Formula 1 returns for the 2023 season: A primer

The 2023 Formula 1 season starts at the end of the month with preseason testing and the first race in Bahrain. The sport, which has long been popular in Europe and countries abroad, has recently experienced a meteoric rise in TV ratings in the United States, according to ESPN Press Room. While Netflix’s “Drive to Survive doesn’t always accurately depict the events of each race weekend, it’s had no small part in this increase in viewership—Season Five of “DtS” premieres Feb. 24. 

If you’re tuning into F1 for the first time, here’s a quick primer on what to expect this season: 

How does a race weekend work? 

Race weekends usually span from Friday to Sunday. During most races, there are three practice sessions, a qualifying session and the actual race. Practice sessions allow teams to adjust their car setups and see how the car runs on the track, while qualifying sets the starting order for the race. On Friday, there are two practice sessions, Saturday has one final practice session before qualifying, and the actual race is held on Sunday. 

Qualifying, which sets the stage for the race, has three parts: In Q1 (the “Q” stands for “qualifying”), all 20 drivers have 18 minutes to set the fastest time they can. When Q1 ends, the five slowest drivers are eliminated, and the 15 remaining drivers move to Q2, where they have 15 minutes to set a time. The top 10 drivers get to move on to Q3, where they have 12 minutes to battle for the top starting position, called the pole position. The starting grid, or the order in which cars start, is determined by drivers’ positions from the qualifying rounds. 

Racing is not just about how fast you go, but it’s also about strategy. There are three different types of tires available for each race—a hard tire that lasts long but isn’t as fast, a soft compound that’s fast but not long-lasting and a medium one in between—and cars are required to use two of the three compounds during the race. This means cars must make at least one pitstop to change tires, and the timing of the pitstop can make or break a race. Races are about two hours long, so you might see everyone pitting at the same time or some more adventurous strategies. Drivers in the top 10 score points based on their finishing place, and these points contribute to individual and team standings. 

Crashes do happen in F1, and they run from someone spinning off the track and into barriers to terrifying, fiery disasters. Minor crashes will trigger a yellow flag, which tells drivers to slow down, or a safety car, which drivers must follow until dangers on the track are cleared. Major accidents will trigger a red flag, which pauses the race. F1 has not had a fatal accident since 2015, The New York Times reports, and the sport continues to implement safety features in cars to prevent another death. 

How many races are there in a season? 

This season, there are 22 races. While the number of races has gone up over the past few years, there are (rightful) concerns about work burdens for F1 team staff and climate concerns from all of the traveling. F1 hops all around the world, starting in Bahrain and visiting circuits all over Europe, Asia and the Americas. If you’re looking for Eastern Time-friendly races, there are three races in the United States (Circuit of the Americas, Vegas and Miami) and one each in Mexico, Canada and Brazil. 

What cars are they driving? 

F1 cars are single-seater, open wheel cars with a mid-engine setup (where the engine is behind the driver instead of in front, like in most road cars). Current F1 cars have a turbocharged hybrid V6 engine that makes around 1000 horsepower, as per PlanetF1. Cars must follow a set of common regulations that involve elements including the engine, tires, safety requirements and more. Within these regulations, however, teams are free to design their cars however they want to maximize power and aerodynamics, leading to engineering battles between teams. 

Who are the teams? 

There are ten teams currently in F1: Mercedes, Alpine, Haas, McLaren, Red Bull Racing, Aston Martin, AlphaTauri, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Williams. Each team has a team principal who plays the part of a General Manager, a wide variety of engineers and staff, and two drivers. Some teams (Mercedes, Alpine, Red Bull, Ferrari) provide engines to other teams. You might hear carmakers such as Honda and Ford mentioned in conversation about engine manufacturers: Honda previously manufactured engines for Red Bull and AlphaTauri, and Red Bull recently announced Ford as their engine source starting in 2026. 

Who are the drivers? 

Each team has two drivers. This year’s drivers are listed below: 

  • Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton and George Russell
  • Alpine: Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly
  • Haas: Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg
  • McLaren: Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri
  • Red Bull: Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez
  • Aston Martin: Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll
  • AlphaTauri: Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck De Vries
  • Ferrari: Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz
  • Alfa Romeo: Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu
  • Williams: Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant

While F1 is a team sport, it’s also an individual sport. Drivers compete with their teammates for places and points, and it can get messy. F1 is a dog eat dog world, and everyone’s trying to be the bigger pup. 

Let’s be honest, who’s good? 

There are three big teams: Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari. Red Bull, with Verstappen, is the reigning champion, but Mercedes has dominated the current engine era until recent regulation changes last season. Hamilton, Mercedes’ driver, has won seven F1 championships (tied for most) and is on the hunt for an eighth. Leclerc is thirsting for his own championship with Ferrari but was plagued with a multitude of strategical and reliability issues. Alonso won two championships in the 2000s, per Formula 1, and although the Aston Martin isn’t the best car, he’s one to watch out for along with Norris in the McLaren. 

It’s lights out, and away we go! 

The first F1 race of the season is March 3 through 5 in Bahrain, and if you’re interested in watching, you can find broadcast times on the F1 website. Watching races in Europe and Asia usually results in an early Sunday morning here on the East Coast, but in my opinion, it’s worth it. Now that you know a bit about F1, get out there, pick someone to root for and get ready for weekends of thrilling races!

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