Skip to main content

For questions relating to the class of open-wheeled auto racing known as Formula 1.

Formula 1 is the premiere class of international open-cockpit, open-wheel automobile circuit racing. Racing events, often known as Grands Prix, are held in many countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America, at internationally-famous tracks and cities such as street races in Monaco and Valencia, Spain, and at sports car manufacturer test tracks such as Nurburgring, Hockenheimring, Suzuka, and Fuji Speedway. It is a multi-billion-dollar sport, with drivers and car builders competing for respective championship titles.

The rules for Formula-1 racing, encompassing everything from specifics of car design, track construction and design features, and the rules of the actual race such as starting procedure, driver etiquette and restrictions on in-race modification of the car, are determined by the International Federation of Autosports, known by its French initials FIA, which also governs several other international classes of motor sport such as other "formula" designations, GT classes (using cars based on production models with various levels of modification allowed), and international drag racing.

The cars themselves represent the pinnacle of automotive design and engineering in motorsports, with racing teams sponsored by major automakers such as Ford, McLaren, Ferrari, Renault, Fiat and Lotus, and many international corporate brands such as Red Bull, Vodafone, Shell Oil, Panasonic and others, each with design and engineering teams dedicated solely to seemingly minute details of each car design. With there being no general "unlimited" class of auto racing, Formula-1 comes closest, with the F1 class historically allowing the largest engine displacement and horsepower of any international circuit racing class (though regional classes such as Indy Cars and NASCAR have, in certain circumstances, fielded cars with higher base horsepower than the Formula 1 cars of the time). The exact specifications for the engine, such as the number of cylinders and valves, total displacement, RPM limits, and restrictions on the use of non-natural aspiration such as turbos and superchargers, have changed from year to year; currently, for safety and cost reasons, all cars must use a V8 engine with natural aspiration, but these engines now run at speeds up to almost 20,000 RPM, since the lifting of a rev limit of 12,000 RPM in the 90s.

A relatively unique feature of Formula 1 compared to many other circuit-racing formats is that the car must finish the race using only its initial fuel supply, with refueling having been allowed in only a few of the championship seasons, when engine technologies such as turbochargers reduced fuel economy in favor of speed. This rule is in sharp contrast to many other circuit-racing leagues such as Indy, NASCAR, and Le Mans Series, which allow refueling in the "pits" along with replacement of tires and minor adjustments to wing angles (which are also allowed in F1). As a result, Formula 1 cars tend to be heavier at the start than their related Indy Car counterparts, races tend to be shorter, and fuel management is a key consideration of team strategy.

Formula 1 is also notable for not stopping or postponing races due to rain or even snow (though the F1 season typically runs through the warm seasons), which is commonly seen in other popular leagues such as NASCAR and IndyCar. This rule is not unique, as the FIA-sanctioned GT and Le Mans Series also race in bad weather. Teams are expected to have special treaded racing tires on hand in case of rain, and the decision of when to switch tires when rain looks likely is a critical one; the normal racing "slicks" used for a dry track depend on high cohesion with the track surface and will quickly begin skidding on a wetted track, while the rain tires have less traction overall and make the car feel "spongy", reducing speed on a dry track.

Being on the cutting edge of car design, with engines and chassis designed for pure speed at nearly all costs, the sport has seen more than its fair share of fatalities over the years. The 1960s and 1970s saw major technological advances in car power and aerodynamic efficiency, but it took some gruesome injuries and the deaths of several prominent drivers to prompt changes to increase the safety of car and track design. After a relative lull in major injuries and deaths in the late 80s and early 90s, the 1994 season saw two driver deaths, a driver injury and numerous injuries to crew and spectators, all at the same track in Imola at the San Marino Grand Prix. The fatalities included three-time world champion driver Ayrton Senna, who had been in discussions with other drivers about the formation of a driver association to advocate for safer cars and tracks. In response, the FIA again made driver safety its top concern, immediately instituting rules for the remainder of the 94 season to reduce engine power, tire traction and downforce to control speed, increasing driver protection in car design, and introducing another round of sweeping new changes to track design, such as the requirement of tire barriers along any wall that a driver would face head-on at any time while on the course. Perhaps symbolically, the Imola track was redesigned to remove the "Villeneuve kink" at which Roland Ratzenberger fatally crashed in qualifying, the "Tambourello curve" where Senna crashed, and the "Vincente Bassa", where Senna's protege and fellow countryman Rubens Barrichello was injured in practice, was redesigned to straighten the chicane that launched Barrichello's car into the air.

