Understanding Formula 1

Understanding FORMULA 1 can be difficult at first, as there is so much going on in any given race, and it’s all happening at speeds in excess of 300km/h.

From the teams to the drivers, the cars to the circuits, there is a lot to learn, so in this article, we’ll help you to start understanding FORMULA 1 so you too can fall in love with the pinnacle of motorsport.

Read: A Beginners Guide To Formula 1

Understanding Formula 1

Understanding Formula 1 Aerodynamics

Ask any engineer in the pit lane and they’ll tell you that the most important consideration in F1 car design – the difference between designing a championship-challenging machine or a tail ender – is aerodynamics.
In simple terms, F1 aerodynamicists have two primary concerns: the creation of downforce, to help push the car’s tyres onto the track and improve cornering forces; and the minimisation of drag, a product of air resistance which acts to slow the car down.

Although always important in race car design, aerodynamics became a truly serious proposition in the late 1960s when several teams started to experiment with the now familiar wings. Race car wings – or aerofoils as they are sometimes known – operate on exactly the same principle as aircraft wings, only in reverse.

Air flows at different speeds over the two sides of the wing (by having to travel different distances over its contours) and this creates a difference in pressure, a physical rule known as Bernoulli’s Principle. As this pressure tries to balance, the wing tries to move in the direction of the low pressure.

Planes use their wings to create lift, race cars use theirs to create negative lift, better known as downforce. A modern Formula 1 car is capable of developing 3.5 g lateral cornering force (three and a half times its own weight) thanks to aerodynamic downforce. That means that, theoretically, at high speeds they could drive upside down.

Early experiments with movable wings and high mountings led to some spectacular accidents, and for the 1970 season regulations were introduced to limit the size and location of wings. Evolved over time, those rules still hold largely true today.

By the mid-1970s ‘ground effect’ downforce had been discovered. Lotus engineers found out that by cleverly designing the underside of the car, the entire chassis could be made to act like one giant wing which sucked the car to the road.

The ultimate example of this thinking was the Brabham BT46B, designed by Gordon Murray, which actually used a cooling fan to extract air from a sealed area under the car, creating enormous downforce. After technical challenges from other teams it was withdrawn after a single race. Soon after rule changes followed to limit the benefits of ‘ground effects’ – firstly a ban on the skirts used to contain the low-pressure area, then later a requirement for a ‘stepped floor’.

In the years that have followed aerodynamic development has been more linear, though ever increasing speeds and various other factors have led the sport’s regulators to tweak and tighten the regulations on several occasions. 

As a result, today’s aerodynamicists have considerably less freedom than their counterparts from the past, with strict rules dictating the height, width and location of bodywork. However, with every additional kilogram of downforce equating to several milliseconds of lap time saved, the teams still invest considerable amounts of time and money into wind tunnel programmes and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) – the two main forms of aerodynamic research. 

The most obvious aerodynamic devices on a Formula 1 car are the front and rear wings, which together account for around 60 percent of overall downforce (with the floor responsible for the majority of the rest). These wings are fitted with different profiles depending on the downforce requirements of a particular track. Tight, slow circuits like Monaco require very aggressive wing profiles to maximise downforce, whilst at high-speed circuits like Monza the amount of wing is minimised to reduce drag and increase speed on the long straights. 

Every single surface of a modern Formula 1 car, from the shape of the suspension links to that of the driver’s helmet, has its aerodynamic effects considered. This is because disrupted air, where the flow ‘separates’ from the body, creates turbulence which in turn creates drag and slows the car down.

In fact, if you look closely at a modern car you will see that almost as much effort has been spent reducing drag and managing airflow as increasing downforce – from the vertical endplates fitted to wings to prevent vortices forming, to the diffuser mounted low at the rear, which helps to re-equalise pressure of the faster-flowing air that has passed under the car and would otherwise create a low-pressure ‘balloon’ dragging at the back. But despite this, designers can’t make their cars too ‘slippery’, as a good supply of airflow has to be ensured to help cool the various parts of the power unit.

The ingenuity of F1 engineers means that every now and then a loophole will be found in the regulations and a clever aerodynamic solution will be introduced. More often than not these devices, such as double diffusers, F-ducts and exhaust-blown diffusers, will be swiftly banned, but one innovation that has been actively endorsed is the DRS (Drag Reduction System) rear wing. This device, which was introduced to encourage more overtaking, allows drivers to adjust the angle of the main plane of the rear wing to reduce drag and increase straight-line speed, though it may only be used on specific parts of the track and when a driver is within one second of the car ahead in a race.

Understanding Formula 1 Brakes

When it comes to the business of slowing down, Formula 1 cars are surprisingly closely related to their road-going cousins. Indeed as ABS anti-skid systems have been banned from Formula 1 racing, most modern road cars can lay claim to having considerably cleverer retardation.

The principle of braking is simple: slowing an object by removing kinetic energy from it. Formula 1 cars have disc brakes (like most road-cars) with rotating discs (attached to the wheels) being squeezed between two brake pads by the action of a hydraulic calliper. This turns a car’s momentum into large amounts of heat and light, hence why Formula 1 brake discs often glow red hot.

In the same way that too much power applied through a wheel will cause it to spin, too much braking will cause it to lock as the brakes overpower the available levels of grip from the tyre. Formula 1 previously allowed anti-skid braking systems (which would reduce the brake pressure to allow the wheel to turn again and then continue to slow it at the maximum possible rate) but these were banned in the 1990s. Braking therefore remains one of the sternest tests of a Formula 1 driver’s skill, and an area in which he can make or lose a significant amount of time.

