A Survival Guide to Watching F1

While there are fans worldwide who follow the F1 motor sport from one city to another – myself include – there are many who may wonder what makes the sport interesting to watch in the first place.  If you are curious, you have come to the right place.

In this survival guide, I am going to use terms that are as layman as possible.  Also, instead of an information dump, I wish to set you thinking.  If you are going to watch F1 on TV, the entire experience comprises of Saturday 1 hour qualifying session and Sunday 2 hours race.  If you have the resources to be at the venue, well, you get to watch the practice rounds too!  Savor the sound of the V8 engine – as the commentators often say.

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Why you should watch the qualifying session?  Qualifying session is on Saturdays.  Actual race is on Sundays.  When I first started watching F1, I was used to skip the 1 hour qualifying session.  Later, I realize that by skipping the qualifying session, I am missing more than a third of what F1 offers!  So, what do you need to know about qualifying session?

  1. There is no overtaking in qualifying.  Cars are spaced out and going at their maximum possible speed.  In theory, the better performing cars take a better grid position.  That makes sense.  Imagine the otherwise.
  2. What are the cars competing for?  One thing: grid position on the Sunday race.
  3. How?  There are three rounds.  It doesn’t matter where you are in the first two rounds.  Just stay out of the relegation zone.  In round one, five cars with the slowest individual best lap time are eliminated.  In round two, another five are out.  Final round with ten cars left fight for the top ten grid positions.  That is when the best lap time matters.
  4. Bear in mind no refuelling is allowed for the top ten cars from the start of the qualifying round three to the start of Sunday race.  So, you may fuel your car light, potentially do better in the qualifying as lighter cars in theory go faster.  But you will have to refuel earlier in the actual race.  That may have a negative impact to your race (why?).  Alternatively, you could fuel your car heavy, get a reasonable grid position, and aim to jump the cars in front on the race itself by a combination of strategies.
  5. To have a better insight on the qualifying results, check out BBC website for a fuel adjusted grid position (keyword ‘F1’).  The analysts over there have taken into consideration of the fuel load in order to estimate who has a better chance to win.

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As for the Sunday race, all drivers are going all out to gain positions.  It goes without saying that P1 to P3 (first to third position in F1 jargon) winners get to go to the podium, open champagnes, and be up close and personal with the grid girls (hmmm).  More importantly, drivers fight for championship points.  P1 gets 10 points, 8 points for P2, and 6 for P3.  And then 5 points for P4 all the way to 1 point for P8.  If you are on the 9th position and beyond, you get no point.  Constructors get points too.  At the end of the F1 season, the driver with the highest championship point wins the world champion title.  Same goes to the constructor.  To enhance your viewing experience, I urge you to check out the current driver and constructor standing at the F1 website.  At least you will have an appreciation on why some drivers and constructors fight more aggressively than others.

So, what is the secret of keeping myself engaged from first lap to the checker flag?  I mean, it is not unheard of that people do fall asleep in between lap two and the last minus one lap.  Instead of listing out the race mechanics and regulations that I am pretty sure will send you to sleep, since you are the smart one, I am going to share three lists with you that may get you thinking when you watch the Sunday race.  Are you ready?

If all cars were to stay in the same grid position, going round the circuits for fifty odd rounds, that would have been boring.  Fortunately it is not. Grid positions are gained and lost during the race.  But what are the factors behind the change in position?

1st List – Factors that slow down the car

  • Top of the list is certainly pit stop.  Each pit stop adds over 25 seconds to the overall race time.  To give you a sense of timing, it is quite common that at the end of the race, the time difference between the top cars is just a couple of seconds apart.  To catch the car in front, you may only gain a fraction of a second per lap.  Because of that, 1-stop, 2-stop, or 3-stop strategy makes a difference.
  • And of course, a botched pit stop can ruin a race.
  • Obviously enough, stuck behind a slow car in front slows down your progress.  It may affect the tyre condition too due to change in airflow.
  • During the race, each driver must use two different types of tyres.  One is softer than the other.  Depending on the circuit and the individual car’s setup, one is going to slow down the car compares to another.  So, it has become a strategy as in when to use the slower tyres and for how many laps should the car go before changing to the faster ones.
  • Heavy fuel slows down the car too.  Cars freshly coming out of the pit stop are usually slower.  And because of that, you wouldn’t want to go behind a car freshly out of the pit.
  • A poorly managed car means a more rapid deterioration of performance, a more frequent visit to the pit.  Some drivers are more aggressive than others.  Driving off track damages the tyres too.  If the driver doesn’t manage the car well, the car simply wouldn’t perform to its maximum potential.
  • A damaged car due to minor collision may mean an untimely visit to the pit.  It may affect the aerodynamic of the car.
  • A driver may purposely slow down the car for fuel conservation.  This happens when the team has made a mistake in fuel calculation or when the pit stop strategy changes.
  • Mistakes, however small, slow down the progress.  That goes without saying.  It is so easy to take it for granted that the dudes standing on the podium manage to drive a perfect or near-perfect race.
  • When the safety car is out, all the F1 cars need to get behind it in the same order as no overtaking will be allowed once the yellow flag is out.  It is almost like a race restart with all the gain in lap time erased.  Personally, I don’t like to see accidents that reset the race.
  • Last on the list is weather.  When the rain starts falling, track temperature will drop, visibility will drop, speed will too drop.