Rules for car design and technological advancement have led to a general evolution of the design of Formula-1 cars over the decades. On the one hand, the FIA has a vested interest in driver, crew and spectator safety, and to provide a roughly level playing field between teams including cost control measures. On the other side, constructors and drivers have a general desire to increase performance of the cars and gain an advantage within those rules. Cars were originally built based on central aerodynamic "pods" containing the driver and engine, connected by a skeletal suspension to the outlying wheels. Relative position of the driver and engine originally varied from car to car, with the eventual adoption by most teams of a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive configuration with the driver just in front of the engine. The introduction of the concept of downforce to keep the car on the track for better control, and the need for additional cooling of higher-performance engines, gradually induced a change in chassis design in the late 60s and early 70s, from this central pod design to a flatter, lower design, with a slim, pointed nose containing the driver's body, widening sharply with a set of air intakes close to the track behind the front tires, and the engine in line behind the driver with a rollbar above. This then narrows again into a well for the rear wheels, with a rear spoiler placed above and behind them. Marginal changes have been made since then as new aerodynamic developments, safety mandates and cost control rules affect what builders can and can't do. Some of the largest changes in design have been the banning of "ground control skirts", which were used in the 70s to maintain a relative vacuum under the car for downforce, but were prone to damage causing catastrophic loss of control; the elevation of car noses off of the ground in the early 90s, and various changes to the configuration of the cooling and aspiration intakes on either side of the driver's cockpit, behind the front wheels.

The sport attracts millions of fans around the world, and many winning drivers have become household names over time, such as Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve (and his son Jacques), Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, and in more recent years David Coulthard, Mika Hakkinnen, Juan Pablo Montoya, Michael Schumacher, Sebastien Vettel, Jenson Button, and Lewis Hamilton. Schumacher in particular has been a leading name in the sport for the past decade, being a seven-time champion despite a season-ending injury in the middle of his career. A few of these names have also become famous for accomplishments in other racing leagues; Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacques Villeneuve, Nigel Mansell, and Juan Pablo Montoya have all also won at least one Indy Car championship, with the first four winning a championship in the same year as an F1 championship. The Andretti name in particular has become a dynasty in the Indy Car leagues, with Mario's son Michael winning several Indy Car championships, and now managing a team including his own son Marco. Juan Pablo Montoya is currently competing in the U.S. NASCAR Sprint Cup racing series, being one of very few drivers to compete in all three of these racing leagues.

In the United States, the sport is less popular than abroad, with the closed-wheel NASCAR "stock car" series being the most popular spectator motorsport in most U.S. markets, and the most popular open-wheel class being Indy Car racing, with past incarnations such as Champ Car and CART, and the current administration of the Indy Racing League. Mario Andretti was the last United States Formula 1 Champion, in 1978; he was also the last U.S. driver to win a race, in that same year. Formula One events have been held in the United States at varying locations, with the greatest successes as spectator events being the United States Grands Prix at the historic Sebring and Watkins Glen circuits, and other successful events at the Long Beach Grand Prix and Detroit Grand Prix in the 1970s and 1980s. Prior to the 2012 season, the last United States Grand Prix was held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 2000 to 2007, on a road course that included three turns of the historic "brickyard" oval track used for NASCAR and Indy Car races. Problems between IMS and FIA managers prompted a split before the 2008 season, and the FIA vowed "never to return to Indianapolis".

2007 was also the last year that the United States has had a native driver, Scott Speed, entered in a race on the Formula 1 circuit (the European Grand Prix); Speed now drives for Red Bull Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, and F1 has not had a U.S. driver since.

In 2010, billionaire Red McCoombs, a major Texas auto dealership owner and owner of the San Antonio Spurs, announced plans to build a new road course near Austin, Texas, named the "Circuit of the Americas". The course complex was completed for the 2012 Formula 1 season, and hosted the first United States Grand Prix in 5 years on November 18, 2012. It was won by British driver Lewis Hamilton for his McLaren team. This Grand Prix is scheduled to be held yearly until at least 2021, along with a number of races for other motorsport classes, including the FIA's World Endurance Championship series of 24-hour races, and the American Le Mans series of LMP and GT-class closed-wheel racing. A second Formula 1 Grand Prix is scheduled for the 2014 season, in parallel to the USGP in Austin, to be held on a street course in the suburbs between New York City and Newark, New Jersey.