Max Verstappen in the Red Bull racer at the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix
© Philip Platzer/Red Bull Content Pool

The most common questions about Formula 1, answered

Formula 1 is a complicated sport, and it tends to prompt a lot of questions from newcomers. Here’s a breakdown and explanation of the sport’s most frequently asked questions.
By Red Bull France and Alastair Spriggs
10 min readUpdated on
F1 is a sport that is both very popular and very mysterious. From race regulations and pit stops, to race strategy and car specs, here are the answers to 16 not-so-naive questions that you dare not ask an F1 mega-fan.

Why do F1 cars create sparks?

Sparks from Formula 1 car in the night

Sparks a from Formula 1 car

© Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Simply because they are spectacular. The sparks are produced by the friction of the protective pads and are perfectly engineered by the manufacturers to add dramatic effect.

Is F1 really a sport?

While F1 cars are technological masterpieces, they still put the body to the test. Due to high speeds and tight corners, drivers are often subjected to forces exceeding 5 gs and the cockpits can reach temperatures up to 70 degrees Celsius. The result? Athletes lose several litres of sweat during each race and burn almost 1000 calories an hour — a marathon-caliber effort. This makes physical preparation absolutely mandatory.

How does F1 qualification work?

To ensure the best possible place on the starting grid, the drivers go through three phases of qualifications. During Q1, everyone drives, but only the 15 drivers who achieve the fastest times around the track continue to the next round. In Q2, the five slowest drivers are eliminated, and the top 10 take part in Q3. The driver with the fastest time earns pole position and the rest of the final grid is determined subsequently.

Where does the term “pole position” come from?

The term comes from horseback riding. Historically, horses placed next to the inside pole at the start of the race were favoured because of the shortened distance around the track. The expression was quickly applied to motorsports in the 20th century.

Do the drivers complete the same number of laps at each Grand Prix?

No way. The number of laps vary at each race are specific to the circuit. A Grand Prix cannot exceed two hours and the total length must be between 300 and 310 km, so the number of laps is decided accordingly. Only the Monaco GP — being 260.52 km in length — is an exception to this rule.

Why is “porpoising” such a big deal?

This term has been making quite an impact in the F1 scene since 2022. But what does it mean exactly? “Porpoising” (taken from the name of a dolphin-like sea mammal), is a phenomenon that makes the single-seater automobiles bounce on certain straightaways. This hindrance is cause by the new designs of F1 cars. Until now, the vehicles were planted on the ground due to the aerodynamism caused by fins placed on the upper part of their bodywork, the air pressure securing them flat on the track. This year, the ground effect creates a force that sucks the chassis from underneath rather than pressing them against the ground. When a car sags a little too much however, the air flows on the outside split, the pressure from underneath drops as the car rises for a moment before the suction kicks back in and so on. This constant bouncing makes it seem like the vehicles are diving in and out of water.
In an attempt to curb this problem faced by most teams and which can affect the safety and comfort of drivers, the FIA has decided to act. It has begun to implement an aerodynamic oscillation measurement (AOM) to determine the level of porpoising of single-seaters via a sensor placed near the center of gravity. This is to measure the vertical acceleration and then set a maximum limit to this AOM as a new technical regulation to be introduced at the French Grand Prix
In the long term, the idea would be to force teams to revaluate their settings if the AOM is too high. It could become mandatory to raise the ride height of the cars to avoid being disqualified. This is what the Red Bull Racing and Ferrari teams will have to do for the French Grand Prix.

Why are some teams consistently better than others?

Max Verstappen sprays champagne after a race

Max Verstappen on the podium with champagne

© Red Bull Content Pool

Success in F1 relies on money. The construction of the chassis, the development of an engine, and even the salary of an exceptional driver represent a certain cost, that only some teams are able to afford. However, this doesn’t mean upsets and surprises don’t happen.

Does each team manufacture their engine?

Nope. Mercedes, Renault, and Ferrari are the only three brands capable of supplying power units to F1 teams, though some small satellite teams receive single-seaters built by others. While each team might not build their engine, they are responsible for developing the chassis, as well as determining the aerodynamic development of the car.

Why are there a manufacturers’ rankings since not all of them manufacture their own engines?

Of course, Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari are today the three only brands capable of supplying engines to F1 teams. Some small satellite teams can also receive their single-seater readymade by others. The idea is that each manufacturer has to develop its own chassis and take care of the aerodynamics of the vehicle. This is no small feat, believe us.

How do the mechanics work so fast during a pit stop?

The fastest pit stop record in history is 1.92 seconds and is held jointly by Aston Martin Red Bull Racing and Williams.

A pit crew works on a car during a pit stop

© Garth Milan/Red Bull Content Pool

The fastest pit stop in history clocked in a 1.82 seconds. Every tenth of a second counts in a race, and the teams leave nothing to chance. From the position of the mechanics in the garage to their choice of tools, everything is studied, analyzed, and rehearsed over and over.

Do the cars really need to pit?

