Last updated on January 16, 2023
Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, you’ve most likely heard of the world’s premier racing league, Formula 1. All in all, the sport boasts cutting-edge technology, tension filled overtakes, and classy European accents; what’s there not to love?
But even though it seems simple at first glance, there are a few things to understand in order to grasp how incredible the sport really is. Here’s what you should know about the world’s most a la modé racing competition.
- What is a Grand Prix?
Like any other sport, Formula 1 has an on season and an off season.
The season generally lasts from the Spring to the Fall, and features around 20 weekly races (called Grand Prix) across the world from Bahrain to Monaco to Miami. Each of these races take exactly 3 days.
The first day, typically a Friday, is a testing day when teams are given time to make adjustments, strategize, and get used to the track. This is all done in preparation for the second day: qualifications.
Put simply, qualifications are a race against the clock. Each of the 20 drivers on the grid (track) take their turns racing around the course to see who can achieve the fastest lap time. These rankings determine the starting positions for the race itself which takes place the next day. So for clarification, if a driver has the fastest lap time on the second day, they will start in the pole (first) position when it comes to the actual race. The same reasoning applies to the second, third, fourth, and so on fastest drivers.
Finally, Sunday is race day. This is when the competitors line up in their positions and race at least 190 miles to the finish line. This may seem hyper-simplistic, but there’s so much more that goes into race day than just pushing down on the petals.
- The Teams
In all of Formula 1, there are only 10 teams. Some of them such as Red Bull, Mercedes AMG, and McClaren most likely ring bells. Each team is led by a Team Principal, who is responsible for representing the team and making the executive decisions.
Under the Team Principal there are dozens of pit crew members, engineers, and race engineers. In layman’s terms, pit crew members are responsible for changing burnt out tires and refueling the car during races; engineers build and modify the car to have the least drag with the most amount of down-force; race engineers act as liaisons between the drivers and the team during races.
The main takeaway is that unlike other sports, the athlete is only one small piece of the puzzle. Behind the scenes, there are millions of dollars and hundreds of people working to craft the conditions that are prerequisites for races to be won.
- Constructor’s and Driver’s Championships
So, we know that there are 10 teams each with 2 drivers competing in a series of Grand Prix. But how do you “win” a Formula 1 season?
Well, there are actually two ways.
The first is through the Constructors Championship. When a driver places in the Top 10 of a race, they earn points. Whichever team has the most by the end of the season is declared the victor of the Constructors Championship.
The second way to win in Formula 1 is the Drivers Championship. Similarly to the Constructors Championship, this award is given to the driver that has scored the most points for the team throughout the season.
The fact that Formula 1 has two main championships demonstrates something key to the sport: that there is a competition between the teams and a competition between the drivers. Unlike other racing leagues like IndyCar, Formula 1 cars across different teams are not all built the same. So, because racers from the same team are the only ones with equal playing fields, there’s often high levels of competition between teammates on top of the rivalries between teams.
This attribute feeds into my favorite thing about the sport: the politics of it.
- The Politics
As mentioned previously, millions of dollars go into creating just a single F1 car that can be totaled in the blink of an eye. And although this is true, there is a lot more than just “a lot of money” going on in F1.
To put everything into perspective, in 2019 Mercedes AMG (one of the most dominant teams in recent history) spent nearly $450,000,000 while Williams Martini (one of the grid’s midfield teams) spent a mere $132,000,000 (ESPN, George). Case in point, there are some huge disparities and discrepancies between teams.
And it’s these disparities and discrepancies that have allowed Netflix to make an award-winning series based solely on the drama within the sport. With the copious amounts of money on the line, behind closed doors teams are constantly competing to backdoor contracts with the top drivers, acquire the most lucrative sponsorships, and steal the most time for the limelight.
But even though so much money is spent, team profits are minimal. For instance, according to research done by educational Youtuber Cleo Abram, the Red Bull Racing Team profited little more than $1.5 million in 2020. Which, for a company as big as Red Bull within a league as popular as F1, is extremely small.
So why is Formula 1 still a thing?
Teams compete for the same reasons why Formula 1 is so enticing: because in order to be the best, you have to push the limits and spend the most. It’s done for the culture. For the publicity. For the honor, and for the glory that comes with building a $12 million car that can race at 200 miles per hour and beating out opponents by hundredths of a second. At its core, it’s these things that make Formula 1, Formula 1.