The technical regulations require that each car has a twin-circuit hydraulic braking system with two separate reservoirs for the front and rear wheels. This ensures that, even in the event of one complete circuit failure, braking should still be available through the second circuit. The amount of braking power going to the front and rear circuits can be ‘biased’ by a control in the cockpit, allowing a driver to stabilise handling or take account of falling fuel load. Under normal operation about 60 percent of braking power goes to the front wheels which, because of load transfer under deceleration, take the brunt of the retardation duties (think of what would happen if you tried to slow down a skateboard with a tennis ball on it).

In one area F1 brakes are empirically more advanced than road-car systems: materials. All the cars on the grid now use carbon fibre composite brake discs which save weight and are able to operate at higher temperatures than steel discs. A typical Formula 1 brake disc weighs about 1.5 kg. These are gripped by special compound brake pads and are capable of running at vast temperatures – anything up to 1,200 degrees Celsius. As such, a huge amount of effort is put into developing brake ducts which not only provide sufficient cooling but which are also aerodynamically efficient.

Speaking of efficiency, Formula 1 brakes are remarkably efficient. In combination with the modern advanced tyre compounds they have dramatically reduced braking distances. It takes a Formula 1 car considerably less distance to stop from 160 km/h than a road car uses to stop from 100 km/h. So good are the brakes that the regulations deliberately discourage development through restrictions on materials or design, to prevent even shorter braking distances rendering overtaking all but impossible.

Of course, the brake system on a Formula 1 car isn’t just responsible for scrubbing off speed – it’s also indirectly responsible for providing additional power, in as much as kinetic energy generated under braking (which would otherwise escape as heat) is converted into electrical energy and returned to the power train by the car’s sophisticated Energy Recovery Systems (ERS). In fact, ERS has led to several changes to the braking system of an F1 car, such is its powerful effect on the rear axle. Since 2014, teams have been allowed to implement electronically-controlled rear brake systems so that the drivers are able to maintain a reasonable level of balance and stability under braking.

Understanding Formula 1 Cornering

Cornering is vital to the business of racing cars, and Formula One is no exception. It’s in the corners where a driver’s skill becomes more immediately apparent; where an ace pilot can extract the tiny advantage that makes the difference between winning and losing.

The fundamental principle of efficient cornering is the ‘traction circle.’ The tyres of a racing car have only a finite amount of grip to deliver. This can be the longitudinal grip of braking and acceleration, the lateral grip of cornering or – most likely in bends – a combination of the two. Racing drivers overlap the different phases of braking, turning and applying power to try and make the tyre work as hard as possible for as long as possible. It’s the skilful exploitation of this overlap, releasing the brakes and feeding in the throttle to just the right degree not to overwhelm the available grip, which is making the best use of the ‘traction circle’. The very best are those who can extract the maximum amount from the tyres for as long as possible.

Oversteer and understeer are vital to understanding the way a car corners. They refer simply to the question of which end of the car runs out of grip first. In an understeer situation the front end breaks free first, the car running wide as centrifugal force takes over. Oversteer is where the back end of the car loses adhesion and tries to overtake the front – think in terms of a road car’s ‘handbrake skid’.

Understeer is inherently stable – once the car reduces speed sufficiently grip will be restored, which is why almost all road cars are set up to understeer at the limit of adhesion. But it also slows a car, which is why Formula One chassis engineers try to avoid it. Oversteer is, by contrast, highly unstable. Unless a driver acts to correct it quickly with skilful use of steering and throttle it can result in a spin. But an ‘oversteery’ chassis helps the driver to turn into a corner and, at the limit of adhesion, enables a skilled driver to carry far more speed through a corner than understeer. Which is why, to a greater or lesser extent, all F1 cars are set up with an oversteer characteristic.

A racing car takes a corner in three stages – turn-in, apex and exit. Turn-in is, like it sounds, the broad term given to pointing the car into the corner. Weight transfer under braking, moving the effective mass of the car from the back axle to the front, encourages oversteer during this phase, which the driver will use to help make the turn. The apex or ‘clipping’ point is the corner’s neutral point, the place where the transition between entry and exit is made. Different corners may have different natural apexes, whether early or late (before or after the mid-point of the corner), and individual drivers may also use different apexes according to their personal technique. (A late apex can allow power to be applied earlier and can help to ‘straighten out’ the corner). And the exit phase is where the driver will blend the throttle back in as the steering is progressively wound off: ideally keeping the car right on the edge of the traction circle through an acute sense of balance.

Many things can affect the traction circle, including a car’s downforce level (an aerodynamically efficient car often appear as if it corners on rails), the amount of grip yielded by the track surface (which is dramatically reduced in wet or dirty conditions), and even the subtle changes in the camber of the road (its side-on gradient). The most successful drivers are consistently those who are best at judging the limits they can take their cars to under cornering – and go there as often as possible.

Understanding Formula 1 Power Units and Energy Recovery System

The internal combustion engine has always been the beating heart of a Formula 1 car, though today it represents just one element of an enormously sophisticated power unit.

Just as crucial to propulsion, and fully integrated with the turbocharged 1.6-litre V6, is an Energy Recovery System (ERS) that dramatically increases the unit’s overall efficiency by harvesting (and redeploying) heat energy from the exhaust and brakes that would usually go to waste.