Formula 1 cars are extremely fast and need impeccable grip to power through the turns. This in turn causes heavy wear out on the tires — making for a necessary pit stop. In 2005, the FIA tried to prohibit teams from changing tires that weren't punctured, regardless of their level of wear. This resulted in several drivers finishing the GP without any grip. The rule was withdrawn the following season.

How much fuel does an F1 car consume?

Lots of gasoline. If a standard car consumes roughly 6 litres per 100 km, then an F1 car consumes up to 45 litres per 100 km. Knowing that each race is 305 km long, we can assume that an F1 car burns over 135 litres for the entire race. While this is hefty, there has been progress. In the early 2000s, 10-cylinder single-seater engined required up to 80 litres per 100 km.

Are F1 cars really the fastest cars in the world?

A Red Bull Racing Formula 1 show car

A Red Bull Racing Formula 1 show car

© RB7 show car seen at Kuwait City, Kuwait

Definitely not. The fastest recorded speed in F1 history is 378 km/h, which was recorded on the Baku circuit in 2016. Compare that to Koenigsegg Agera’s top speed of 447.2 km/h on a Nevada road in 2017.

Who decides what settings to race at?

Let’s just say that it’s a team effort. During tryouts, pilots give their general impressions – more or less accurate – to their mechanics, who are then charged to find a solution to their problems. This is a precious collaboration, because as pilot Pierre Gasly recently said, “It is by going into the most minute details that you can make a difference with the other pilots that are just as talented as you are. Engineers are responsible for that last edge on the competition.”

Why can't everybody win?

As is it often the case, it’s all about money. The construction of a chassis, the development and upkeep of an engine, as well as the driver’s salary are all costly expenses and only a few teams are able to make back their investment consistently. This does not prevent some smaller teams from qualifying or causing an upset by winning a podium. We can even witness some small examples of technical genius by lesser-known names on the tracks that aren’t represented in the final score. It’s not just about the points, it’s about the performance.

Why is a checkered flag used?

The origins of the checkered flag is mysterious and it carries several school of thought. Some believe the flag has roots in equestrian, while others believe it’s inspired by the outfits of cycling race organizers in France.

Do the drivers choose their numbers?

Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen drives the Oracle Red Bull Racing RB19 during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 04, 2023.

Max Verstappen in his race car next to a F1 sign with his number (1)

© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Yes. But these numbers, which they are free to choose, are permanent as of 2012. Each pilot is asked to submit three possible choices (for emotional sake, the reigning champion is allowed to race under their own number and is thus not obliged to race under the number 1) to the FIA, which takes care of the final allocation.

How do drivers pee during a race?

They pee in their suits. While this may come as a shock to some, a mechanic at Mercedes once told Lewis Hamilton — who then told Ellen DeGeneres in 2016 — that Micheal Schumacher happily pee in his racing suit.

How do you become an F1 driver?

The royal route to the F1 is to dominate and stand out in the sport of karting at a young age. Once you’ve been spotted, then you can start climbing the ranks in the lower categories (Formula 3, Formula 2, etc.), and above all, to achieve the Super License — a specific license needed for driving over 300 km/h in F1.

Why are there no women drivers?

Maria Teresa De Filippis, one of the only female Formula 1 drivers in history

Maria Teresa De Filippis

© [unknown]

F1 has never been technically forbidden to women, and some even took their place behind the steering wheel in the past, like Maria Teresa de Filippis in the 50s or Giovanna Amati in 1992. However, none of them has ever driven for a major team, and for a number of reasons, from plain sexism or vulgar scientific theories (some have claimed that women perform worse under pressure than men, which recent studies have disproven), their appearance on the tracks is not for tomorrow. Even if drivers like Tatianna Calderon, currently in F2, could accelerate the process.

Why are there no women in F1?

You should know that F1 is – on paper – a mixed sport, and two women, Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi, have participated in a Grand Prix before. Evidently, two female pilots in 62 years of history is very little. To justify the lack of female drivers, some have not hesitated to cite a difference in physical abilities, while others prefer to focus on the lack of candidates. One thing is for certain, this isn’t going to change overnight. In 2019, the FIA created the W series, a championship that claims to be the female counterpart to F1… but races on Formula 3. Great.

How do you get a job with an F1 team?

The Red Bull Racing team celebrates Max Verstappen's title as Formula 1 world champion in 2021

The best Formula 1 teams

© Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

From mechanics, to event managers, and even truck drivers, a single F1 team can employ up to 1,200 people. Don’t hesitate to apply for internships and use specific platforms, such as Motorsport Jobs, to find the job of your dreams in the ruthless world of motorsports.

What is the sprint qualifying?

The brand new way, introduced in 2021 for certain races, of determining the final grid for the Grand Prix. To go fast: after classic qualifying on Friday afternoon, the drivers compete on Sunday in a race of 100 short kilometres (a GP is 300) which allows them to position themselves for the race on Sunday. In addition, points are awarded to the first drivers at the finish line (3 for the winner, 2 for the second, 1 for the third.)
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