TG's guide to motorsport: Formula One
Here's a beginner's guide to the world's fastest motorsport
What is it?
The pinnacle of single-seater motorsports. The money involved is insane, the cars look nothing like the ones you and I drive day-to-day and are incomprehensively rapid, and the drivers are almost superhuman.Advertisement - Page continues below
How did it start?
Grand prix racing had been going on practically since the invention of the automobile, but F1 specifically came about when the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR) – since renamed the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) – wanted to kick-start motor racing after WW2. The principle of this new ‘formula’ of motorsport was agreed in 1946, but the first drivers’ championship didn’t take place until 1950.
How does it work?
For 2021 there will be ten teams or ‘constructors’, each of which will field two cars/drivers in the 23 scheduled race weekends held all around the world. Drivers get three hour-long practice sessions at each track – two on the Friday, then one on Saturday morning before qualifying.
Qualifying takes about an hour too – it’s split into three sessions with short wee breaks in between. The five slowest drivers are knocked out in the first session and the next slowest five in the second session, leaving the quickest nine to duke it out for the privilege of lining up behind Lewis Hamilton’s inevitably first-placed Mercedes.
Races take place on the Sunday afternoon and tend to last around 90 minutes. First across the line wins the race and earns themselves 25 championship points. Points are also awarded to drivers who finish second through tenth. At the end of the season the driver with the most points wins the championship, and team with the most points (their two drivers’ totals added together) wins the constructors’ title. Easy.Advertisement - Page continues below
When was the first race?
The first official F1 World Championship race took place at Silverstone on the 13 May, 1950 in front of around 120,000 spectators and the actual King of England. 21 drivers competed in the 70 lap race, with Guiseppe ‘Nino’ Farina leading a podium lockout for Alfa Romeo ahead of Luigi Fagioli in second and a Brit called Reg Parnell in third.
Tell me about the cars.
F1 cars are hugely complicated bits of kit. Constructors are responsible for designing and developing their own chassis, whereas engines can either be done in-house or bought in (for example Mercedes uses its own engines, but also supplies them to Aston Martin, McLaren and Williams). Either way cars have to conform to strict FIA regulations, which is why to the untrained eye they all look very similar and lap times are comparatively close.
Big changes are coming in 2022, but 2021’s cars are largely the same as 2020’s. They use tiny and very highly-strung 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 engines with heat and kinetic energy recovery systems for a combined 1,000bhp or thereabouts. Exotic materials like carbon fibre and Kevlar are used extensively to keep weight down – F1 cars must weigh a minimum of 752kg with no fuel on board – and even the tiniest teams spend millions upon millions perfecting their aero package.
Tyres are exceptionally wide Pirellis – how long they last depends on the compound, track conditions, driving style and much besides. Usually cars will have to stop once or twice during a race for new rubber. Refuelling isn’t allowed during races anymore, because fire, so pit-stops can take as little as two seconds. No, that’s not a typo.
Who’s the most famous driver?
Right now, Lewis Hamilton. The now 36-year-old Brit who won his seventh F1 World Championship in 2020, equalling Michael Schumacher’s all-time record. He is statistically the sport’s most winningest driver, with 95 wins to-date versus Schumacher’s 91.
And to anyone who dismisses F1 drivers because “all they do is drive around in circles for a couple of hours”, kindly shut up. It takes serious muscle and stamina to be able to drive an F1 car, to endure the outrageous G-forces drivers are subjected to for two hours at a time. A ‘normal’ person simply wouldn’t be able to stamp on the brake pedal hard enough to get the thing to stop. If their head hadn’t already flown off through the first fast left-hander, of course.
Name one of its finest hours.
F1 is at its best when it rains, no doubt. The unpredictability of wet grands prix can lead to nail-biting racing, as teams try desperately to strategise around the change to (and from) full-wet or intermediate tyres.
Take the 2008 Brazilian GP, where Lewis Hamilton won his first of many F1 World Championships on the last corner of the last lap. You can read all about that race by clicking on these blue words.
Former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone had even suggested installing sprinkler systems at tracks to make races more entertaining.Advertisement - Page continues below
And now one of its worst.
Motor racing is massively dangerous. In the Fifties and Sixties especially, it was rare to get through an entire season of F1 racing without one or more drivers losing their lives in an accident. Things are vastly better nowadays, of course, but however safe the cars and circuits, a sport like F1 is never going to be entirely free from risk.
The last driver to lose his life as the result of an injury sustained during an F1 race was Jules Bianchi, who died in 2015 nine months after crashing at the Japanese GP. More recently, Anthonie Hubert died from injuries sustained in a Formula 2 crash at Spa in 2019.
Romain Grosjean escaped with his life after a fiery crash at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, thanks largely to the ‘halo’ safety device designed to protect drivers’ heads in open-cockpit racing cars.
Where can I watch it?
If you want to watch live you’ll need to give Sky some money, because it has the exclusive rights to broadcast live races in the UK. In return you get a dedicated F1 channel which shows all practice sessions, qualifying and the race as well as support races, documentaries and so-on. But if you’re happy to lag a couple of hours behind, Channel 4 shows extended highlights of qualifying and the race. F1’s official YouTube channel is worth keeping tabs on too.Advertisement - Page continues below
Can I get involved?
Unless you’re a three-year-old karting prodigy with a £100million trust fund, the son of a team-owner or former and at least moderately successful racing driver or an impossibly clever aerodynamicist with squillions of letters before/after your name, then no. Probably not.