The internal combustion engine itself is a stressed component within the car which is bolted to the carbon fibre ‘tub’. Despite its relatively diminutive size and 15,000rpm rev limit, direct fuel injection, a single turbocharger and some remarkable engineering make it capable of producing around 700bhp.

ERS accounts for an additional 160bhp and helps ensure that the new units are not only just as powerful as the 2.4-litre V8s they succeeded, but considerably more efficient, using approximately 35 percent less fuel.

The new power units are a far cry from Formula 1 engines in the early 1950s which produced power outputs of around 100 bhp / litre (similar to what a modern ‘performance’ road car can manage now). That figure rose steadily until the arrival of F1 racing’s first ‘turbo age’ of 1.5 litre turbo engines in the 1970s when anything up to 750 bhp / litre was being pumped out. Then, once the sport returned to normal aspiration in 1989 that figure fell back, before steadily rising again. It wasn’t long before outputs crept back towards the 1000 bhp barrier, with some teams producing more than 300 bhp / litre in 2005, the final year of 3 litre V10 engines.

From 2006 to 2013, the regulations required the use of 2.4 litre V8 engines limited to 18,000rpm, with power outputs falling around 20 percent. However, the introduction of a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) in 2009, which captured waste energy created under braking and transformed it into electrical energy, ensured the teams had an extra 80bhp or so to play with for just over six seconds a lap.

Today’s ERS take the concept of KERS to another level, combining twice the power with a performance effect around ten times greater. ERS comprises two motor generator units (MGU-K and MGU-H), plus an Energy Store (ES) and control electronics. The motor generator units convert mechanical and heat energy to electrical energy and vice versa.

MGU-K (where the ‘K’ stands for kinetic) works like an uprated version of the previous KERS, converting kinetic energy generated under braking into electricity (rather than it escaping as heat). It also acts as a motor under acceleration, returning up to 120kW (approximately 160bhp) power to the drivetrain from the Energy Store.

MGU-H (where the ‘h’ stands for heat) is an energy recovery system connected to the turbocharger of the engine and converts heat energy from exhaust gases into electrical energy. The energy can then be used to power the MGU-K (and thus returned to the drivetrain) or be retained in the ES for subsequent use. Unlike the MGU-K which is limited to recovering 2MJ of energy per lap, the MGU-H is unlimited. The MGU-H also controls the speed of the turbo, speeding it up (to prevent turbo lag) or slowing it down in place of a more traditional wastegate.

A maximum of 4MJ per lap can be returned to the MGU-K and from there to the drivetrain – that’s ten times more than was possible with KERS, the ‘bolt-on’ recovery system ERS replaced in 2014. That means drivers have access to an additional 160bhp or so for approximately 33 seconds per lap.

For regulatory reasons the power unit is deemed to consist of six separate elements. These are the four ERS components, plus the internal combustion engine and the turbocharger. Should a driver use more than their permitted allocation of any one component he faces a grid penalty ranging from 10 to five places.

During a race drivers may use steering wheel controls to switch to different power unit settings, or to change the rate of ERS energy harvest. Such changes are controlled and regulated by the standard electrical control unit (ECU), mandatory on all F1 cars. But for all the things the driver can change from the cockpit, one thing he can’t do is start his own car. Unlike road cars, Formula One cars do not have their own onboard starting systems so separate starting devices have to be used to start engines in the pits and on the grid.

For safety, each car is fitted with ERS status lights which warn marshals and mechanics of the car’s electrical safety status when it is stopped or in the pits. If the car is safe, the lights – which are situated on the roll hoop and the rear tail lamp – will glow green; if not, they glow red. The lights must remain on for 15 minutes after the power unit has been switched off.

Understanding Formula 1 Driver Fitness

Formula 1 drivers are some of the most highly conditioned athletes on earth, their bodies specifically adapted to the very exacting requirements of top-flight single-seater motor racing.

All drivers who enter Formula 1 need to undergo a period of conditioning to cope with the physical demands of the sport: no other race series on earth requires so much of its drivers in terms of stamina and endurance. The vast loadings that Formula 1 cars are capable of creating, anything up to a sustained 3.5 g of cornering force, for example, means drivers have to be enormously strong to be able to last for full race distances. The extreme heat found in a Formula 1 cockpit, especially at the hotter rounds of the championship, also puts vast strain on the body: drivers can sweat off anything up to 3kg of their body weight during the course of a race.

In simple terms, the fitter the driver, the less susceptible he is likely to be to fatigue-induced lapses of concentration. Most drivers undergo an intensive period of cardio-vascular training ahead of the season and then taper their exercise regime to maintain their fitness levels throughout the year. Popular training methods include running, swimming and cycling.

F1 drivers also do strength training, though for weight saving reasons they are always mindful of building too much muscle. The unusual loadings experienced by neck and chest muscles mean that these are the most heavily targeted areas. However, since the forces experienced in F1 racing are not easily replicated by conventional gym equipment, many drivers use specially designed ‘rigs’ that enable them to specifically develop the muscles they will need to withstand cornering forces. In fact, the G-forces experienced negotiating a bend can make the head and helmet weigh around five times as much as normal, and the neck must support both.

Although F1 cars have power assisted steering, strong arm muscles and a strong core are also required to enable the car to be controlled during longer races. To improve hand-eye coordination, concentration and reaction time, drivers will often incorporate other activities into their physical training regimes. A popular training aid is the batak reaction board, where the aim is to hit as many randomly-lit lights on a specially designed board in 60 seconds as possible.

