The latest season of Formula One racing has just recently begun, and with it comes new regulations, faster cars, and, as always, a tiny bit of controversy. For those unaware, F1 is an international car racing series with the fastest cars in the world. These cars are piloted by the most skilled drivers in the world, who compete on the most demanding and exciting race tracks worldwide—from Melbourne to Monza to Abu Dhabi. Each season features roughly 20 races, although the number can increase or decrease depending on participating circuits. Although one of these races takes place in the United States—the U.S. Grand Prix held in Austin, Texas—F1 doesn’t have as large of a fan base in America as it does in Europe, largely due to knockoff motorsports like IndyCar, where cars are slower and less sophisticated than F1 vehicles.
For each season, there are two championships at play. There is the World Drivers’ Championship, which goes to the individual driver with the most amount of points, and there is the World Constructors’ Championship, which is awarded to the team whose drivers score the most points collectively. Drivers score points based on their finish in each race. First place awards 25 points, second 18 points, third 15 points, fourth 12 points, fifth 10 points, and so on, with each successive place down the leaderboard receiving two points fewer than the previous finish.
With two races completed so far this season, three different teams look to be vying for the championships: Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport, the defending World Constructors’ Champions, with three-time WDC Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas as drivers; Scuderia Ferrari, with four-time WDC Sebastian Vettel and one-time WDC Kimi Raikkonen as drivers; and Red Bull Racing, with Australian Daniel Ricciardo and Dutch driver Max Verstappen. Between Mercedes and Ferrari, the racing has been especially close: in the Ferrari, Vettel won the Australian Grand Prix, and in the Mercedes, Hamilton won the Chinese Grand Prix. This is a turn from the last couple years of racing, which has been dominated by Mercedes.
F1 is known as Formula One because it is the pinnacle of motorsport, and because it is governed by a strict formula of rules that limits how cars can be designed, built, and raced. Every single year, the regulations change (some years more significantly than others) in order to keep teams on their toes. This year is no exception, as new design rules allow for a wider front and rear wings, wider diffusers, wider tires, and an increased maximum weight from 702 kilograms to 722 kilograms plus tires, among other less significant changes.
Each of the 10 teams in F1 designs its own cars within these rules to maximize mechanical grip and aerodynamic downforce, allowing cars to travel around corners and down straights as quickly as possible by utilizing downforce. Downforce involves using the same principles that allow airplanes to fly, but in reverse: the greater the amount of downforce, the more the car wants to stick to the ground and not lose traction. Theoretically, an F1 car could drive upside down in a tunnel without falling because of how much downforce (or in this case, lift) it produces.
Consequently, aerodynamicists from all the teams are constantly looking for ways to send airflow to downforce-creating elements of the car, such as the front wing, the rear wing, and the diffuser, which is beneath the rear wing and helps increase airflow underneath the car. However, increasing downforce also increases drag. On tracks with long straights, such as at the Chinese Grand Prix which is held at the Shanghai International Circuit, cars with maximum downforce will lose substantial amounts of time on the 1.7 kilometer straight to cars with less downforce. As a result, finding the perfect balance of downforce is critical to race success, and poses a tough challenge for aerodynamicists since every track is different.
Yet the technical design aspects of F1 can sometimes prove too complex for casual fans. Fear not, because one of the most compelling aspects of F1 racing is the importance of strategy. Drivers and their teams must pay attention to tire degradation, component failure, fuel levels, as well as all the other cars racing on track.
On a lap-by-lap basis, tire degradation tends to affect the cars and strategic decisions the most. This season, the Pirelli tires that all teams use are degrading at a slower rate than previous seasons, which means that most teams will only have to pit once to change tires. In seasons past, there were often up to three pit stops per car per race, especially before refueling was banned in a regulations change. However, because these tires are not degrading as quickly, the timing of what may be the sole pit stop for each car becomes especially critical. Going into the pits means that a driver will lose in total around 20 seconds on their lap time. Although this is a lot of time to lose, the actual changing of tires is very fast, every so often lasting just under two seconds. The importance of the timing lies in the fact that a driver can drive more quickly and with less tire degradation if they are in clean air, as opposed to when trailing directly behind one or more cars. As a result, pit stops are often used as overtaking maneuvers, where a car running in dirty air behind another car will pit in order to get a new set. This strategy is particularly useful if the leading car is lapping relatively slowly, since the car with fresh rubber will now have an opportunity to set down some faster lap times in hopes of hopping places.
But when it comes down to it, F1 is best when there’s tight wheel-to-wheel racing, not when cars are stuck in dirty air. Two drivers fighting neck and neck for a position is tense because they are pushing their cars to the limit, and exciting because these are the top drivers on Earth that can and will find and utilize an opening to overtake. Occasionally there are crashes, but that’s never as exciting as watching these super-humans wrestle with their machines. In addition, since 2009, the cars have been hybrids, equipped with energy recovery systems (ERS) that charge batteries when the car is under braking. When a driver wants a bit of extra power, at the push of a button on their steering wheel, they get 160 brake horsepower. In addition, on long straights, if drivers are within one second of a car ahead, they can use the Drag Reduction System (DRS), which opens the rear wing to reduce drag. Drivers use both of these tools, among many others, to help with overtaking.
As the year continues, the F1 season is bound to have dramatic battles, heartbreaking crashes and part failures, and even closer racing than the last few seasons. The next race is the Bahrain Grand Prix this upcoming weekend, and although I’m not sure how the race is going to turn out, I am sure of one thing: at least I won’t be watching NASCAR.