A Beginner's Guide to Formula One

Debunking myths in a crash course to race weekend

A Beginner's Guide to Formula One
by Devaki Knowles

So you live here and can't avoid the race talk anymore, huh? Maybe you're singing those inimitable words of Rhett Miller: "Where did all these people come from, and how soon can they leave?"

We've been bracing for this for years now, folks. You've followed all the twists and turns of the tale so far (see here if you need a refresher), and Formula One is finally in our midst.

When the rubber meets the road at the new Circuit of the Americas this weekend, it will mark the first time in five years that a Grand Prix, the crown jewel of international motor sports, will be run in the U.S. With that in mind, we offer you this brief primer on Formula One racing. It's at least enough to give you something to talk about around the watercooler on Monday.

It's just like NASCAR, right?

Wrong. The Formula One World Champ-ionship is the pinnacle of single-seat, open-cockpit, and open-wheel auto racing. The cars must adhere to a specific set of engineering standards – the "formula" – and are the fastest and most innovative automobiles of their kind – hence, the "one." The carbon-fiber-based cars, with driver, weigh just over 1,000 pounds; the car's hallmark wings – mounted at front and rear – provide significant downforce, which keeps the cars stable and allows them to corner at high speed.

Don't they only turn left?

At ease, Zoolander. The Formula One season is made up of a series of races, or Grand Prix, held around the world – from Bahrain to Australia to Singapore and now, Austin. Races are held on special F1 tracks – like Austin's 3.4-mile Circuit of the Americas – or on courses created on existing city streets. Either way, an F1 circuit is much more than the left-left-left-left turns that NASCAR and other stock car racing fans are used to. They're full of switchbacks, elevation changes, and straightaways along which the cars can reach speeds well over 200 mph.

All this for one race?

Not exactly. This is a three-day event that culminates with the running of the Grand Prix on Sunday at 1pm. Things really get going on Friday morning, starting at 9am, with the first of three practice sessions. These allow the drivers and their teams to get a feel for the track – and its challenges – and to begin to plot strategy for the race. On Saturday at noon, the drivers will begin the qualifying sessions. In a series of three heats, drivers will shoot for their fastest laps, earning their spots on the starting grid and shooting for the coveted pole position – the No. 1 spot, which affords the driver the greatest physical advantage to pull ahead and set the pace of the race. (It is possible to be disqualified if the car and driver don't perform up to par – known as the 107% rule, all cars must be within 107% of the fastest qualifying time in order to remain in the race; in essence, this is a safety rule: Slow cars can be dangerous obstacles.)

On Sunday, drivers take to the track a half-hour before start time to warm up their cars – key to this is warming up the tires, to achieve maximum grip on the track. At race time, the cars are lined up according to grid position and, after one last relatively slow "formation" or warm-up lap, they're off! The Austin race will consist of 56 laps around the track, for a total distance of about 192 miles.

So, what are the rules?

As you'd expect, and generally speaking, the first person to cross the finish line after completing all 56 laps is the winner. (Fun fact: The race must finish within two hours or it is called, regardless of the number of laps completed – this is mostly an issue for racing in extreme weather conditions, and thus isn't likely this weekend in Austin.) Points are awarded to the top 10 finishers, with the first-place driver receiving 25 points and the 10th place finisher earning one point.

During the race, drivers may make any number of pit stops, where crews can fix damage to the car or replace tires. No refuel­ing is allowed. There are two types of tires used on these cars, and during the course of the race each car must use both types. When to pit and when to change tires is a matter of strategy among the racing teams. The goal, of course, is to maximize the car's potential.

I have a seat, but what will I see?

Because an F1 track is longer and more involved than, say, Texas Motor Speedway, you can't sit in one seat and see all the action. Some folks like the straightaway, where cars go the fastest and where the start/finish line is located. At Austin's track, the main grandstand is located along this straight. Others prefer to watch from a turn, where more technical driving is on display and where most of the passing action happens. Wherever you stand or sit, remember this: Bring ear protection – preferably the over-the-ear variety. Shooting sport ear protection works well, and you can pick up a decent pair for cheap at any local sporting goods store. Motor sports are incredibly loud – the sort of piercing sound you can't appreciate until you've actually experienced it. Yes, this is the live music capital of the world, but trust us, standing near the Wall of Sound is nothing compared to the roar of dozens of engines blasting by you. Also good to bring to race day: binoculars, rain protection (you never know), and a small radio (satellite, transistor) that can be used with earbuds, because you can't see everything at the track, and it's nice to listen in to find out what's going on at other points along the circuit. Austin's race will be carried live on SiriusXM channel 208, 104.9FM ESPN the Horn, and KLBJ News Radio 590AM.

On the Web

A few other helpful resources for the race







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