In terms of nutrition, F1 drivers tend to have extremely regulated diets. Recent trends have seen drivers trim their weight as much as possible so that they can use carefully positioned ballast to bring their car up to the minimum weight. A typical pre-race meal might include chicken (or another protein like fish) and vegetables, although some drivers still prefer to eat carbohydrate-rich foods such as pasta ahead of a race to provide energy.

It is also vitally important that drivers drink large amounts of water before the race, even if they do not feel thirsty, as failure to do so could bring on severe dehydration and possible cramping.

Like athletes in other sports, Formula 1 drivers are subject to random drug testing.

Understanding Formula 1 Flags

Marshals at various points around the circuit are issued with a number of standard flags, all used to communicate vital messages to the drivers as they race around the track. A special display in each driver’s cockpit – known as a GPS marshalling system – also lights up with the relevant flag colour, as the driver passes the affected section of track.

Travelling at such high speeds, it may be hard for a driver to spot a marshal’s flag and this system helps them identify messages from race control more effectively.

Chequered flag
Indicates to drivers that the session has ended. During practice and qualifying sessions it is waved at the allotted time, during the race it is shown first to the winner and then to every car that crosses the line behind him.

Yellow flag
Indicates danger, such as a stranded car, ahead. A single waved yellow flag warns drivers to slow down, while two waved yellow flags at the same post means that drivers must slow down and be prepared to stop if necessary. Overtaking is prohibited.

Green flag
All clear. The driver has passed the potential danger point and prohibitions imposed by yellow flags have been lifted.

Red flag
The session has been stopped, usually due to an accident or poor track conditions.

Blue flag
Warns a driver that he is about to be lapped and to let the faster car overtake. Pass three blue flags without complying and the driver risks being penalised. Blue lights are also displayed at the end of the pit lane when the pit exit is open and a car on track is approaching.

Yellow and red striped flag
Warns drivers of a slippery track surface, usually due to oil or water.

Black with orange circle flag
Accompanied by a car number, it warns a driver that he has a mechanical problem and must return to his pit.

Half black, half white flag
Accompanied by a car number, it warns of unsporting behaviour. May be followed by a black flag if the driver does not heed the warning.

Black flag
Accompanied by a car number, it directs a driver to return to his pit and is most often used to signal to the driver that he has been excluded from the race.

White flag
Warns of a slow-moving vehicle on track.

Understanding Formula 1 Gearboxes

Changing gears in a Formula 1 car is very much a fingertip exercise – drivers simply flick a paddle behind the steering wheel to change sequentially up or down.

Formula 1 cars use highly sophisticated semi-automatic, seamless shift gearboxes. Aside from when pulling away, the driver is not required to manually operate the clutch, nor is he required to lift off the accelerator when changing up through the gears. Instead, when another gear is selected the shift is completed ‘seamlessly’ (via a clever system which uses two-shift barrels), meaning the driver suffers from no loss of drive.

As such, gear changes are not only significantly faster than they were with the traditional gear lever and clutch pedal approach (taking a matter of milliseconds), but the driver can also keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times.

But despite such high levels of technology, fully automatic transmission systems, and gearbox-related wizardry such as launch control, are illegal – a measure designed to keep costs down and place more emphasis on driver skill.

Gearboxes, which are electronically controlled with hydraulic activation, attach to the back of the internal combustion engine. But they do more than simply transfer the torque from power unit to wheels – they also form part of the structure of the rear of the car, with the rear suspension bolting directly onto what is usually a high-strength carbon maincase.

The rules stipulate that F1 gearboxes must consist of eight forward gears (the ratios having been selected ahead of the season) plus reverse, and although this may seem like a large number compared to a road car, it allows the teams to use the same transmission at low-speed Monaco as at high-speed Monza.

As with power units, the teams are restricted in the number of gearboxes they can use per season, with the rules mandating that a single gearbox must be used for six consecutive events. Every unscheduled gearbox change results in a five-place grid penalty.

Understanding Formula 1 Pit Stops

Drivers get most of the attention, but Formula 1 racing remains a team sport even during the race itself. The precisely timed, millimetre perfect choreography of a modern pit stop is vital to help teams to turn their race strategy into success – changing a car’s tyres, replacing damaged parts and adjusting front wings in a matter of seconds.
It was not always so. Pit stops tended to be disorganised, long and often chaotic as late as the 1970s – especially when (in the absence of car-to-pit communication) a driver came in to make an unscheduled stop. The age of the modern pit stop arrived when changes were made to the sporting regulations for the 1994 season to allow fuelling during the race. By the time refuelling was banned again at the end of 2009, a driver’s visit to the pits had become breathtaking in its speed and efficiency.

The car is guided into its pit by the ‘lollypop man’, named for the distinctive shape of the long ‘stop/ first gear’ sign he holds in front of the car. The car stops in a precise position and is immediately jacked up front and rear. Three mechanics are involved in changing a wheel, one removing and refitting the nut with a high-speed airgun, one removing the old wheel and one fitting the new one.

Other mechanics may make other adjustments during the stop. Some changes can be carried out very quickly – such as altering the angle of the wings front and rear, to increase or decrease downforce levels. Other tasks, such as the replacement of damaged bodywork, will typically take longer – although front nose cones, the most frequently broken components, are designed with quick changes in mind.

On tracks with debris or rubbish you often see mechanics removing this from the car’s air intakes during a stop, ensuring radiator efficiency is not compromised. And there is always a mechanic on stand-by at the back of the car with a power-operated engine starter, ready for instant use if the car stalls.

