A Grand Prix Weekend in (kind of) Brief

This post is a general overview of a Formula One race weekend, particularly from the perspective of someone watching on television. There are lots of details, rules, and strategies for each of the different components of the weekend; we’ll cover those in time. This is just so you have some idea what is going on when you turn on the TV and see only a couple cars buzzing around the track, or hear David Coulthard yelling something about ‘provisional pole’.

Free Practice

For spectators, an F1 race weekend starts on Friday morning (Thursday, if you happen to be in Monaco – Friday is market day), with Free Practice. There are two sessions of 90 minutes each on Friday, and a 60-minute session on Saturday morning.

As the name suggests, Free Practice is a time for teams to test out different things: a new piece of bodywork for the car, how different tyres work with various aerodynamic set-ups of the wings, and even, sometimes, new drivers.

F1 - YasMarinaCircuit 2010

Photo credit: JiteshJagadish via Flickr

During the two Friday practices, teams can replace either (or both) of their race drivers with their reserve/test drivers. This is often done to give experience to new drivers or to give the test drivers some time in the cock-pit, as in-season testing of cars is now prohibited (simulators and wind tunnels are used instead). So far, this driver switch has only happened four times in 2013.

Times are recorded during the practice sessions, but they have no bearing on qualifying or the race. As mentioned, teams are often trying out new car set-ups, tyres, and carrying different fuel loads. Therefore, it is often difficult to tell anything about drivers’ comparative speed based solely on practice times. Still, if a driver finishes near the top of the time sheets for each practice, he probably has pretty fast car.

Qualifying

Following the three practice sessions, on Saturday afternoon there is a Qualifying session. The times from this session determines the starting order for the race. Qualifying well is especially important at tracks where there are not many overtaking opportunities, like Monaco, but it is always an advantage to start as high on the grid as possible.

The Qualifying session is divided into three parts. After the first part, Q1 (20 minutes in length), the six slowest drivers (of 22 for the 2013 season) drop off, occupying the 17th thru 22nd spots on the starting grid. In Q2 (15 minutes), consisting of 16 cars, the bottom six drivers are again dropped, taking the 11th thru 16th places to start the race. Times are not carried over from one part of qualifying to the next.

Finally, there is Q3, or the pole position shoot-out (a bunch of names get thrown around for this part of Qualifying). It is 10 minutes long.  Here, the top ten cars from Q2 battle it out for the first ten spots on the starting grid (the top spot is called ‘pole position’).

There is often a scramble at the end of Q3 to be ‘the last car over the line’, as times generally get quicker the more laps the cars do on the track. This usually makes for an exciting finish, with everyone putting up faster and faster times and pole position often clinched right at the end of the session. The order of the ten drivers’ times in Q3 is the order they will occupy in places one thru 10 on the starting grid.

The Race

Sunday is race day! Before the race, there is lots of action on the starting grid: teams are getting the cars ready, drivers are getting ‘in the zone’, celebrities are shaking hands and posing for photos, and F1 head honcho Bernie Ecclestone is…looking for more ways to ruin the sport while squeezing a few more billions out of the fans and race organizers?  Probably.

Thumbs up - ready to start the engine!Photo credit: Dell’s Official Flickr Page (copyright: Charles Coates/LAT Photographic)

Anyway, with less than two minutes before the start, you will begin to hear the cars revving their engines and the mechanics will all sprint off the grid leaving the cars alone to begin the parade lap (which is officially called the formation lap, but we at The Parade Lap prefer the less official, more grandiose ‘parade lap’ better). During this lap, the drivers stay in their grid order, but you will see them speeding up and slowing down, and swerving wildly across the track, warming up their tyres and brakes (both need to be quite hot to allow the car to grip the track and slow down from over 300 km/h).

At the end of the parade lap, the drivers line up again on the grid. Once the last car is in place, a series of five red lights goes on, one at a time. Once they are all lit, they go out together and the race begins. The action at the first corner is usually some of the best, as the cars are all close together (made closer by the Concertina effect) and trying to gain/not lose a bunch of spots at once.

After the first lap or two, the cars will begin to spread out, although there will be various battles throughout the race between smaller groups of drivers. Cars will stop in the pits during the race (usually anywhere from one to three times) to change their tyres. They used to add more fuel at these pit-stops, as well, but currently there is no refueling during the race.

F1 Test daysPhoto credit: Bcnfotos.com via Flickr

Details like pit stops, tyres, penalties and passing will all be covered in detail in the near future. For now, all you need to know is that, as in most races, whoever crosses the finish line first, wins.

After the race, there will be a podium ceremony with the top three drivers, as well as a representative from the winning team. Two national anthems are played: the country of the winning driver and the country where the winning team is registered. The drivers and winning team will receive their trophies and proceed to spray each other with some expensive champagne. Afterwards, there is an interview with the drivers or, if Kimi Räikkönen is on the podium, some monotone mumbles, likely laced with profanity. If you can decipher the words, though, they’re usually pretty entertaining.

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