A Formula 1 race isn’t just the race. It’s a sometimes dangerous multi-day spectacle, consisting of parades, press conferences, media events, and more. Importantly for the drivers and teams, there’s also three different days where cars are out on track. First, practice sessions, then qualifying, and finally the race. These three sessions are staples of life in F1, and their structure is more complicated than you might think. With that in mind, it’s time to break down each of the sessions to learn what they’re about.
Formula 1 Friday Practice
First up, practice. Teams usually arrive a few days before depending on their role within a team. Some teams are massive; Mercedes employs north of 500 people to operate their two cars over the course of a single season. Short of race day, practice sessions are some of the longer ones across the weekend, in order to give teams a chance to test their cars. Oftentimes, you’ll hear these three practice sessions referred to as “FP1”, “FP2”, and “FP3”. FP stands for free practice, by the way.
Though they are among the longer sessions, free practice can vary in both length and number of sessions. The sport’s governing body, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) is constantly experimenting with new structures to keep racing competitive and fresh for fans. This year, sessions are generally about an hour, but last year they were stopped after 90 minutes. Free practice is held Friday, with qualifying up next.
Saturday is a qualifying day in Formula 1. Normally, qualifying is a sort of time trial used to decide the starting order for the race. The fastest lap goes in position one (P1) on the grid, and so on down the line. So, three sessions make up qualifying, Q1, Q2, and Q3. Just like practice. Five drivers are eliminated at the end of each session right up until the end of the event.
Recently, the FIA has introduced the new sprint qualifying session. Per F1, these are essentially mini races that take around 25-30 minutes. Just like a normal qualifying session, the finishing order decides the starting grid for Sunday’s race. This is an attempt by the FIA to allow fans to see more racing. Clearly not a bad idea considering most fans have been locked away at home for the last year and change.
Following qualifying is race day. Held on Sundays, races are usually in the morning, though some take place at night. Often, races vary in length. The length of a race is determined by a number of factors, including track length and how long tires will last over the course of a race. Most importantly, cars are held in Parc Ferme until the start of the race. That means that no part of the car can be touched by anyone without express permission from race stewards. After Parc Ferme is lifted, the lights go out and the race is on. Formula 1 weekends can be complex, but hopefully, this guide has helped make them easier to digest.