When they have finished their work the mechanics step back and raise their hands. It is the responsibility of the ‘lollypop man’ to acknowledge these signals and to control the car’s departure from the pit box, ensuring no other cars are passing in the pit lane. To improve this transition, many teams use semi-automated traffic light systems instead of the lollipop.

Given the importance of pit stops, it’s perhaps unsurprising that pit crews spend a considerable amount of time practising wheel changes. In fact, so well-honed are mechanics up and down the pit lane that routine tyre stops are now regularly completed in around two seconds.

Understanding Formula 1 Race Control

During a Grand Prix weekend, race control lies at the very heart of Formula One, responsible for monitoring and supervising all stages of the practice, qualifying and race sessions.

Facilities vary between different circuits, but all will have several key features essential to allowing the FIA Race Director and his staff to make the right decisions to keep things safe, legal and to schedule.

Screens will provide images from every part of the circuit with a dedicated Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) system. This enables the location of problems to be detected quickly – and the appropriate action taken.

Timing data will also be provided with the same information feed given to the teams (and similar to the information available on Formula1.com’s ‘Live Timing’ section during race sessions). However, in addition the Race Director will have access to a plethora of additional information, such as the pit lane speed trap, allowing him to ensure that all sessions are run safely and within the regulations.

There is also telephone and radio contact with the principal marshals’ posts, safety car, medical response car and the medical centre, so that in the event of any major problem the Race Director can remain in full contact with the relevant people. It is the responsibility of Race Control to order the deployment of the safety car when necessary and – equally importantly – to bring it back in at the right time.

The Race Director will be assisted by other FIA personnel, and also staff from the local circuit itself. A vital part of the race control’s responsibility is that of referring to the race stewards incidents in which drivers may have transgressed rules or broken the sporting code that governs racing. The most common penalty given in such incidents is the ‘drive-through’ where a driver will have to make an unscheduled trip through the pit lane without stopping.

For more complicated disciplinary issues, such as who was to blame in an accident or for contact between cars, may be assessed at the conclusion of the race, rather than during it, as this gives teams a chance to defend their driver’s conduct. In the event of a very serious incident – or if track conditions become dangerous (for example, due to very heavy rain) – the race director is also responsible for deciding if the race should be stopped.

It is a tribute to the unruffled professionalism typical of the men and women who staff Race Control at Grands Prix that races typically progress as smoothly as they do – and problems are pounced upon and contained very quickly.

Understanding Formula 1 Steering Wheels

The FORMULA 1 steering wheel is the critical interface between driver and car. From here, through the use of various switches, buttons and dials, he can make numerous changes to his machine – all without ever having to lift off the throttle.

Early Formula 1 cars used steering wheels taken directly from road cars. They were normally made from wood (necessitating the use of driving gloves), and in the absence of packaging constraints they tended to be made as large in diameter as possible, to reduce the effort needed to turn. As cars grew progressively lower and cockpits narrower throughout the 1960s and 1970s, steering wheels became smaller, so as to fit into the more compact space available.

The introduction of semi-automatic gearchanges, operated via the now familiar ‘paddles’ on the back of every steering wheel, marked the beginning of the move to concentrate controls as close to the driver’s fingers as possible. Today the clutch is also operated by a similar paddle.

The first buttons to appear on the face of the steering wheel were the ‘neutral’ button (vital for taking the car out of gear in the event of a spin), and the onboard radio system’s push-to-talk button. Today, excepting the throttle and brake pedals, a Formula 1 car has few controls other than those on the face of the wheel.

Buttons tend to be used for ‘on/off’ functions, such as engaging the pit-lane speed limiter system, while rotary controls govern functions with multiple settings, such as engine maps, fuel mixture and even the car’s front-to-rear brake bias – all functions the driver might wish to alter to take account of changing conditions during the race. Among the most recent additions are controls relating to the car’s energy recovery systems (ERS) and the drag reduction system (DRS) on the rear wing.

The steering wheel may also be used to house instrumentation, normally via a multi-function LCD display screen and – more visibly – the ultra-bright ‘change up’ lights that tell the driver the perfect time for the optimum gearshift. Race control can also communicate with the driver via a compulsory, steering-wheel mounted GPS marshalling system. This displays warning lights, with colours corresponding to the marshals’ flags, to alert drivers to approaching hazards, such as an accident, on the track ahead.

The steering wheels are not designed to make more than three quarters of a turn of lock in total, so there is no need for a continuous rim, instead there are just two ‘cut outs’ for the driver’s hands.

One of the most technically complicated parts of the whole Formula 1 car is the snap-on connector that joins the wheel to the steering column. This has to be tough enough to take the steering forces, but it also provides the electrical connections between the controls and the car itself. The FIA technical regulations state that the driver must be able to get out of the car within seven seconds, removing nothing except the steering wheel – so rapid release is vitally important.

Formula 1 cars now run with power-assisted steering, reducing the forces that must be transmitted by the steering wheel. This has enabled designers to continue with the trend of reducing the steering wheel size, with the typical item now being about half the diameter of that of a normal road car.

Understanding Formula 1 Tyres

A modern Formula 1 car is a technical masterpiece. But considering the development effort invested in aerodynamics, composite construction and engines it is easy to forget that tyres are still a race car’s biggest single performance variable and the only point of contact between car and track.

