United States Grand Prix: Beginner's Guide to Formula 1

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistNovember 17, 2012

United States Grand Prix: Beginner's Guide to Formula 1

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    There's a lot of hope in the world of Formula One that returning to the United States will encourage millions of Americans to try out the sport for the first time.

    Whether it actually will or not remains to be seen. But I always find myself showing a little more interest when an odd sport visits my shores (I couldn't stop watching handball at the 2012 Olympics, for example) and I expect many others will be the same.

    So I've produced a quick guide to cover the basics. And once you know the basics, the rest should slot neatly into place.

The Drivers

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    There are 24 drivers in Formula One, two per team.

    The skill level required to compete is very high, and driving an F1 car requires exceptional physical fitness.

    It may look like they're just sitting down and turning a wheel, but every corner, braking zone and acceleration zone places extraordinary pressures on their body.

    Drivers have similar physical attributes to all-round athletes such as top tennis players, and they follow dietary and fitness plans as strict as any other world-class athlete.

    More detail: Here's a gallery of the current drivers and a closer look at driver fitness.

The Teams

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    There are 12 teams (also known as "constructors") currently in F1, and each team enters two cars in each race. There's a list of them all here.

    The easiest way to identify teams is by their colours and sponsors. The two cars are painted the same, the drivers wear the same overalls, the mechanics all wear the same thing, and the other team staff wear distinctive team clothing.

    Each team designs and builds its own car. They must abide by the very strict technical regulations which drastically limit what can be done. But every team has an army of engineers, technicians and aerodynamicists working on fine details.

The Cars

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    There is no vehicle in the world that could beat an F1 car around a road course. If you're familiar with Indycar, you're close. But an F1 car corners, accelerates and decelerates better.

    The cars produce so much downforce you could drive one upside down along the ceiling (if you had a way to get it up there).

    The one area in which F1 cars can be beaten by other series' is top speed. They're designed and set up around doing a whole lap, and as such they rarely go a long way above 200 mph.

    Set up purely for top speed, they could probably do more than 240 mph—but it wouldn't be as good at the other stuff.

    The minimum weight for the car including the driver is 640 kilograms (1,411 pounds). The teams use ballast to get the cars up to this weight.

    Even the slowest (well, none are slow, but the slower) F1 cars are incredibly complex machines designed by brilliant minds and constructed out of ridiculously expensive and exotic materials.

    But on a basic level they're just cars. They have four wheels, an engine and a steering wheel. That's all you need to know to start watching the sport.

    More detail: Aerodynamics, brakes, steering wheel, suspension.


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    The Drag Reduction System (DRS) is a fairly new arrival to the sport.

    During the race, if a car is less than one second behind another at a specific point on the lap (the "detection point" you'll hear mentioned), the driver can use DRS in the "DRS zone" (which will be a long straight, typically one corner after the detection point).

    DRS is a system that rotates the main element of the rear wing, reducing the drag on the car. This allows it to accelerate a little better and gives it a slightly higher top speed.

    The purpose of DRS is to aid overtaking moves.

    More detailed information on DRS can be found here and more information about the challenges of overtaking in F1 can be found here.

The Engine, Gearbox and KERS

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    F1 cars are propelled around the track by 2.4-litre V8 engines, producing around 750 horsepower. Engines are limited to 18,000 revolutions per minute (rpm).

    There are four engine suppliers—Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Cosworth.

    F1 gearboxes are supplied by the engine manufacturers and are typically seven-speed sequential, operated by paddles behind the steering wheel. A gear change occurs in a fraction of a blink of the eye.

    KERS stands for Kinetic Energy Recovery System, a system which provides drivers with a "boost" of 80 extra horsepower. A driver can only use a certain amount each lap.

    More detail: Engine and gearbox and a closer look at KERS.

The Tyres

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    F1 tyres are supplied by Pirelli. Each driver is allocated a limited supply of tyres for the weekend.

    There are a total of four dry-weather compounds (slicks), of which two are taken to each race weekend. The compounds can be identified by the colour of the markings on their sidewalls—supersoft are red, soft are yellow, medium are white and hard are silver.

