What the heck is Formula One, anyway?

Before we get into any specifics, let’s get a basic idea of what exactly Formula One (F1) is. Despite the name, it is not a men’s hair loss remedy. Rather, it is the fastest and most technologically-advanced motorsport on the planet. The ‘formula’ refers to the (detailed) set of rules that the cars must adhere to.

The first F1 season was 1950, although car racing has been around pretty much as long as there have been cars. Ferrari, the most famous team in the sport, is the only team that has entered every World Championship. And that prestige has some benefits attached.

Notwithstanding the opinions some Americans, who enjoy watching cars go around in circles for 300 laps, F1 is considered the pinnacle of motorsport. The best drivers and car manufacturers (for the most part) gravitate here. Team budgets can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars each season and the average race is watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world. In fact, only the FIFA World Cup draws more viewers…and it happens once every four years. There are up to 20 F1 races each season.

The cars in F1 are very advanced pieces of machinery – they work sort of like reverse airplanes. Whereas the wings on an airplane are designed to generate lift, using Bernoulli’s principle, the wings on the front and back of an F1 car are flipped upside down, to push the car down onto the track. That is why the cars can go so quickly through the turns, and why you’ll hear ‘downforce’ mentioned about fifty times whenever you watch a race.

f1 pics

Photo credit: Matthew Walthert

There are currently 11 teams in F1, but that number fluctuates from year to year. Some of the teams are owned by car companies (e.g. Ferrari, Lotus) and some are owned by individuals (e.g. Sauber, Force India). Each team has two race drivers, who compete for individual points in the Drivers’ Championship, as well as team points in the Constructors’ Championships. In other words, they have to work together while trying to beat each other. Sometimes it works out better than others.

There are also reserve/test drivers, who are ready to step in if one of the race drivers gets sick or hurt, and who contribute to the technical development of the car during off-season testing and work in the simulators.  They usually fall into one of two categories: young drivers who are future candidates for race seats or older drivers with lots of experience developing cars.  Each team has at least one reserve driver, and often more.

Even though it may seem easy to sit in a car and drive it around, F1 drivers must be very fit, for a few reasons. First, the lighter they are, the better. One of the regulations is a strict weight limit for each car. Teams use weights placed throughout the car to make up any difference between the weight of the car, plus the driver, and the minimum requirement. Where these weights are placed can have a significant effect on how well the car handles. So, the more weight the engineers have to distribute, the better.

Also, driving an F1 car is very physically and mentally demanding. Races can last up to two hours, and drivers cannot relax for even a second, unless they want to end up in an accident. Often, the races are run in the hottest part of the day in some of the hottest countries on Earth: Brazil, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. – and the cars don’t even have air conditioning. Also, with the speed F1 cars corner at and the power of their brakes, drivers’ necks (and the rest of their bodies) are subject to high g-forces continuously throughout the race. No wonder they are drenched in sweat when they hop out of their cars…not your average Sunday afternoon drive.


Photo credit: Matthew Walthert

There are 19 races on the 2013 calendar. The season runs from mid-March to late November, with one to three weeks between each race and a four-week break in August. Although Europe is the F1 heartland, 2013 will see races on every continent except Africa and Antarctica (there are lots of tyre choices in F1, but snow tyres are not one of them).

As recently as 2006, 10 of 18 races were in Europe (counting the Turkish Grand Prix as a European race). In 2013, only 7 of 19 races will be in Europe, as F1 has followed the money east, to Asia. For the most part, these new grands prix can’t be considered roaring successes – at least not yet. Empty seats, even on race day, are a problem at many of the new cookie-cutter circuits designed by The Only Man in the World Capable of Designing an F1 Circuit: Hermann Tilke (I assume that must be his title, because he has designed every new circuit since 1999).

To be fair, Tilke has had some successes, including Istanbul Park, before the Turkish Grand Prix was removed from the calendar after the 2011 season. More recently, he designed the stunning new home of the United States Grand Prix, the Circuit of the Americas, just outside Austin, Texas. It hosted its first race near the end of the 2012 season, as F1 tries once again to capture the ever-elusive American market.

Now you (hopefully) know a bit more about what F1 is. As we go along, we’ll cover a lot of the topics brought up in this post in much more detail. If there’s something you just can’t wait to know, though, always feel free to ask: theparadelap@gmail.com.


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