On Sunday 24th March the Formula 1 season starts again in Melbourne. Here’s how to sound like an instant expert on Formula One.

The Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix is on in Melbourne from 24-26th March 2017.

What is Formula 1?

IT IS AN INTERNATIONAL car racing series with a long and proud history dating back to 1950. Formula One (F1) is universally recognised as the pinnacle of motorsports, with the most expensive and fastest cars, the best drivers and certainly the most money to splash around.  

Unusually for a race series, F1 cars differ from team to team. With V8 Supercars and NASCAR for example the regulations are such that the cars are all basically identical but with different badges. This keeps costs down, and helps create parity of vehicles so driver skill shines through. But in F1, while there are rules, there’s relatively few “control” elements so the each car can be very different to the rest. This massively increases costs, but makes the sport very interesting for those of a technical bent. It does however mean that whichever team is ahead at the time stays ahead for a while – Mercedes now, Red Bull before that, and Ferrari before them – as the best cars attract the best drivers and more sponsorship money.    

The attraction for its many worldwide fans is that F1 is a showcase of the best of the industry, has a rich history, provides entertaining political and off-track antics and lots of interesting technical developments.   There was a Formula 2 and 3, but no longer. They have been replaced by other racing series.

F1 is known as an “open wheeler” race series as the wheels are not enclosed, and “open cockpit” because there is no windscreen for the driver. However, as there have been recent open-wheel deaths attributed to the lack of driver protection it looks likely that there will be some form of additional head protection built in for the driver.

Are F1 Drivers really the best drivers in the world?

Sort of. Because F1 is the apex (sorry) of the motor racing world it naturally attracts the best of the best, because to say “I am an F1 driver” carries more weight around the world than “I won the V8 Supercar Championship” or some other series that is locally but not globally famous. The same goes for engineers.  

There are about 20 current F1 drivers at any given time, and as motor racing is so expensive some of these are ‘pay drivers’ who probably aren’t the best, but are there because of the sponsorship they bring. They are still superb drivers, but the talents of the true F1 stars are otherworldly, or to use the current vernacular, “alien”.

Is F1 the best test of a driver?

Some would say no, because there is the World Rally Championship held on a variety of surfaces the competitors have no chance to practice with, compared to F1 which has much ‘easier’ tracks to drive on which you get plenty of practice time. But that debate will never be settled.

OK, so who are the best of the best?

The best drivers on the grid are generally agreed to be Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, with 3, 4 and 2 championships respectively. Out of those three only their fans could tell you who is better.  Young Dutchman Max Verstappen has impressed hugely last year, and his team mate is Daniel Ricciardio who is also very highly rated as an all-round effective driver.

Aren’t there any women drivers?

Sadly no, and there haven’t been for a long while. Susie Wolff generated a fair bit of publicity as a test driver for the Williams team but never started a race. Only five women have ever started an F1 race, and only one, Lella Lombardi, has scored – half a point. The 1976 British GP was the only time two women entered an F1 race, but neither qualified to start the race.

Are F1 cars the fastest in the world?

Not in a straight line. The fastest cars are dragsters. But around a racetrack, yes they are. That’s due to the huge amount of power, very light weight, sticky tyres and especially the advanced use of aerodynamics to push the car into the ground so it generates more grip. 

How fast is fast?

That depends on the car, the specs of the year it was built to, and the setup (tyres, gearing, etc) and the weather conditions. Still, for perspective, a budget sports car like the Toyota 86 will do 0-100km in around 7-8 seconds. A quicker car like the Mitsubishi Evo will do it in around 5 seconds. Supercars like a Ferrari 458 manage around 3 seconds. An F1 car can do 0-100km/h in under 2 seconds, and will manage 0-200km/h in under 4 seconds, then 0-300 in under 9. The deceleration is savage, up to 5g. F1 cars can do 0 to 100km/h and back to 0 again in under 5 seconds. There are F1 cars modified for two seats and passengers have to be medically assessed before their ride. Even then many describe it as painful, and the speed is too much to comprehend.  

Every year, most F1 races hold a speed comparison between a normal car, a sports car, and an F1 car. Watch the video at the top of the page, which shows last year’s Grand Prix in Melbourne.  

Just about the lightest mass-market sportscar on sale today is the Mazda MX-5 which weighs around 1050kg. In contrast, a 2017 F1 car has a minimum weight of 722kg, complete with driver and fuel. The MX-5 has around 118kW, and the F1 car… 650-700kW. Or about the equivalent of two 2016 HSV Granges.  

The 2017 F1 cars are reckoned to be faster than last year’s, and possibly the fastest-ever F1 cars ever.   Each car is permitted to use only 105kg of fuel per race, around 140L. The race is around 300km long, so that works out to about 45L/100km. For comparison, V8 Supercars use around 70L/100km and are much slower.

Is there anything else to do at the F1 circuit other than watch the races?

A bit. There’s lots of interesting static car displays, stunt driving, Roulettes aerobatic displays, and various support races.