Listen: Mario Isola, Pirelli Head of Formula 1 and Car Racing Interview

Traditionally, an average car with good tyres could do well, but with bad tyres even the very best car did not stand a chance. Things aren’t quite as clear cut in the current era – since 2007 every team receives tyres from a single supplier – but tyres are still a huge performance differentiator with newer, fresher tyres usually offering a significant advantage over worn rubber. As a result teams and drivers will carefully manage tyre usage over a race weekend to ensure they have enough sets of fresh tyres left for the race.

Despite some genuine technical crossover, race tyres and road tyres are at best distant cousins. An ordinary car tyre is made with heavy steel-belted radial plies and designed for durability – typically a life of 16,000 kilometres or more (10,000 miles).

The current Formula 1 tyres are designed to last for anything between 60 and 120 kilometres depending on the compound – and like everything else on an F1 car, are lightweight and strong in construction. They have an underlying nylon and polyester structure in a complicated weave pattern designed to withstand far larger forces than road car tyres. In Formula 1 racing that means anything up to a tonne of downforce, 4g lateral loadings and 5g longitudinal loadings.

The racing tyre is constructed from a blend of very soft, natural and synthetic rubber compounds which offer the best possible grip against the texture of the race track, but tend to wear very quickly in the process. If you look at a typical track you will see that, just off the racing line, a large amount of rubber debris gathers (known to the drivers as ‘marbles’ because of their slipperiness). All racing tyres work best at relatively high temperatures at which point the tyres become ‘stickier’, although different compounds often have very different optimum working temperature ranges.

The development of the racing tyre came of age with the appearance of ‘slick’ untreaded tyres in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Teams and tyre makers realised that by omitting a tread pattern on dry weather tyres, the surface area of rubber in contact with the road could be maximised. Formula 1 cars ran with slicks until the 1998 when ‘grooved’ tyres were introduced to curb cornering speeds. The regulations specified that all tyres had to have four continuous longitudinal grooves at least 2.5mm deep and spaced 50mm apart. These changes created several new challenges for the tyre manufacturers – most notably ensuring the grooves’ integrity, which in turn limited the softness of rubber compounds that could be used.

The 2009 season brought the much-welcomed return to slick tyres, following the FIA’s decision to use new aerodynamic regulations rather than rubber as a way of keeping cornering speeds under control.

The rubber compounds used at each race are determined by the tyre supplier (currently Pirelli) according to the known characteristics of the track. Three different compounds of dry tyre are available to each team at every Grand Prix weekend and drivers must make use of at least two during the race. The actual softness of the tyre rubber is varied by changes in the proportions of ingredients added to the rubber, of which the three main ones are carbon, sulphur and oil. Generally speaking, the more oil in a tyre, the softer it will be. However, whilst softer tyres generally tend to be quicker than harder ones, they’re also less durable.

Current F1 tyre suppliers Pirelli have a range of seven dry-weather compounds: hypersoft (with pink sidewall markings), ultrasoft (purple markings), super soft (red), soft (yellow), medium (white), hard (blue) and super hard (orange).

Intermediate (green) and wet-weather (blue) tyres have full tread patterns, necessary to expel standing water when racing in the wet. However, sometimes conditions are too wet for even the full wet tyres to cope with. One of the worst possible situations for a race driver remains ‘aquaplaning’ – the condition when there is so much moisture on the surface of the track that a film of water builds up between the tyre and the road, meaning that the car is effectively floating. This leads to vastly reduced levels of grip. The tread patterns of modern racing tyres are mathematically designed to scrub the maximum amount of water possible from the track surface to ensure the best possible contact between the rubber and the track. At full speed the Pirelli intermediate tyre can disperse up to 30 litres of water per second, while the full wet tyre can disperse 85 litres per second.

Formula 1 tyres are normally filled with a special, nitrogen-rich air mixture, designed to minimise variations in tyre pressure with temperature. The mixture also retains the pressure longer than normal air would.

Understanding Formula 1 Race Strategy

Part science, part dark art – a decent strategy is essential to the business of winning races. Or, indeed, losing them. The basic variables of the equation are simple enough: fuel load and tyre wear. But from then on, it gets vastly more complicated.

The dark art of race strategy is constantly evolving, but goes through particularly marked transitions when major rule changes are introduced. Shortly after the reintroduction of refuelling stops in 1994, the teams’ race strategists worked out that at some circuits benefit could be gained from making two or three stops, rather than just one.

This was because the car could run substantially quicker on a lower fuel load (with less weight to carry around) and using the grippier, but less durable, soft tyre compounds. The difference in performance was such that it could be sufficient to offset the effect of the 30 or so seconds lost making a pit stop.

That led to teams carefully working out just where in the order their driver would re-emerge after a stop. This allowed a car being baulked by a slower but hard to overtake runner to pit early, return to clear track and then put in faster laps that would ensure emerging ahead once the slower car made its stop – ‘overtaking in the pit lane’, or undercutting, as it has become known. This called for rigid pit stop timetables to be abandoned and replaced by a looser system of pit stop ‘windows’, with a number of laps on which a car can make its stop to gain best strategic advantage.

The move to a single tyre supplier in 2007 forced teams to once again re-evaluate their race strategies, in light of all their rivals running on the same rubber and the requirement for all drivers to use two specifications of dry tyres during a race. That was followed by the ban on refuelling for the 2010 season, obliging teams to once again reconsider how they plan their race. The introduction of more complex Energy Recovery Systems (ERS) from 2014 – and how best to utilise them – further muddies the waters for strategists.

Regardless of rule changes, there are certain factors that must always be considered. Data such as weather forecasts, the likelihood of overtaking at a particular track, the length of the pit lane and even the chances of an accident likely to require the use of the safety car all come into play when deciding strategy. And, of course, one of the largest ingredients remains, as always, luck.

