Ever since its inaugural season in 1950, Formula One — also known as F1 — has captured the attention of fast car fans across the globe. And for good reason: the prestigious series of races, held internationally on both custom circuit courses and closed public roads, features the fastest open-wheel, single-seat race cars in the world.

It’s an engaging sport that draws tens of millions of eyeballs each race — but those new to Formula One may feel as if they need a GPS to navigate it. To celebrate the recent start of the 2022 racing season, here’s a crash course on F1: what it is, how it works, and what you need to know to earn your racing stripes.

Orange Formula One racing car with a blurred background Time lapse photo from the 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
© Abed Ismail / Unsplash.com

What is Formula One?

“Formula” refers to a set of rules that must be followed by participants and their cars.

Prior to Formula One, there were no formal limitations on the power or size of racing cars, leading to unfair (and sometimes fatal) outcomes for the competing drivers. The introduction of F1 rules — sanctioned by the governing body of racing events, Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) — created a more level playing field, placing limits on the size, weight, and power of race cars.

Formula Two rules were created shortly after Formula One rules to apply to cars with a smaller engine capacity. You can think of it as Formula One’s younger sibling.

Even with these regulations (or, perhaps, because of them), Formula One stands as the epitome of motor racing throughout the world. It’s the most difficult type of racing to master, and the most expensive. It’s also the most international — occurring in more than 20 different countries — and the most dangerous, with speeds regularly reaching or topping 200 mph. In every aspect, Formula One reigns supreme.

Another distinction of Formula One racing in the world of sports is its focus. Football and basketball tend to fixate on a superstar player or team (think Tom Brady or the 1995 Chicago Bulls), but there isn’t much innovation happening with the balls, courts, or fields. While Formula One has more than its fair share of celebrity, much attention also lies on the cars and tracks themselves. Teams are constantly improving their technology to shave tenths of seconds off their space-age vehicles' times, and each track has its own eccentricities to keep the race interesting.

Not your average racing car

Many people think of a racing car simply as a more aerodynamic type of sedan you’d see on the road. But Formula One cars have more in common with a fighter jet than a Ford Taurus. Drivers are often dubbed "pilots," and their masterful vehicles are sometimes referred to as “rockets on wheels.” They’re agile, they contain a central cockpit, and they even boast front and rear wings. The wings help push the car down onto the track, and they’re painstakingly tested in high-pressure wind tunnels. These cars are also incredibly lightweight due to their use of high-tech materials like carbon fiber. Check out these features on the F1 car below.

Blue Formula One racing car on the track Note the exterior wheels and wings present on this F1 racing car.
© Carl Jorgensen / Unsplash.com

Unique racing tracks and venues

In addition to having cars that are in a league of their own, each F1 racing track boasts a completely unique design. Rather than being cookie cutter copies, every track has a different top speed, corners, and layouts.

While some venues have been on the schedule for decades (like Silverstone and Monza), new ones pop up all the time. In 2022, Formula One announced that the U.S. will host a night race in 2023 where cars will speed past casinos down the famous Las Vegas Strip. This track will run 3.8 miles and drivers can expect to hit speeds up to 212 mph.

Off to the races

Each Formula One Grand Prix (its fancy name for a race) takes place over three days. These days are usually scheduled over the weekend — Friday to Sunday. Typically, on Friday and Saturday, the venue hosts practice and qualifying runs, while the main race occurs on Sunday.

There isn’t a set amount of laps the cars must complete in F1 races. Instead, the race is finished once the first car has driven 305 kilometers (roughly 189.5 miles) and completes its next full lap. Also, races can’t last for more than two hours, so if drivers reach this time limit, officials will end the race after the next full lap.

The only Formula One Grand Prix that is shorter than 305 km occurs in Monaco. This race is 260.5 kilometers (roughly 162 miles) and 78 laps.

In the pits

Another unique feature of F1 racing is the pit stops. These high-pressure intervals last anywhere from 1.5 to 3 seconds, and when teams are fighting for every last tenth of a second, this means that races can be won or lost "in the pits."

Drivers used to make pit stops to refuel, since engines could only hold so much gas, and carrying extra made their cars more sluggish. However, due to recent engine developments, refueling during pit stops has been banned and drivers must start with all the fuel they need for the race.

Nowadays, pit stops are mostly about fixes and changing tires. New tires are usually much faster, thus giving a speed advantage to drivers. But that advantage must be weighed against the risk of stopping to change them. Without a good pit crew on their side, drivers (and the race) may be lost. This team of about 20 people is vital to their success.

Becoming a Formula One fanatic

In its early days, if you weren’t able to see a Formula One Grand Prix in person, you weren’t able to see it at all. But now, hundreds of channels broadcast these races, including Formula One’s own channel, F1 TV. Other options for viewing races include ESPN, Sling TV, Hulu + Live TV, and SkySports F1 on YouTube.

To get into the rivalries, scandals, and personalities of Formula One drivers, managers, and team owners, you may want to check out Drive to Survive, a docuseries on Netflix.

If podcasts are more your style, Formula One has you covered! Tom Clarkson and Natalie Pinkham discuss every twist and turn on F1 Nation, and Clarkson hosts in-depth interviews with the biggest Formula One personalities in his F1: Beyond the Grid podcast.

And finally, if you're lucky enough to be going to an actual F1 race in person, here’s a pro tip: pack some ear plugs! Experts have measured noise levels at around 140 decibels, which is just below a volume that causes permanent hearing loss.

About This Article

This article can be found in the category: