Insider’s guide: How an F1 race weekend works

Do you know why a driver does a track walk or exactly what teams can and cannot do in parc ferme conditions? Find out that and more here...

An F1 weekend begins way before the race or qualifying, so what are the teams doing all that time and why do things happen the way they do? We go inside the paddock to explore how the key moments make a difference.

Thursday

The advance team has already been here for several days, setting up the garages and glitzy motorhomes – but this is when the drivers and race teams arrive.

It’s a preparation day and it is one most drivers hate!


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All 20 drivers must now take part in the official press conferences. These went online in the pandemic and the format has stuck since, with drivers lining up two-by-two in random pairs.

They also include an often-bizarre fan question – like ‘can you eat ice cream’ or ‘do you wee in the car’ – which sometimes delivers the best answers of the day.

Amongst all this, team briefings are held to discuss baseline set-up, practice strategies and the race weekend as a whole. These are conducted on team headsets – so everyone can hear clearly, and no outsiders can listen in.

This day also includes the track walk – a legacy from a time before simulators and technology, but also something that can offer some valuable insight.

It usually involves drivers and engineering team members, sometimes a trainer, photographer or press officer. Some teams go with both drivers together, others go independently.

Tracks change every year, so drivers use it to spot new bumps, cambers and braking marks and to check out the kerbs to see which to attack and which to stay away from.

They also get to feel the wind direction and any sheltered sections – basic but important information – and the engineers use it to discuss operational sequences and to grab some driver attention away from the garage.

Despite all these benefits, though, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen rarely do one – preferring to save energy and brainpower for when they are in the car.

F1 teams walk the track

F1 teams walk the track

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Friday

A traditional race weekend - as opposed to the new sprint format – has three 60-minute ‘Free Practice’ sessions on a Friday (FP1 and FP2) and one session on a Saturday morning (FP3).

Teams use the ‘live’ data they collect to adapt their computer simulations and hone their strategies – not only through the work of trackside engineers but also strategy teams and even driver-in-the-loop simulators back at base.

Here, track time is vital – and any mistakes, crashes, red flags or bad weather that interrupts this can damage their chances for the rest of the weekend.

Installation lap

The weekend’s running begins with an installation lap at the start of FP1. Cars are stripped and rebuilt after each race, so this just makes sure everything went back together with no issues.

It’s also the time when teams typically fit aero testing devices or run flow visualisation, to cross check wind tunnel data. Bolt-on devices like rakes can get in the way though, so they’re not usually used when lap times matter.

Once the car is back in the garage, the engine cover and sidepods come off, data is reviewed and, once it checks out, the car is given the all-clear to run in anger.

New aero parts

New aero parts

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Testing new parts

Testing away from a race weekend is banned, so teams now have to review new parts on Grand Prix weekends – and FP1 is usually when it is done.

The parts have already been proven in the wind tunnel or simulations, but the reality does not always match the predictions.

A test programme will start with a baseline run, followed by comparison runs in which different parts are tried out or set-ups are changed. If a driver does not like a particular change, teams will often have to adapt or revert to the original.

Learning the track

Drivers typically need a lap or two to sort braking points and racing lines in their latest car, and to get used to any changes to the track since their last visit. After that, the car is run to a methodical pre-determined programme.

Several runs of different lengths are conducted each session. Each time the car comes back to the pits, it is tweaked and the driver is given a set of instructions telling them what to focus on, and often a target time.

Top-line performance data – such as cornering speeds, straight-line speeds, braking performance – gets fed back live from the car. Detailed data is sent in bursts as the car passes the pits and also downloaded using an ‘umbilical cord’ plugged in when the car is back in the pits.

This information is used, along with driver feedback, to refine the balance and drivability. Mechanics alter suspension geometries and/or aerodynamic set-up, with some tweaks made in-session and more in-depth changes between sessions.

Pirelli tyres in the garage

Pirelli tyres in the garage

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Degradation analysis

Practice is also used to learn about tyre performance – a critical factor in the race itself.

Teams have a range of tyres to choose from and their grip and wear (‘deg’) can be affected by driving style, fuel levels (the car gets lighter as fuel is used), cornering speeds, track surface and car set-up.

Tyres heat up as the car goes around the track and they are designed to operate at their best in a set temperature window – although that differs car by car.

Deg is key to predicting a race strategy – and F1’s holy grail is being able to run at that optimal tyre temperature for as long as possible.

That is why teams send cars out on long runs in practice, to check whether deg is higher or lower than expected – and therefore whether a tyre will last more or less laps than predicted.

