By Ivy Samuel and Jasmine Adjallah
Motorsport is an extremely wide-ranging and multifaceted sport, so much so it can seem as a daunting prospect to get your head around for new fans. Formula One (F1) is the highest class of international motorsport championship and in turn the most popular. From its history to its legacy; challenges and endless lingo, here’s a quick rundown of Formula One and a few other global series that will get you up to speed in time for the next race weekend.
How did it all start?
Automobile racing has its roots in the European championships of the 1920s and 1930s, however, the first world championship and the start of the modern era of Formula 1 began in 1950 with the British Grand Prix in Silverstone.
If we look back even further, Grand Prix racing sees its beginnings traced back to 1890s France. The use of the appellation “Grand Prix” was introduced in the 1901 French Grand Prix, and “Formula” refers to the set of standardised rules all drivers and engineers must follow - the championship was even briefly known as Formula A.
While plans for an official international championship were discussed and drawn up in the latter part of the 1930s, the onset of World War Two forced such plans to be abandoned.
In 1946 the idea was brought to light once again, headed by the FIA, and by May 1950 the first sanctioned world championship began. Back then, not all races counted towards the title (only seven did) but even then, an active world championship was running and more races were to be included in the championship. This continued until 1983.
In 1971, Bernie Ecclestone took over the management of Formula One’s commercial rights. This marked the beginning of the sport’s status as a global financial entity, as it continued to evolve as a truly international sport, with races held on almost every continent. As the chief executive, Ecclestone elevated the status of the sport over his four-decade career.
The first (ever) F1 race
The inaugural round of the first Formula One World Championship was held at the Silverstone Circuit on 13th May 1950. Last year marked this occasion as the circuit held the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix in August.
The first race of the championship was a glamorous international affair that saw the Queen, King Geroge VI and Princess Margaret in attendance alongside a crowd of 200,000 spectators. The race itself saw Italian Giuseppe “Nino” Farina, who later became first official Formula One World Champion, take the win and fastest lap in his Alfa Romeo 158 - the car to beat at the time. He also qualified in pole position, ahead of teammates Luigi Fagioli and Juan Manuel Fangio.
F1 Breakdown / Jargon Buster
Formula One can be a pretty complex sport, and if you’re fairly new to watching races, it can be difficult to understand what’s going on. But thankfully, it doesn’t take a lot of information in order for anyone to get up to speed with the basics.
The best place to start is with the structure of a race weekend: As it so happens, all race weekends of any motorsport follow this effective structure.
Friday: Free Practice 1 and Free Practice 2.
In Formula One, drivers have one hour to drive around the track, get to grips with track limits, how the car drives and offer insight to those on the pit wall as to how the car may perform and what to expect come Sunday. Quite often during Free Practice sessions, the phrase sandbagging is thrown around, which is the practice of deliberately running below your true or maximum potential to save the best for when it matters or to lull teams into a false sense of security.
Saturday: Free Practice 3 and the Qualifying Session.
Drivers and teams have one more hour to explore and solve any issues that may have arisen the previous day. You may also see drivers putting in test Qualifying laps to gauge where they are for later in the day. Qualifying is an important part of the race weekend - drivers put in quick laps in an attempt to start the race in the highest position possible. Qualifying lasts one hour and is split into three knock-out sections (Q1, Q2, Q3). The top ten who make it into Q3 battle it out for the chance to make pole position.
Sunday: Race day.
The actual Grand Prix takes place, with plenty of press build-up the hours beforehand. A race typically lasts 1hr 30 mins and never goes beyond 2 hours. What many people don’t realise is that motorsport is a team affair. A lot of attention gets given to drivers but they are simply one piece of a wider puzzle.
Constructors: The majority of motorsport competitions feature two categories of championship - the constructors and the drivers. Formula One is no exception. Constructors is simply a fancy way of defining the teams that take part - the best way to remember it is that teams are responsible for the construction of the car. Formula One consists of 10 teams. Red Bull Racing, Mercedes, McLaren, Ferrari, AlphaTauri, Aston Martin, Alpine, Alfa Romeo Racing, Williams, and Haas.
After seven years of Mercedes dominance, as of now, Red Bull Racing is leading the Constructors Championship for the first time since 2013.
Team Principal: One of the most important roles, the team principal keeps the team running smoothly. The buck stops with them as they run the team on track and off throughout the year.
Pit crew: Without them, there simply wouldn’t be any cars on track. The crew (consisting of 20 individuals) are ultimately responsible for changing the tires on the cars as quickly as possible. They may also need to change or fix parts on the car if need be during the pit stop, handle punctures, or wait patiently as their driver serves a stop-and-go penalty.
Strategists: As motorsport continued to evolve and enter the hybrid era, strategy became a much more important component to secure a race win. There are several categories of strategist within a team, one being a race strategist that each driver is personally assigned. Not all strategists travel to every race weekend with the team - many remain at base and conduct crucial analysis from there. Strategists typically use mathematical models, probabilities, statistical data and more to plot a winning route for their driver and team.
Drivers: 20 drivers make up the Formula One grid, two drivers for each team. On this year’s grid, there are several drivers who have made (or are in the process of making) a spectacular mark within the sport.
Lewis Hamilton - Mercedes: 7 World Championships.
Sebastian Vettel - Aston Martin: 4 World Championships.
Fernando Alonso - Alpine: 2 World Championships.
Kimi Raikonnen - Alfa Romeo: 1 World Championship - had his first race in 2001, and is the oldest on the grid.
Max Verstappen - Red Bull: 0 World Championships - at the time of writing, he is currently in the lead.
Teams also rely on test drivers, who help considerably with the constant development of the car, and reserve drivers, who are ready to step in for the full time driver if need be.
The Road to F1
In order to race in Formula One, drivers need to have a super license which is the highest racing license given out by the FIA. This ensures that the drivers who get into Formula One will not be a danger to themselves or any other competitors.
These days getting a super license from the FIA has never been more difficult. The requirements range from being at least 18, to having a valid road car license, to having a minimum of 40 super license points from their three most recent racing seasons. Drivers can earn super license points by finishing in the top ten in various racing divisions.
There are technically many routes into F1, but the most dominant is to go from karting into single seaters and work your way up through the feeder series. In 2014, the FIA Global Pathway from Karting to Formula One was formed to provide a linear and straightforward track for aspiring racers to get into one of the most popular motorsport categories.
A lot of professional racing drivers have begun their careers in karts. It’s where many find their passion for the sport. At the age of sometimes six years old, this is where they begin to build on the fundamental skills that are necessary for a future in motorsport.
There are a number of karting championships that occur at a regional, national and international level. This is a good place for drivers to show off their skills and talent to potential sponsors and future teams. It is rare that a driver would make it to the highest level through karts without having left some sort of an impression at this early stage.
There isn’t a global championship for Formula 4. There are categories in different regions and nations, that all compete with a universal set of rules and specifications. Formula 4 was designed for junior drivers (15+) by the FIA to provide a stepping stone between karting and Formula 3. Current F4 championships run in Italy, Japan, Spain, Britain, China, the USA as well as a few more.
Since 2019, Formula 3 has operated at both a regional and international level. At a regional level, similar to F4, championships, known as Formula Regional, run in different areas from Asia to Europe to America. They all use the same specifications to allow drivers to move from one championship to another without needing to start from scratch.
At an international level there are two competitions. The FIA Formula 3 World Cup which is a standalone event, and the FIA Formula 3 Championship. The latter allows drivers to race under the headlights of the F1 paddock as all events, alongside F2 and the W Series, take place on a number of Formula One weekends.
A recent addition to the F3 franchise is the W Series, who race against each other in Formula Regional spec cars. It is a single-seater championship exclusively for female racers. And the series’ philosophy to Rethink Racing is evident in their actions - from competitors not requiring sponsors to compete, to boosting accessibility in partnering with Channel 4 for all races to be broadcast live. The W Series offers talented female drivers the best opportunity in recent history to reach Formula One.
Finishing in the top 3 of an FIA F2 Championship would give drivers enough points to earn a super license. The Formula 2 grid is fiercely competitive, it is the final step before F1 and over the years, through previous iterations, has seen some of the most gifted drivers cross the chequered flag.
But there is no guarantee that making it all the way to Formula 2 and even winning the entire championship will secure you a seat at the highest stage. In Formula One there are only a limited number of spaces. Drivers tend to stay in the sport for quite a long while, and unfortunately it isn’t that rare to see talented F2 drivers miss out on an opportunity, largely because it wasn’t the right time or because they weren’t backed by the “correct team”.
Motorsport is an expensive sport and it pretty much always has been. But getting into F1 in the modern era comes at extortionate prices that your everyday person simply cannot afford. Unless you are super rich and can pay for a few karting seasons, followed by at least one season in F4, F3, and F2 which each could cost up to hundreds of thousands of pounds, reaching F1 is near impossible to do on your own. In an interview with the Spanish newspaper AS, 7 time World Champion Lewis Hamilton, spoke about how it would be near impossible for someone with a similar background to himself, to make it into this sport these days as in his words, Formula One has become a “billionaire boys club”.
However, many drivers are backed by an F1 team from a young age, who support them throughout their careers. Alpine, Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull, Alfa Romeo, and Williams all have driver development programs. Here, the young talent have access to coaches and technology, as well as the potential opportunity to take part in free practice sessions and F1 tests. But additionally sponsorships can help drivers with the financial power they would need to make a career in this industry a viable option.
Nevertheless, F1 isn’t the be all and end all of motorsport. There are plenty of high level championships that drivers can take part in.
Alternatives to F1
Home to the Indianapolis 500 race, IndyCar is a series based in North America. Behind Formula One it is globally one of the most popular single-seater championships and over the years has seen a number of F1 drivers cross the pond to compete. More recently, in 2021, former Haas driver, Roman Grojean, made the move to IndyCar, joining Marcus Ericsson who left the F1 grid in 2018.
📸: IndyCar race
With its first race in 2014, Formula E became the first all-electric single seater championship. It had a mission to show the world what sustainable electric vehicles are capable of, while racing around some of the globe’s most popular cities. Formula E has become the destination for a handful of former F1 and F2 drivers, such as the 2019 F2 champion Nyck de Vries.
A grand touring racing series based in Germany, familiar names (Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes-AMG) compete as Constructors on circuits across Europe. Classed as GT racing (circuit racing with vehicles that have two seats and enclosed wheels), the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters returned in June for its 2021 season. Current F2 Red Bull driver Liam Lawson won Race 1, his DTM debut, and 2020 Red Bull F1 driver Alex Albon finished P4.
World Endurance Championship
Endurance racing adds an entire new dynamic to auto racing, and the FIA World Endurance Championship collates such riveting racing into a single international championship. The season consists of 22 teams and nine races, which includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Arguably the most prestigious automobile race in the world, Le Mans’ stature is not to be underestimated. The race is considered one of three of the so-called ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’ alongside Indycar’s Indianapolis 500 and Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix.
W Series is a free-to-enter championship, launched in October 2018, that provides equal opportunities for women and eliminates the financial barriers that have historically prevented them from progressing to the upper echelons of motorsport.
Lights Out and Away We Go…
And just like that, you’re all set for a Formula One race weekend. Perhaps this has wet your appetite for other motorsport series? Regardless, you’re now in-the-know of the key intricacies behind motorsport. Expanding your knowledge from here is an undoubtedly exciting journey - you never truly run out of new things to learn.
From the rich history, to world renowned drivers, to the multitude of categories one can enjoy, motorsport is so much more than just people driving around in circles. It’s a sport that many people overlook and count themselves out of watching because it seems too confusing or too boring.
At the highest level, you can see some of the greatest minds in this field. On and off the track. Strategists, drivers, and pit crews competing against one another to be the best. It’s high stakes and intense. Dangerous and grueling. From afar it might look like what they do is easy but it takes years of determination to get to the point where you can spray champagne.
Every race might not be the most entertaining thing you’ve ever seen and you'll likely prefer some categories over others. There are those that love the technical side, others that will only support one driver, and some that just enjoy watching the competition unfold. But at its heart motorsport, like any other sport, can be enjoyed by anyone.
Thanks for reading 💚
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