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F101: Everything you need to know about Formula One

You’ve probably heard the name “Formula One” before. Perhaps you’ve seen an F1 car used to advertise Tag Heuer watches or Mercedes-Benz luxury sedans, or maybe you’ve even heard names like Fangio, Senna, or Schumacher. But what exactly is Formula One? Well, if you want to know, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome to F101, where we cover everything you need to know about Formula One, from the races and cars to where the name “Formula One” initially came from. Buckle up.

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What is Formula One?

Formula One is arguably the world’s most prestigious form of motorsport. It features high-tech cars built to a specific set of rules — aka the “formula” — racing all around the world, from Monaco to Malaysia. It’s run by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the main international governing body for motorsport.

Grand prix racing existed before F1, but it was much less organized. After World War II, the FIA sought to codify a hierarchy of racing and establish rules for car design. In October 1947, it announced that Formula One would be the new top series, effective January 1, 1948. Because of the devastation wrought by the war, F1 was initially hampered by a lack of cars and drivers, but it soon gained traction and acquired the prestige its creators always wanted.

Today, the diversity of F1’s drivers and race locations, combined with the high-caliber cars and the sport’s high profile continue to make F1 the standard bearer of racing. It’s certainly not the only game in town, but no race series does it quite like F1.

What is a Grand Prix?

F1 races are called grands prix (French for “grand prize”). Each race is an opportunity to accumulate points toward the F1 championship, which is divided into driver’s and constructor’s titles. The cost of putting on a grand prix is exorbitant, but nations still strive to land one because of F1’s inherent prestige. The 2016 calendar includes races in Australia, Bahrain, China, Russia, Spain, Monaco, Canada, Baku, Spielberg, Britain, Hungary, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, the United States (Austin, Texas), Mexico, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi.

 Formula One World Championship, Rd2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday 30 March 2014.

Formula One World Championship, Malaysian Grand Prix (March 2014).

Each race event is broken down into three phases: practice, qualifying, and the race itself. Practice sessions are typically held on Friday and Saturday, with qualifying also on Saturday, and the race itself on Sunday. There are multiple practice sessions, but drivers only need to participate in one to be eligible for the race.

Qualifying determines the starting order; the driver with the fastest lap time gets to start in first place, known as “pole position.” There are three qualifying sessions that last about 15 minutes each, and for the first race of 2016, F1 adopted a new “elimination” format. In each session, the slowest driver is eliminated after a set period of time, leaving a smaller group to continue on to the next session.

The field is whittled down from 22 drivers at the start of the first session, to two drivers at the end of the third session. There was lots os skepticism surrounding this untested system ahead of its first trial at the 2016 Australian Grand Prix, and while it’s always interesting to see something new attempted in the highly regimented world of F1, the teams weren’t having it. After Australia, they voted unanimously to go back to the old qualifying system for future races.

On the grid

Once the field is set, it’s time to get ready for the green flag. Each race begins with a “formation lap” behind a pace car, after which the racers line up on the grid in their appropriate positions. F1 uses standing starts, which are more challenging than the rolling starts employed in other series. Drivers risk stalling and potentially destroying their chances of winning, if not their entire car by crashing in the knot of cars that typically forms ahead of the first turn.

Out on the track, any racing movie will tell you that drivers only think about winning, but that actually requires thinking about many things. Drivers have to be faster than their rivals, but they also have to preserve their cars and time pit stops carefully. Pit strategy is the subject of intense scrutiny, and the pit stops themselves are a sight to behold.

“Box, box, box”

Drivers pit to slap on fresh tires, change them if the weather goes bad, or to switch to the “option” tire. This is a tire that uses a softer compound which has extra grip, but wears away rapidly. Cars are required to use these at least once.

