Bluffer’s guide — Part 1: basics of a race weekend

Throughout the season I am planning on writing various guides related to Formula 1. I have posted a couple already. The current plan is to publish them on Sundays between races.

Ryan Morrison suggested that I should write a ‘bluffer’s guide’ to Formula 1. It fits in with the guide concept, so I’m going to go with it. It will be particularly useful this season as the interest in Lewis Hamilton attracts ever more viewers to the show. Interest even seems to have increased as a result of the BBC winning the rights.

Ryan has also helped me out with suggestions for this guide, so I should thank him for that.

So, these posts will probably not be much use if you are a seasoned F1 viewer. But if you have any suggestions of things I might have missed, please do leave a comment!

The bluffer’s guide will be split up into several posts. This first post covers the structure of the race weekend and the basic rules of Formula 1.

First and foremost, F1 is a complex sport with a Byzantine, sometimes secretive, rulebook. You can read the full set of rules at the FIA’s official website. A more accessible version is on the official Formula 1 website. I will attempt to cover the most important rules here.

The race weekend

Teams do more than just race on a Sunday afternoon. Teams commonly arrive at the circuit in the middle of the week to set-up and prepare. Drivers can participate in practice sessions and must qualify before entering the race.


Two 90 minute long practice sessions are held on Friday (Thursday in Monaco). A 60 minute practice session is held on Saturday morning. These are to help teams and drivers prepare their car for the race, tweaking the set up until the driver feels he is comfortable and has maximised the overall speed of his car.

It is worth pointing out that practice sessions do not count! They are just that — practice sessions. And form in practice is not necessarily a good guide as to who will perform well during the race. That doesn’t stop us from speculating though!

Qualifying — how starting positions are determined

On Saturday afternoon, three short qualifying sessions are held. These determine the grid positions for Sunday’s race.

Each of these sessions lasts a certain amount of time. When the time has elapsed, all drivers may finish any lap they have begun.

The first session — ‘Q1’ — lasts 20 minutes. All of the drivers attempt to set a fast lap time in order to avoid being knocked out. The slowest six drivers (from 17th to 22nd) are knocked out. The positions they finished in are their grid positions for the race.

Q2 lasts 15 minutes. Times from Q1 are discarded, so drivers must go out and set another fast lap. Another six drivers are eliminated according to the same process as Q1. Now just ten drivers remain.

Q3 lasts 10 minutes and is slightly different to the other sessions. The top 10 drivers are expected to qualify with the fuel levels they will carry at the start of the race. This is in contrast to Q1 and Q2 where drivers run on light tanks in order to minimise their lap time.

This aspect of Q3 adds a strategic element to qualifying. It does, however, mean that the fastest driver is not necessarily the driver on pole position. For this among other reasons, ‘race fuel qualifying’ is not very popular among many F1 fans. Qualifying is one of the most tinkered-with aspects of the F1 rulebook. This will be covered in a future ‘bluffer’s guide’.

In all sessions, times are measured to the nearest thousandth of a second. Despite this precision, occasionally drivers set identical times. In qualifying for the 1997 European Grand Prix, three front-runners set the same time! In this case, the driver who set the time first is judged to be ahead. It is generally recognised that the later a car goes out, the easier it is to set a fast time. The reasons for this will be explored in a future bluffer’s guide.

The race

Each race is designed to last 305km (plus slightly more to reach the finish line). The exception is the Monaco Grand Prix, where the slow and twisty nature of the circuit means that the length of the race is 260km. Because the length of a race is determined by distance, the number of laps varies from circuit to circuit.

However, each race can last a maximum of just over two hours. Once the 2 hour time limit has elapsed, the race ends when the leader next crosses the finish line. In reality, the two hour limit is rarely a worry. It is usually only reached in extremely wet races.

If the race is stopped for any reason, the clock still keeps ticking in terms of the drivers’ race times. But this time is not included in the two hour limit. e.g. When Fernando Alonso won the interrupted 2007 European Grand Prix, he did so with a race time of 2:06:26.358 even though the 2 hour limit was not reached.