    Despite the names, they're all relatively soft and are designed to have a very limited lifespan to create more interesting racing.

    The softer the tyre, the better the grip. The harder the tyre, the longer it will last.

    Every driver must use both of the supplied compounds during the race.

    If it rains, there are intermediate and full-wet tyres available, and the requirement to use the two dry compounds is waived.

    More detail can be found here.


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    As is typical at motoring events, track marshals use flags to communicate warnings or information to the drivers.

    The most commonly used flags in F1 are:

    Yellow, the caution flag. A single yellow flag waving tells the drivers to slow down, while double-waved yellows warns them to be prepared to stop if necessary. No overtaking is allowed under yellow flags.

    Green, waved to indicate normal racing can continue after a yellow flag. It's important to note that in F1, a yellow flag only applies to the section of track in which it is waved, and full-speed racing continues everywhere else on the circuit.

    Blue, used to tell a car about to be lapped to make way for the car behind. A car being lapped must not unduly impede the car lapping it.

    Chequered, to indicate the end of the race.

    The other flags and their meanings can be found here.

Safety Car

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    If an incident is deemed too serious for the debris to be cleared up under yellow flags, the safety car is deployed to bring the race under control. It slows the cars a great deal and allows whatever work is needed to be carried out safely.

    No overtaking is allowed anywhere on the circuit, and all the cars must line up behind the safety car, leader first. Lapped cars will be waved past to un-lap themselves and allow the cars to line up in actual race order.

    The safety car returns to the pit lane when the race director deems it appropriate.

Pit Stops

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    An F1 pit stop is a phenomenal thing. If all is going to plan, only the tyres have to be changed. The car is stationary for around three seconds, sometimes less.

    In that time, the four old wheels are unbolted and removed, and the four new wheels are seated and bolted on. The "lollypop" is lifted to tell the driver he can go, and off he sets.

    Here's an example, McLaren's record-breaking 2.4-second stop in Germany earlier this year.

    More detail available here.


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    There are three free practice sessions on the Friday and Saturday, but the real action of a Grand Prix begins on Saturday afternoon (well, it's usually the afternoon) with qualifying.

    The session is split into three parts, with a short gap between each.

    In the first, known as Q1, all 24 drivers participate. The session lasts for 20 minutes, and in this time every driver can do as many laps as he likes.

    At the end of Q1, the slowest seven cars are eliminated, and their grid positions (18th to 24th) are set based on their times.

    The next session, in which the remaining 17 drivers participate, is Q2. The session lasts for 15 minutes and like in Q1, at the end the seven slowest drivers are eliminated.

    Their grid positions (11th to 17th) are set based on their times set in Q2.

    The final session is Q3. The remaining 10 drivers take part in this 10-minute session, and it is their lap times in this session which determine the grid from first (pole position) to 10th.

    If a driver sets a lap in Q3, he must start the race on the same set of tyres he used to set his fastest lap.

    It probably sounds more complicated than it is—one watch is all you'll need to know the system for life.

The Race

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    The race takes place on the Sunday of the weekend.

    The race begins with a standing start, with all 24 cars stationary on the grid. Five red lights are turned on one by one, and when they go out the race begins.

    A race distance is approximately 190 miles (305 kilometers) and made up of however many laps of the circuit are required to reach that distance. The United States Grand Prix, for example, will be 56 laps.

    All the cars start with enough fuel to go the entire distance—refueling mid-race is banned.

    The race ends with the chequered flag being waved when the leader completes the race distance.

And That's It. I Think.

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    I hope I've managed to avoid jargon and have covered all the basics, but I apologise if I haven't. Feel free to ask any questions at all in the comments and I (or another member of the F1 community) should be able to provide an answer.

    The wonderful Formula1.com (the official website of the sport), upon which I've leaned heavily for the links throughout the guide, has one more excellent page to share. It's a very thorough glossary of F1 terms you may encounter from commentators, drivers or other fans.

    And if this helps even a single person enjoy the race more on Sunday, I'll be a happy man.