Bluffer’s guide — Part 2: rules and strategy

This is the second in a series of “bluffer’s guides“. The first part covered the basics of Formula 1. This second part goes deeper into the rulebook and also covers one of the most important aspects of a race weekend — strategy.

After Qualifying: parc fermé

After the Qualifying session is finished, cars are deemed to be under “parc fermé” conditions. Parc fermé is literally French for “closed park”. All the cars are kept in parc fermé overnight to prevent the teams from working on the cars.

No-one can touch the cars without the express permission of the stewards. Even then, work is usually limited to routine procedures carried out under the supervision of the FIA’s Technical Delegate and other scrutineers.

All cars that qualified 11th on the grid or lower may refuel, but cars in the top ten cannot. Tyres can be changed. Minor set-up alterations can be made in the event that weather conditions change between qualifying and the race.

But apart from that, cars are essentially the same in the race as they were during qualifying. In the past, some teams used specific qualifying-spec engines which were deemed by the FIA to be wasteful. Parc fermé prevents teams from doing this.

If a team needs to do more work on its car, it may opt to do so but the car will have to start the race from the pitlane. This means that the driver must wait at the end of the pitlane until all of the other cars have cleared the start / finish straight.

The start procedure

The pit lane is opened 30 minutes before the scheduled race start time. It is closed 15 minutes later. In this time, cars must make their way round the track and onto the starting grid.

15 seconds before the advertised race start time, all mechanics must leave the grid so that only the cars are left on the circuit. Then the green lights switch on, signifying the start of the formation lap.

The cars then make their way round the circuit. They will be seen weaving around as the drivers try to get their tyres up to racing temperature — warmer tyres have more grip. Similarly, drivers will often stamp on the brakes to get brake temperatures up. Check out this video from the 2008 Malaysian Grand Prix to see this in action.

Warm up from AC on Vimeo.

Overtaking is forbidden on the formation lap unless a car has a technical problem. In this event, cars may make up their positions again so that they can start from the correct grid slot. If the car is unable to start for good, marshals will push the car into the pitlane where mechanics can work on it. If a driver manages to re-start the car but all the drivers have moved off for the formation lap, he must join the queue at the back and will start from the back of the grid.

Once the drivers have all lined up again on the grid, the starting procedure proper commences. Five red lights will switch on one at a time at one second intervals. Then, after a random amount of time the lights will switch off. When this happens, the race has begun.


Formula 1 now has one tyre supplier — Bridgestone. There are four kinds of tyres that are brought to each circuit. Two of these are different ‘compounds’: one is softer and the other is harder. The other two are wet tyres: intermediate and extreme wet weather. The intermediate is sometimes simply called ‘wet’ because the extreme wet is only used in truly atrocious conditions.

If the race is dry (as most races are), each car must use both the soft and the hard tyre at some point during the race. The softer tyre has a white stripe painted in one of the grooves of the tyre so that viewers can tell which tyre the driver is on. If the race is deemed to be wet at any point, teams are free to choose whatever tyres they want.

There are actually four dry compounds — super-soft, soft, medium and hard. But Bridgestone only take two of these to any race weekend and from there one is designated ‘soft’ and the other ‘hard’ for simplicity. The choices are made based on the characteristics of the circuit.

Soft tyres have more grip but wear out more quickly. A harder tyre is more durable but does not give the car the same speed.

During a race weekend, each team has access to seven sets of each of the dry compounds, four sets of intermediate tyres and three sets of extreme wets. Sets cannot be mixed. If the race starts behind the Safety Car, the use of extreme wets is compulsory.

Pitstop strategy

A number of aspects may play a role in race strategy. The two biggest factors are fuel and tyres.

As mentioned above, soft tyres wear out relatively quickly which might make a 2 or 3 stop strategy more viable. Meanwhile, hard tyres might be more suitable for a 1 stop strategy. Of course, nowadays both types of tyres must be used during the race, so it isn’t as simple as that any more.

Fuel levels also play a role. A team may choose to fill their car lightly, making the car speedy on the track but with the tradeoff that an extra pitstop must be made.

A typical pitstop may add 30 seconds to a normal race-speed lap time. But of course, this depends on the length of the pitlane as well. Circuits that have a short pitlane (such as Magny-Cours) lend themselves better to a 3 stop strategy.

Teams also try hard to arrange their pitstops so that their drivers will emerge from the pitlane in “clean air”, i.e. without any traffic. There is nothing worse than to have your race ruined because you came out behind a slow car after your pitstop.

Weather is also a big issue. If rain is predicted, a race can turn into a bit of a lottery as you need either the great skill (or the good luck!) to change to wet tyres just in time for the weather to turn for the worse.

The prospect of a Safety Car period also plays a huge role. Teams take into account the likelihood that the Safety Car will come out. Some circuits have more accidents than others. Teams will try to adapt their strategy to make the most of the Safety Car periods.

It is advantageous to make your pitstop while the Safety Car is out because the other drivers are not at racing speed. A driver can make his pitstop and rejoin the tail of the queue behind the Safety Car.