Are F1 cars the noisiest racecars in the world?

Not any more. In 2014 the F1 world ditched normal 2.4L V8 engines and now use a 1.6L V6 engine. Yes, that’s right, 1.6L, smaller than many medium-sized cars. But this engine will rev to 15,000rpm (about double a high-performance sports car engine) and you have to have a hybrid, so the car is petrol-electric… just like a Prius! This has made the cars much, much quieter. Some fans hate the loss of noise, others don’t care.   In fact, the propulsion system on F1 cars is now so sophisticated it is called a power unit.

Who’s going to win in Melbourne, and the championship?

It’s always hard to say as Melbourne is the first race of the season, but Mercedes have a very good car, team and drivers – referred to as the “package” and have mastered the hybrid technology used since 2014. Last year they easily won the driver’s world championship and the constructor’s world championship, but their driver’s champion, Nico Rosberg, retired days after taking the title. This year they have three-time champ Lewis Hamilton and relative newcomer, the Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas who has a career best finish of fourth, and 2017 will be his fifth year in F1.

What’s the F1 action in Melbourne?

There are two practice sessions on Friday, a third on Saturday followed by qualifying at 5pm. There’s a new qualifying format this year which should be exciting; there’s three stages, and in each stage every 90 seconds or so the driver with the slowest time is knocked out. There’s more to it than that, but this is F1 so it has to be complicated.   The race is Sunday at 4pm, late because F1 is oriented towards European TV times. The race should take about 90 minutes.   More here at the official site: http://www.grandprix.com.au/ and on Facebook.   Here’s Lewis Hamilton’s pole position qualifying lap from 2015.

What goes on in the race?

All the cars line up on the grid in order of qualifying. Five lights turn red one by one, and when all five go out the race starts. From there it’s first to complete the required number of laps which for Melbourne is 58, and each lap is 5.3km to total 307km. Of course, being F1 it has to be more complicated. Here’s some of the other things to watch for:

Cars cannot be refuelled, but must use at least two of the different tyre grades at least twice – each grade balances grip and durability, forcing drivers to carefully manage their tyre wear. Pirelli make all the tyres for F1.

Overtaking is difficult due to the short braking zones, and loss of aerodynamic downforce once the car is in the turbulent airflow behind another car. However, Max Verstappen manages it on regular occasions, aided by practice in simulators!

The race continues in the rain with special wet-weather tyres. If there is a major incident a Mercedes safety car is brought out behind which the drivers have to follow until the problem is cleared up. There are also ‘virtual’ safety cars which are restrictions shown to the driver on their in-car display.

The Melbourne F1 race circuit map. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melbourne_Grand_Prix_Circuit

Can I drive the circuit?

Probably not. As Albert Park only exists as a race circuit for a few days each year then chances are limited. However, some manufacturers such as Mercedes AMG and Porsche have customer drive events. More on Porsche’s 2016 event can be found at our post here.

Anything else interesting?

  • At Red Bull, Daniel Riccardio is very highly regarded, but to maintain that reputation must beat young superstar Max Verstappen this year, just as he beat four-time champ Sebastian Vettel in 2014. That will be a big ask, given Max’s talent and rapidly increasing experience.
  • Over at McLaren, the once-great team has Fernando Alonso as one driver and the up and coming Stoffel Vandoorne at the other, making his F1 debut, setting up a new/old rivalry similar to that at Red Bull.
  • Can Ferrari and Red Bull get closer to Mercedes? Results in testing suggest they might.
  • The 2017 cars are more powerful and have more aerodynamic downforce. This might mean that driver fatigue becomes a factor rather than pure driving skill. Last year’s tyres were 245mm wide at the front and 325mm at the rear – now they are 305mm at the front and 405mm at the rear.
  • Will overtaking be even more difficult? The cars are now 2000mm wide compared to 1800m before, grip levels are increased, and aerodynamics are better so there is a bigger penalty for following closely behind another car in disturbed air.
  • Lance Stroll is an 18 year old champion from the lower formulae driving for Wiliams. He is Canadian and is bankrolled by a billionaire father. The Williams drivers were to be Valtteri Bottas and Stroll, but with the move of the former to Mercedes the Williams team asked Felipe Massa to un-retire and drive for them in 2017.
  • There are ten teams, twenty drivers and twenty races this year.

Who are the Aussie F1 world champions?

  • Jack Brabham (1950, 1960, 1966). Also the only man to ever win the F1 championship in a car he designed. Died 19/05/2014, aged 88.
  • Alan Jones (1980). 
An exploded view of a F1 car, found at Mercedes-Benz World in the UK.



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1 comment

  1. Thanks Robert, great article! Had no idea of those performance figures – so eye opening in more ways than one! 0-100 in less than 2secs and 200 in under 4secs?! – hardly seems possible in ANY petrol powered, driveshaft turning car; still trying to get my head around that! I can only imagine there’s little, if any, wheelspin in a flat-out take off to get to those numbers – must fully hook up. Cheers.

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