In the event of an incident that risks the safety of competitors or trackside race marshals, race officials may choose to deploy the safety car. This in effect suspends the race, with drivers following the safety car around the track at its speed in race order, with overtaking not permitted. The safety car circulates until the danger is cleared; after it comes in, the race restarts with a “rolling start”. Pit stops are permitted under the safety car. Mercedes-Benz supplies Mercedes-AMG models to Formula One to use as the safety cars. Since 2000, the main safety car driver has been German ex-racing driver Bernd Mayländer. On the lap in which the safety car returns to the pits, the leading car takes over the role of the safety car until the first safety car line, which is usually a white line after the pit lane entrance. After crossing this line, drivers are allowed to start racing for track position once more.