There are two Formula 1 World Championships that run across the season: the Drivers Championship and the Constructors Championship. Scoring for both championships is as follows:

Position Points
1st 10
2nd 8
3rd 6
4th 5
5th 4
6th 3
7th 2
8th 1

If a driver does not cross the finish line but completes more than 90% of the race distance, the driver is still ‘classified’ as having finished the race. This is partly so that lapped cars can be taken account for. But occasionally a driver who retired can still score points. For instance, in the 2008 Australian Grand Prix, Sébastien Bourdais and Kimi Räikkönen finished 7th and 8th respectively despite the fact that they both suffered race-ending engine failures as only six cars crossed the finish line.

Different rules may apply if the race has been stopped and cannot resume. If less than 75% of the scheduled race distance was completed, half points are awarded (i.e., 5 points for 1st place, 4 points for 2nd and so on until ½ a point for 8th). If less than two laps were completed and the race is not restarted, no points are awarded.

If the race has stopped, the results are taken from the standings as they were at the end of the lap two laps before the red flag was shown. This is to prevent drivers who suspect that the race may be red-flagged from going all-out for the win in dangerous conditions. This was the cause of confusion at the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, where rather farcically the wrong driver took the top step of the podium!

If, at the end of the season, more than one driver shares an equal number of points, positions are determined by the number of wins. If that is a tie, it goes to number of 2nd places. And so on. If, after going through all the positions, it is still a tie, “the FIA will nominate the winner according to such criteria as it thinks fit.”

In the event of dangerous conditions

Sometimes track conditions are considered too dangerous to allow cars to travel at full racing speeds. The obvious example is if there is a crash and debris has been left on the circuit. The race director has a number of options if he wants to slow the cars down.

Waved yellow flags are used to indicate that the section of the track ahead is dangerous. Drivers must slow down and overtaking is forbidden until the green flag is waved. Double waved yellows signify a more serious incident, and drivers must be prepared to stop if necessary.

If the incident is even more serious than this, the Safety Car is deployed. This is effectively a ‘full course yellow’. The Safety Car drives at a controlled speed. The Safety Car will pick up the leader, and all of the other cars will line up behind him. Overtaking is prohibited. This is a way of controlling the race without calling a halt to it. Timers and lap counts continue as normal. Occasionally, in wet conditions, a race will start behind the Safety Car.

In the event of an even more serious incident, the red flag is shown to signify that the race has stopped. From there, the race may be re-started or abandoned. This affects the result as outlined in the ‘scoring’ section above.

Other flags

  • The blue flag is shown to drivers who are about to be lapped. These drivers should give way to the faster driver. If a driver ignores three blue flags, he may be penalised.
  • A yellow and red stripy flag is shown if the circuit is slippery, usually due to oil.
  • A white flag signifies that a slow car is on the track.
  • A black flag with an orange circle in the middle is displayed to a driver whose car has a mechanical problem and must return to the pits.
  • A black and white flag split along the diagonal is displayed to a driver for unsporting conduct. This is like a ‘yellow card’, and if the driver maintains this behaviour he may be shown the black flag. In reality, this flag is seldom used nowadays.
  • The black flag is shown to a driver who is disqualified and must return to the pits.
  • The most famous, the chequered flag, signifies the end of the race.

Common transgressions

During the race, a driver may fall foul of a number of rules. Among the most common transgressions are:

  • Jumping the start
  • Speeding in the pit lane
  • Ignoring blue flags
  • Blocking other drivers (an agreement exists whereby a driver can only make one move across the track to prevent an overtaking manoeuvre)
  • Causing an avoidable accident

The race stewards will decide if and how a driver should be penalised. The most common penalty is the drive-through penalty, where drivers must drive through the pit lane and adhere to the speed limit. A driver may also be hit with a 10 second ‘stop–go’ penalty. This is like a drive-through penalty, except the driver must also stop outside his pit garage and remain stationary for 10 seconds before going again. Mechanics may not work on the car during this period.

If a driver fails to serve his penalty within three laps of being notified, he may be disqualified. If a penalty is given within 5 laps of the end of the race, the driver may opt not to serve his penalty and instead have 25 seconds added to his race time.

More severe penalties include disqualification and a grid penalty for the following race. A variety of other penalties may be handed out if the stewards investigate an incident that was only brought to their attention after the race had finished.

1 comment

  1. I think this kind of guides is a must for newcomers. It’s not the first time that I see an argument caused by a lack of knowledge in the rules.