This was deemed to be dangerous, so now the pitlane is closed as soon as the Safety Car is brought out. This has annoyed the teams and drivers who have suffered the bad luck to run out of fuel while the Safety Car is out. In this case, cars may make their pitstop, but they will incur a 10 second stop–go penalty. This rule may be changed in the near future.

Pitstop strategies are criticised by many for neutering the on-track race. It is said that many drivers avoid the risk of overtaking on the circuit and instead rely on their strategy to effectively overtake cars in the pitlane.

Safety Car rules

When the Safety Car comes out, it picks up the leader and the rest of the field lines up in race order. Drivers must keep within a distance of 5 car lengths to each other. Drivers deemed to be driving erratically will be reported to the stewards.

As outlined above, the pitlane is closed as soon as the Safety Car comes out. A few laps later, race control will reopen the pitlane when they see fit.

When the pitlane is open, a red light will still be displayed at the end of the pitlane if the train of cars is still on the start / finish straight. Drivers who run through the red light will be disqualified.

After a number of laps, lapped cars will be allowed to overtake the train and make their way round again to gain back their lost laps. These cars must still drive at reduced speed and overtaking cars on the same lap is still forbidden. Takuma Sato took advantage of this in the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix when he unlapped himself under the Safety Car. When the race re-started he was in a position to overtake Fernando Alonso.

When the Safety Car is ready to come in, the orange lights on the Safety Car will switch off. From now on, the leader may dictate the pace and may fall back up to 10 car lengths behind the Safety Car.

The Safety Car driver is an unsung hero of Formula 1. He has a difficult job to do. Even though it is a reduced speed for Formula 1 cars, the Safety Car is on the limit. If the Safety Car was too slow, there is a risk that the Formula 1 cars would overheat.

It speaks volumes of the talent of current Safety Car driver Bernd Mayländer (who has been the Safety Car driver since 2000) that a Safety Car phase usually passes without event. Some quick thinking by Mayländer even prevented a potentially horrific accident in the 2007 European Grand Prix when Vitantonio Liuzzi lost control on the start / finish straight while the Safety Car was waiting to pick up the leader.

Engines and gearboxes

From 2008, engine development has been frozen and will be for the next five years. Teams will be unable to update their engines from now on due to homologation.

A single engine is expected to have a lifespan of two grand prix meetings. If a driver changes his engine before qualifying, he will be given a 10 place grid penalty. If he changes his engine after qualifying, he must start from the back of the grid. But the first engine change of the season will go unpunished.

Similar rules govern the use of gearboxes. A gearbox is expected to last for four race weekends. If the gearbox is changed a driver faces a five place grid penalty.

These engine and gearbox rules are a source of great frustration as even the most seasoned F1 followers find the rules too convoluted and impossible to keep track of.

Driver aids

From 2008 onwards, “driver aids” are banned. The most important of these driver aids are traction control and engine braking. In the past, these were allowed because they were deemed impossible to police. But in the interests of spicing up the race action, a standardised Electronic Control Unit has been introduced, making such aids impossible for teams to implement.

But teams can still use electronics to control engine map settings. But each change to these settings will take 90 seconds to take effect. This is what caught out Lewis Hamilton at the start of the 2008 Bahrain Grand Prix.

After the race: scrutineering

After the race — and often several times during the race weekend — cars are checked to make sure that they meet the various technical regulations. Among the most important is the weight limit. The minimum weight of a car including the driver at any one time is 600kg (605kg during qualifying). You will see the drivers and cars being weighed immediately after the race has finished before the podium ceremony.

Most of the technical regulations are quite detailed and I certainly am not in a position to digest them here. But an accessible guide to technical regulations is available on the official Formula 1 website.


  1. Excellent article. Plenty of detail!

    Technically parc ferme conditions start once a car goes on track in qualifying (or at the end of Q1 if the car didn’t go on track).

    I think the story with the 90 second engine map rule is that the map chosen at the start of the race must be used for the first 90 seconds of the race, thereafter the driver can change as he pleases.

  2. The engine map can definitely only be changed once every 90 seconds. This is to discourage use of maps like the starter map as traction control substitutes.

  3. I haven’t seen anywhere that says the map can be changed only every 90 seconds. According to more than one journal article the map cannot be changed within the first 90 seconds of the race only. As a method of discouraging “launch” maps.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I am not convinced that the Autosport article refers just to the start. It is quite ambiguous. But something that makes me rather sceptical about this is the fact that the car couldn’t possibly know when the race starts — if it did, it would go against article 8.3:

    Any system, the purpose and/or effect of which is to detect when a race start signal is given, is not permitted.

    I’ve had a look on the FIA’s website and I cannot find any mention of the 90s delay in the regulations. Presumably it doesn’t have to be in the regs since the ECU is standardised.

  5. I think it’s not in the regulations because it was a last-minute change, instituted after Honda discovered that one of the engine maps resembled traction control in its aggressiveness.