By Juan Garcia
Station Manager and Guest Sports Writer
After an over six month break, Formula One is gearing up for a shortened 2020 season in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Red Bull Ring in Austria will host the first round of six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton’s latest title defense. Since Formula One is a new sport to KTSW, here is a handy guide to get familiar with the sport ahead of the opening round.
What is Formula One?
Formula One is the world premiere single-seater racing championship featuring the fastest race cars in the world. Drivers regularly reach speeds over 200 mph while racing wheel-to-wheel across the world. The term “formula” refers to the set regulations that all cars must adhere to in order to take part. 10teams and 20 drivers race around a variety of circuits to crown a drivers champion and a constructor (team) champion.
The fastest cars in the world rely on a series of complex aerodynamic wings and flow conditioners to maximize their cornering speeds. The aerodynamics allow the cars to carry incredible speeds in and out of corners and stick the cars to the ground.
The engines are known as power units, as they have more than just an internal combustion unit to power the car. The kinetic (MGU-K) and heat (MGU-H) energy recovery units charge a battery that can easily power a family sedan on its own. The battery works along with a 1.6 Liter V6 engine to power the cars to their break-neck speeds.
The large bar situated over the driver’s head is called the halo and is used to reduce the risk of injury to the driver’s head. The large rear wing features a flap controlled by the driver known as the Drag Reduction System (DRS). The driver opens the top flap of the wing when running close behind a rival to get a boost in straight-line speed and a reduction in drag. Each team designs and develops their own car throughout the year, and designers must balance power, downforce and drag to create a championship-winning machine.
The current grid can be broken down into three categories based on performance: the frontrunners, the midfield and the backmarkers. The frontrunners are the teams that can win at any race. Wins and podiums are expected out of these teams. The current frontrunners on the grid are Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. No team outside of the aforementioned three have won a Grand Prix since 2013.
The midfield features teams that cannot spend as much as the top three (though the 2021 cost cap will even the field a little) and will occasionally challenge for a top-six position and the odd podium. The current midfield (in 2019’s championship order) are McLaren, Renault, Alpha Tauri, Racing Point and Alfa Romeo.
The backmarkers regularly run in the back of the field, rarely qualify outside the bottom five, and have to fight to score points on race day. The current backmarkers are the backsliding American team Haas and the historically great Williams. Teams with major corporate backing, such as Mercedes, Red Bull and Renault can spend significantly more money on their cars and their manpower than small teams like Williams and Haas, who operate with a fraction of the people employed by the manufacturer teams.
Some of the stars of the grid are previous world champions. Mercedes employ six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who has dominated the sport for the last six years. Since 2014, Mercedes has won the constructors championship every year while Hamilton won five of the last six drivers titles. At Ferrari, four-time champion Sebastian Vettel is looking for a contract for 2021. Vettel and Red Bull had a similar run of success earlier in the decade, winning four straight double championships from 2010-2013.
The only other previous champion is the legendary Kimi Raikkonen racing for Alfa Romeo. The Finn won his sole driver’s title in 2007 with Ferrari. The grid is littered with young stars seen as future world champions, such as the 2021 Ferrari lineup featuring 22 year old Charles Leclerc and 25 year old Carlos Sainz. Leclerc has two race wins under his belt after only being in a top seat for a year, while Sainz scored a surprise podium for McLaren at last years Brazilian Grand Prix.
Red Bull feature superstar Max Verstappen, who is the youngest Grand Prix winner in history and looks to be the youngest world champion ever this season, alongside young upstart Alex Albon. Other young stars include Lando Norris at McLaren, George Russel at Williams and Esteban Ocon at Renault. The grid also includes race winners in Mercedes man Valtteri Bottas and current Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo, as well as a few multiple podium earners such as Segio Perez at Racing Point or Romain Grosjean at Haas.
The race weekend is broken down into practice sessions, a qualifying session, and the race. During practice, teams and drivers set up their cars for the race, test upgrades and strategies and gather data to aid them in their decisionmaking later in the weekend. Setups are crucial and can mean the difference between a clean race and a nightmare afternoon behind the wheel for a driver.
Qualifying is broken into three sessions, with the cars setting the fastest time they can and the five slowest drivers eliminated after each session. The final session features a shootout for pole position between the top ten drivers. The bottom ten divers have their finishing position locked in when they are eliminated, but have a free choice of tires to start the race. The top ten must start on the tire they set their fastest time with. This leads to an added element of strategy during the race as teams try to find any advantage they can.
All teams are provided with the same three tire compounds, with the softest providing the most grip and speed while sacrificing durability, and the hardest compound being slower than the other two but lasting much longer in the race at peak performance levels.
The race takes place within a two and a half-hour period from lights out to the checkered flag. All teams must pit to change to a different tire at least once, and points are awarded to the top ten finishers at the end of the race.
Where to go for more:
If you want to know more before the start of the season, a great place to start is Formula One’s Netflix series “Drive to Survive.” They tell the story of the past two seasons while giving a dramatic look at the inner workings of the sport. Formula One also has a very hard working digital content team that is regularly putting out content on youtube including race replays, recaps, history and more. The sport also features some of the best social media teams, and all team Twitter pages regularly interact with fans. You can also stay tuned to KTSW, as we will post more F1 content as we approach the first “lights out and away we go.”
Featured image by Juan Garcia.