Understanding Formula 1 Suspension

The suspension of a modern Formula 1 car forms the critical interface between the different elements that work together to produce its performance. Suspension is what harnesses the power of the power unit, the downforce created by the wings and the grip of the tyres, and allows them all to be combined effectively and translated into a fast on-track package.

Unlike road cars, driver comfort does not enter the equation – spring and damper rates are very firm to ensure the impact of hitting bumps and kerbs is defused as quickly as possible. The spring absorbs the energy of the impact, the shock absorber releases it on the return stroke, and prevents an oscillating force from building up. Think in terms of catching a ball rather than letting it bounce.

Ever since the ban on computer-controlled ‘active’ suspension in the 1990s, all of a Formula 1 car’s suspension functions must be carried out without electronic intervention. The cars feature ‘multi-link’ suspension front and rear, broadly equivalent to the double wishbone layout of some road cars, with unequal length suspension arms top and bottom to allow the best possible control of the camber angle the wheel takes during cornering. As centrifugal force causes the body to roll, the longer effective radius of the lower suspension arms means that the bottom of the tyre (viewed from ahead) slants out further than the top, vital for maximising the grip yielded by the tyre.

Unlike road cars, Formula 1 springs are no longer mounted directly to the suspension arms, instead being operated remotely via push-rods and bell cranks which (like the lobes of a camshaft) allow for variable rate springing – softer initial compliance becoming stronger as the spring is compressed further. The suspension links themselves are now made out of carbon fibre to add strength and save weight. This is vital to reduce ‘unsprung mass’ – the weight of components between the springs and the surface of the track.

Modern Formula 1 suspension is minutely adjustable. Initial set-up for a track will be made according to weather conditions (wet-weather settings are far softer) and experience from previous years, which will determine basic spring and damper settings. These rates can then be altered according to driver preference and tyre performance, as can the suspension geometry under specific circumstances. Set-up depends on the aerodynamic requirements of the track, weather conditions and driver preference for understeer or oversteer – this being nothing more complicated than whether the front or back of the car loses grip first at the limits of adhesion.

Understanding Formula 1 Race Starts

There are few moments in sport more exhilarating than the start of a Grand Prix. As the drivers arrive in their grid positions and begin to furiously rev their engines, all of them have one thought in mind – to get to the first corner as quickly as possible.

This is entirely rational, of course, as the start of any race is one of the best opportunities to gain position, but with every other driver trying to do the same thing it’s easier said than done. The pressure on the drivers’ shoulders is immense: make a good start and the chance of a strong result is vastly improved; make a bad start and it could be a very long afternoon…

Given the importance of the start, it’s not surprising that drivers are often at their most focused on the grid. Some prepare for the beginning of a race by creating a mental image of the start that they want to make, and, as a result, teams will often try to protect their drivers from overly intrusive media attention on the grid in case it interferes with their concentration.

The race start procedure is strictly timetabled from the time that the pit lane opens (30 minutes before the race start) to the time that media and other non-essential personnel must leave the grid (10 minutes before the start). In this period, each team’s engineers and mechanics will be working through specific procedures to prepare their cars.

A Formula 1 car’s power unit is started as close to the start as possible, because once it’s fired up it’s vital the car isn’t sat still for too long. This is because the majority of an F1 power unit’s cooling comes from airflow whilst the car is in motion and, if left stationery for too long, the heat generated can cause damage to the rest of the car, especially at hot races.

All mechanics must be clear of the grid within 45 seconds of the one minute signal being issued. Then, 15 seconds later, a green light is displayed on the starting gantry to indicate the start of a single formation, or ‘warm up’, lap. A driver’s actions on this lap are vital to his chances of making a good start – he must ensure he gets enough heat into his brakes and, in particular, his tyres. This is done through hard acceleration (‘burnouts’) and braking and by weaving back and forth across the track, and whilst from the outside this behaviour may appear random, the drivers are usually following a strict plan agreed with their race engineer to get everything to just the right temperature.

The drivers also use the formation lap to select specific engine maps and clutch modes to ensure they get the best getaway possible. As you might expect, no overtaking is permitted unless another car has an obvious problem.

For the driver in pole position, controlling the pace of the formation lap is vital as he does not want to complete the lap so quickly as to be left sitting on the grid for a long period as other cars take their places behind him. This is because while his brakes and tyres will cool, his engine temperature will rise.

Once all the cars have come to a halt on the grid, and the course car and medical cars are also in position further back, the start sequence is initiated by the race director. The drivers’ eyes will all be fixed on the starting light gantry, where a sequence of five red lights is illuminated. When the red lights go out (after a random time delay over which the race controller has no control) the race is underway. To ensure fair play, each car is monitored electronically and any driver jumping the start is penalised.

As the field accelerates away from the grid towards the first corner there is an incredible amount of jostling for position as drivers try to either consolidate or gain position, depending on how good their initial getaway was. It’s not unusual to see four or five cars spread across the width of the track and, as such, contact is sometimes unavoidable, particularly as the cars are heavy with fuel, have relatively cool brakes and tyres, and are often off the normal racing line where the track surface is likely to offer less grip.

However, due to the high skill level of modern drivers and a willingness by the FIA to take stern disciplinary measures when warranted, the number of first-corner accidents is surprisingly low.