2nd List – Factors that speed up the car

  • Cleverly executed pit stop shaves off race time.  Some engineers are able to bring in the cars at a strategic time and bring them out to a part of the race that is not congested.  Going behind cars hampers progress.  Because overtaking is not as easy as it seems.  Clean air also improves lap performance.
  • 1-stop strategy?  Or 2-stop, 3-stop strategy?  Switching pit stop strategy especially halfway through the race has an impact to the track position.  That is if the car can take it by having lesser servicing opportunities.
  • When there is no car in front of you and when you are running light on fuel, you run fast.  Hence the term “flying lap”.  Watch out for flying laps that can happen any time in the race.  It is exciting to watch.  At times it happens when the race leader has a pit stop and the new race leader can go unrestrained at a maximum speed for a couple of laps to close up on race timing.  Or to anyone in the race really.
  • Drivers play a crucial part in race time of course.  Each race track is divided into three segments.  Each driver’s performance is measured segment by segment and is compared against each other.  It is common that drivers aim to beat one another’s timing, segment by segment, lap by lap.  Race leader usually sets the pace of the race.  But the challengers are there to push the timing, lap after lap (and hence you need to stay awake for the entire race!).
  • That KERS button.  Yes. Like videogame, it is a turbo button that one can use to boost the car’s horsepower by close to 7 seconds per lap.  Not all the cars are equipped with KERS.  It is a new technology introduced this 2009 season.  At the beginning of the season, KERS is more like a curse.  As the KERS cars are getting better, the race is a lot more exciting to watch.  KERS can be used for defensive driving, which was quite predominant at the beginning of the season.  It is hard to overtake KERS cars because they are slower in the corner but as soon as they come out of the corner, the extra horsepower shoots them ahead.  In recent races, KERS cars have turned aggressive.  It is now quite common to see KERS cars zooming pass their peers at the starting line and on other occasions.  Certainly fun to see KERS cars in offensive mode, for a change.
  • A motivated and committed driver is easily noticeable looking at the way the car is driven.  It is a joy to watch when someone suddenly springs into action.

3rd List – Game over factors

  • Collision can results in car retirement.  Obviously.  Especially common during lap 1 at the beginning of the race.  Cars at the back of the pack have a higher chance of collision.  Hence, qualify well and stay in front.
  • Engine failure, gearbox failure, transmission failure – all of which can end the race prematurely.  It could be due to the materials.  Or it could be due to drivers not managing their cars well.

Now that you are more or less equipped with some basic understanding, I am pretty sure you will find watching F1 a whole lot more entertaining.  If you like this article, share the link with your friends!  And remember, in F1, anything can happen.  Enjoy the race … and the qualifying session too!

PS. Feel free to drop me a comment if I have got some of the facts wrong.  Or if you would like to have something added.

20 replies on “A Survival Guide to Watching F1”

Woo thanks for your article. Things are going to make more sense to me now. How about safety car- is it something that happens all the time and how does it work?

Si Ying – Hi, I am so glad that you ask this question about safety car. When I first saw it coming out from nowhere, I was so confused on how this safety car impacts on the race.

When incidents happen during the race – be it as minor collision that causes flying debris or one car fails to continue the race – the yellow flag of that segment is out. You can actually see the official waving yellow flag along the track. If you watch the race on TV, the lap count is highlighted in yellow. What it means is that: be careful, debris ahead. And also, no overtaking is allowed in those segments. Once the failed car or debris are cleared out of the track, the race will resume to normal. Cars can then go on max speed and attempt to overtake each other.

In the event whereby there is a bad collision that it will be unsafe for the cars to go at a high speed, the safety car will be deployed. All the cars have to go behind the safety car. No overtaking is allowed. And some cars actually take the opportunity to refuel and rejoin the race at the back of the pack.