The fastest pit stop in F1 history was clocked at 1.923 seconds, a feat accomplished by the Red Bull team at the 2013 U.S. Grand Prix, although teams usually average 2.5 seconds per stop. Pit-stop times have dropped significantly since refueling was banned in 2011, but performance is still mostly down to the skill and discipline of the pit crews. They practice both at the track and at a team’s home base, and use highly specialized equipment. Everything from the wheel guns to the nuts they attach is designed to maximize speed during a stop.

Pit stop of Formula 1 car in Ferrari Racing Days in Istanbul Park Racing Circuit

Ferrari Racing Days at the Istanbul Park Racing Circuit in Istanbul, Spain.

The checkered flag

Under normal circumstances, the winner is the driver that crosses the finish line first after completing a set number of laps, averaging 305 kilometers (190 miles) at all races except Monaco, where the distance is set at 260 kilometers (161 miles). Races also have a two-hour cutoff regardless of how much distance the drivers have covered by that time.

The top 10 drivers score points that count toward both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships. First place gets 25 points, and the amount dwindles down to one point for the 10th place finisher. The driver and constructor that accumulate the most points win their respective championships.

The cars

Formula One cars have about as much in common with regular cars as a Boeing 737 does with an X-Wing. They’re built specifically for racing, and with their bizarre collections of spoilers and shrieking engines, they seem almost alien. F1 cars are supposed to represent the pinnacle of performance, although recent changes to the rules have led many to question that claim.

The “formula” in “Formula One” refers to a set of specifications governing car design. Since 2014, all cars use hybrid powertrains with 1.4-liter turbocharged V6 engines and Energy Recovery Systems (ERS) that harvest heat energy from the brakes and exhaust. The engines themselves produce around 600 horsepower, while the ERS adds 160 hp for short bursts. The entire powertrain is referred to as a “power unit” in F1 parlance.

 Jenson Button of McLaren F1 team races during Formula One Teams Test Days at Catalunya circuity, Barcelona, Spain

Jenson Button of McLaren F1 team races during Formula One Teams Test Days at Catalunya circuity in Barcelona, Spain.

Each team is considered a constructor under F1 rules, meaning it has to build its own car. However, teams can buy power units from their competitors, and most do. There are only four engine manufacturers — Ferrari, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, and Renault — supplying the 11 teams. Ferrari, Mercedes, and Renault also run their own teams, while Honda has a partnership with McLaren.

The hybrid power units were envisioned as a way to make F1 greener, and to incorporate technology that’s more relevant to road cars. Critics have derided the current cars, though, saying they lack performance and don’t make enough noise. Of course, much of a car’s performance is down to aerodynamics. The extensive aerodynamic aids on modern F1 cars actually make it hard for drivers to pass each other, necessitating Drag Reduction Systems (DRS) that can be activated on certain parts of a track.

What to look for in 2016

This promises to be a particularly interesting year for U.S. fans because there will actually be an American team on the grid. Machine tool magnate and NASCAR team owner Gene Haas’ Haas F1 hopes to be the first American team to win a grand prix in a generation. To do that, Haas is exploiting a loophole that allows it to outsource much of its car to Ferrari. That, along with the driver lineup (Frenchman Romain Grosjean and Mexican Esteban Gutierrez) means Haas F1 will be American only in terms of ownerships, but any American presence in F1 is rare.

Mercedes dominated the past two seasons, with star driver Lewis Hamilton securing his place as one of F1’s greats by winning a third championship. So this year, the other manufacturers are on the attack. Ferrari was the strongest of the also-rans last year, and is expected to take the fight to Mercedes this year. It has four-time champion Sebastian Vettel in one of its cars, and a reputation to uphold.

After returning to F1 last year, Honda is still working with partner McLaren to build a car that won’t waste the talents of drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, both former world champions. Renault is picking up the pieces after a falling out with longtime partner Red Bull, which blamed the French company’s power units for its recent poor performance. It bought back the team it sold six years ago, but doesn’t expect to be leading the pack in 2016.

Updated 3/21/16

Following the season opener in Australia, teams voted unanimously to ditch the new “elimination” qualifying system and go back to the old format.