Understanding Formula 1 Testing

As Formula 1 racing grew ever more technically demanding, so the practice of testing grew in importance. The old principle of tinkering with an instinctively designed car has long since been superseded by systematic testing of every major component and structure – both before and after the car is fully built and ready to race.

Much of this testing work happens unseen, deep within the constructors’ factories and wind tunnel facilities. Once cars are assembled the more conspicuous type of testing begins, out on race tracks with real drivers at the wheel. This is where a car’s fundamental abilities can be properly assessed for the first time – in the past, many cars that look great ‘on paper’ turned out to perform poorly on the track. But track testing – much of it now done during Friday practice at Grands Prix – is also where the steady evolution that happens to all Formula One cars during the course of their life begins, a constant improvement of tiny details and set-up.

By midway through the first decade of the 21st century, a typical Formula 1 testing programme had become a major exercise in both manpower and logistics, with many teams using multiple test drivers to take a share of the burden away from the race drivers. Conscious of the spiralling costs, which invariably resulted in development work that was invisible and meaningless to fans, Formula 1 racing’s governing body began to impose increasingly stringent testing restrictions.

In 2008 the regulations were amended to limit each constructor to 30,000km of testing per season, the majority done during multi-team tests (normally three days in duration) at FIA-approved racetracks around Europe, where any team could elect to pay a portion of the costs and to bring its cars. In addition, teams also operated closed sessions where they could trial top-secret future machinery or innovations.

The testing allowance was slashed to 15,000km in 2009, with in-season testing banned, effectively limiting teams to just a handful of pre-season tests in February and March.

For 2014, teams had the chance to participate in three four-day pre-season tests and a further four two-day tests at tracks that had just hosted Grands Prix. However, in 2015 the number of in-season tests was cut in half, while for 2016 the number of pre-season tests was also reduced from three to two. Much can still be learned from this limited track time, but with wind tunnel testing and CFD simulation work both heavily restricted, the three hours of practice on Grand Prix Fridays remains highly valuable to teams and drivers alike.

Understanding Formula 1 Fuel

Surprising but true, despite the vast amounts of technical effort spent developing a Formula 1 car, the fuel an F1 car runs on is surprisingly close to the composition of ordinary, commercially available petrol.

It was not always so. Early Grand Prix cars ran on a fierce mixture of powerful chemicals and additives, often featuring large quantities of benzene, alcohol and aviation fuel. Indeed some early fuels were so potent that the car’s engine had to be disassembled and washed in ordinary petrol at the end of the race to prevent the mixture from corroding it!

Over the years more and more regulations have been introduced regarding the composition of fuel, a move driven in part by the oil companies’ desire to have demonstrable links between race and road fuel.

The modern fuel is only allowed tiny quantities of ‘non hydrocarbon’ compounds, effectively banning the most volatile power-boosting additives. Each fuel blend must be submitted to the sport’s governing body, the FIA, for prior approval of its composition and physical properties. A ‘fingerprint’ of the approved fuel is then taken, which will be compared to the actual fuel being used at the event by the FIA’s mobile testing laboratory.

Under current F1 regulations, each car is limited to 105kg of fuel per race and all of F1 racing’s fuel suppliers engage in extensive testing programmes to optimise the fuel’s performance, in the same way any other component in the car will be tuned to give maximum benefit. This will likely involve computer modelling, static engine running and moving tests.

The car’s engine oil is also worth a mention. Not only does it reduce wear on components, but it also helps to perform a vital diagnostic role, being closely analysed after each race or test for traces of metals to help monitor the engine’s wear rate.

Understanding Formula 1 Logistics

For Formula 1 teams one of the biggest battles of a race weekend or testing session will be over before a car even turns a wheel: the vast logistical effort required to get all of the team’s equipment to the circuit – so vast, in fact, that F1 has its very own Official Logistics Partner, DHL.

Indeed each team competing in the FIA Formula One World Championship now travels something like 160,000 kilometres (100,000 miles) a year between races and test sessions.

Nor is the logistical effort as simple as merely getting people and equipment in place. Hotel accommodation must also be found and booked (a team can require anything up to 100 rooms), hire cars must be sourced and the team’s facilities at the circuit – from the pit garage equipment to the drivers’ motorhomes and the paddock corporate hospitality units must all be in place. Almost equally important, in this digital age, are the secure data links that connect the team to its base, enabling telemetry and other data to be sent directly back (which in turn allows engineers to study any potential problems, even while the race is running.) All in all, an enormous task.

For the European rounds of the championship most of a team’s equipment will travel by road, in the liveried articulated lorries so familiar from race paddocks across the continent. All of the race equipment required for the weekend will be loaded in these: cars, spare parts and tools. Tyres, fuel and certain other equipment are brought separately by technical partners and local contractors.

For the non-European ‘flyaway’ races the logistical effort is considerably more complicated (the vast majority of Formula 1 teams being resident in Europe at the moment) as equipment has to be flown out on transport planes. Rather than use conventional aircraft containers, teams have created their own specially designed cargo crates, designed to fill all available space in the planes’ holds.

At present most of the teams use cargo planes chartered by Formula One Management (FOM) which fly from London and Munich to wherever the race is being held. In the case of successive flyaway races there is insufficient time between them to allow the teams’ equipment to be brought ‘home’, meaning direct transit between the two races. This means that considerably more components have to be packed.

As the number of races outside Europe continues to expand, so the logistical effort required to transport the teams and their equipment will expand alongside it. Already the amount of transport required for a season of Formula 1 racing has been described, only half-jokingly, as being not dissimilar to that needed for a medium-sized military campaign.