The role of the safety car is of course to steer away from the debris ahead or the crane that is working to remove the debris. It is actually going at a very high speed to our standard. But of course, it seems so slow in comparison to the F1 cars.

Once the track is clear, the safety car will leave the track and the race will then continue.

Also note that if there is a heavy rain, the race may start with the safety car. What the cars do is to attempt to expel as much water from the track as possible and once it is deemed to be safe to race – even in the rain – the safety car will leave the track. And if the weather deteriorates, the safety car may be out again. Or the entire race may be suspended.

Hope this help!

Woo it certainly does! Was wondering what this safety car is all about last year and woops now its another race again! Hope it doesnt rain, else visibility for drivers and us decreased =)

Si Ying – Interestingly, last year’s Singapore race was probably one of the first FI races I have watched. And I remember I did a lot of searching and reading on what this little car called safety car is about.

The weather forecast is not looking good though. But I too hope that there will not be rain. If just a bit to make the race exciting … ha ha ha.

I have seen some wet races and they are quite fun to watch. You will get to see all the cars dash into the pit and change to the wet tyres. When the weather improves, they all go back to the pit and switch back to normal tyres. And some will try to out smart the forecast end up looking stupid.

Do bear in mind that if we have heavy downpour – touch wood – the race has to be cancelled as the cars will just skid around the track.

Oh ya a little splashing might be pretty but too heavy rain could be dangerous too… a lot of physics theories behind the race ar! and yeah thats my first time watching it too!

This is absolutely wonderful! A guide for the rest of us. You have the talent of explaining complex stuff using plain ole English. 🙂

Sing Chyun – Ah. Thanks for the kind words. When I first wrote this article, of course I hoped that someone would read and benefit from it. But then, the topic may seem a bit dry and long so I wasn’t sure about readership.

Anyway, I did ponder if I shall go more in depth on the other aspects of F1. And I remember that when I started watching the sport towards the later part of last year, it took me a while to get the basic. So I thought it would be good to share what I’ve in simple English making no assumption on reader’s knowledge of the subject.

Oh, if you have Star Sport, watch our Singapore race over there instead. The commentators seem better, lol.

I think the length of this article is just nice. Long enough to be a useful primer and yet not a put-off at the same time.

Nope, no cable TV luxury for me. If I remember correctly, I listened to good commentary on free tv too last year. Well, at least they don’t swear. 😀

Sing Chyun – Do they ever swear? Well, if I was to be a F1 commentator …

Anyway, qualifying is at 10pm tonight and the race is on Sunday 8pm. Try not to miss, ha ha ha.

Si Ying – Yes, lots of physics behind the race. But as you get into F1, there are other aspects too like finance, new rules, ethics, the glamour, and the not so glamour like politics 🙂

All in all, a fun sport to watch.

Darkspore – Wow. I take that as a complement. Thanks. Personally I find it special to see F1 cars racing in a circuit we are so familiar with. So I still hope that you can find the time to watch the race, if not the race and the qualifying session.

Do you have Star Sport? I think the commentators there make the experience more enjoyable than those from our natioanal TV.

Darkspore – Ha ha ha. Your WoW account …

Well, aren’t most things in Singapore overpriced anyway? We on average have to work 36 minutes for a Big Mac while our friends in Hong Kong only need to work 14 minutes for the same reward.

Sports channel is important to us. Cynthia watches football matches and I F1. In fact, Sports channel is the most watched channel by me and after for Cynthia, after the movie channels and the History / Animal Channels.

thanks for the guide! i am not a fan but my knowledge certainly increased! thanks for explaining about the safety car too! i was soooo confused about it!

G – You most welcome! I certainly enjoy writing this as much as – I presume – you reading it. Funny how slow the safety car seems so slow. But in fact, it is mightily fast in normal circumstances. I don’t think I would feel safe riding in one of those during the F1.

ah really???!?!1 yeah it looks reallllllly slow on tv!!!!
maybe i should really fork out some money to buy myself a ticket to watch it live next year 😛

G – Ha ha ha G. Imagine a F1 car does close to 300 km per hour in our Singapore Nicol Highway. That safety car I would at most give it a 200 km per hour on the same road. Hence on TV, it looks very slow. Like seeing a lorry when you drive on the highways.

If you want to watch F1, don’t save. Get the best seat! Seriously.

Thank you at last a decent explanation of how the F1 qualify works, I was so confused before. Cheers Now I know……… why do they not fully explain on aunty beeb

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