They then feed that into their simulations to decide what tyres to use for qualifying and the race, and also what the plan will be for Saturday morning.

The cars leave the pits

The cars leave the pits

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

Saturday

Final practice

Teams typically use FP3 for final set-up changes and to decide the optimum qualifying strategy – how many runs to do in each session, how much fuel is needed, and when is the best time to go out to avoid the traffic.

At some circuits – notably Monza – cars can gain huge chunks of lap time by grabbing a tow from the car in front. In other places, getting close is the worst thing you can do. Either way, teams need to plan their timings to the second.

Qualifying

This lasts an hour but is split into three sections, each long enough for just one or two flying laps. Cars are knocked every session – so it’s a high-stakes game of speed, strategy and timing.

The slowest five go out in Q1, with their times defining places 16-20 on the grid. The clocks reset for Q2, and the same happens again, this time for positions 11-15. It then comes down to the top-ten shoot-out to decide the front of the grid.

Any car that makes the top 10 is given a fresh set of tyres for the shoot-out only and must keep their set from Q2 to start the race on. Everyone else can choose whichever tyre they like for the off.

Teams have a limited number of tyre sets to use over the weekend – so keeping a soft set back for the race is a massive benefit.

However, they might need that extra speed to get into the next session – so they have to take a calculated gamble, using practice data to estimate the time they need to get through each session. Get it wrong, and it can be costly.

Parc Ferme Conditions

As soon as qualifying begins, the cars go into ‘parc ferme conditions’ until the start of the race – which means the opportunity to change anything on them is very limited. That doesn’t mean they are untouchable. They can be repaired and prepared, just not modified.

Teams can actually do quite a lot under parc ferme conditions – including starting engines, removing fuel, testing electronics, bleeding brakes, draining fluids, removing bodywork and even changing the front wing angle.

Any damaged parts can be repaired or replaced with an identical one, and an entire rebuild can even be done if necessary. Some changes – like gearboxes and engines – will incur a penalty, even if they were damaged in an accident.

The cars that complete Q3 have to go to the scrutineering bay for legality checks before heading back to the garages. All others can go straight back to their teams. Wherever they are, the cars have a scrutineer watching over them at all times.

Cars can be worked on for up to three-and-a-half hours after qualifying. After that, they are covered and ‘put to bed’.

Trolley packing

Straight after qualifying, the teams pack a fleet of trolleys with equipment ready to take to the grid on Sunday. This includes everything from tyres to generators, all of which have to be checked to make sure it is fully working.

The trolleys are heavy, and they cannot be motorised – which is part of the reason teams send so many people to the grid.

Simulations

Strategy teams suddenly have lots more accurate data to play with. They also have fewer variables – because they now know the actual grid positions.

They spend Saturday night running race simulations, checking through a huge range of different possible scenarios – like how gaining or losing places at the start or getting stuck behind slower cars could affect the best strategy.

On top of this, any team that missed out on Q3 also gets to decide what tyre to start on, so will need to simulate the options to decide which way to go.

Teams on the grid prior to the start

Teams on the grid prior to the start

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

Sunday

Final preparations

Teams are allowed to touch their cars again five hours before the formation lap that leads to the start of the Grand Prix – but still under parc ferme conditions.

At any point during this time, if the weather changes race control can ease these regulations to allow changes to brake and radiator ducts, as well as tyres.

They also often call for a change in headrest, as there are three different specs of foam that absorb impact best at different temperature ranges. Pink is for mid-range, blue is hotter and light blue is colder. These can be swapped in seconds.

Race

The race start is covered in a separate article but, in summary, the pit lane opens 40 minutes before the formation lap and closes ten minutes later. After the formation lap, the five red lights on the start gantry light up and, when they go out, the race is on. Every car must run two different tyre types (unless it is wet) – so they have to make at least one pit stop on the way to the chequered flag.

Pack-up

Before the race is even finished, the teams are beginning to dismantle their pits and motorhomes. Garage walls are taken down, non-essential spares are packed away and after the race computer racks are stacked and cabling is wound away.

The plan for this is set out way back on Thursday morning and the whole process can take around eight hours – so the first trucks can be heading off at dusk on a Sunday night.

Engines and tyres are usually returned to their manufacturers, the cars are part dismantled to fit in the transporters and the entire team heads back home or hits the road for the next event.

Debrief

Immediately after the race – and any required media activities – the engineering team and drivers run through an immediate top-line race analysis.

This is based on a chart showing how all the field performed and can be crucial to spot and diffuse immediate issues – even if the team won. Back at base, the engineers are already analysing data for the next race, and the circus moves on.

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