- Image: Mercedes F1 Media Site // LAT Images.

The Ultimate 2021 F1 Guide for New Fans

Are you new to Formula One? If so, then this is the guide to prepare you for the 2021 season!

19w ago

Watching a Formula One race for the first time is a very daunting task. Commentators are using terms you may have never heard of before, cars are flying across your screens and everything seems a bit hectic. Where do you even start?

The 2021 Formula One season is just around the corner, and I figured that now is the best time to produce an ultimate guide for anybody that wishes to start watching F1 this year; explaining everything you need to know for when the five red lights go off for the first time in just a few weeks from now.

This is going to be a somewhat long article; so sit back with a cup of tea and let's get started!

The Championship

The first thing you need to know in order to follow Formula One is the structure of a race weekend and the season as a whole. Every weekend consists of three types of session - practice, qualifying and the race. Each of these sessions are crucial as the teams need to maximise the performance and points they get out of each weekend.

Starting with practice; every weekend sees three practice sessions that give the drivers a chance to familiarise themselves with the circuit, to try and perfect their qualifying and race setup, test upgrades to the car, decide which tyres they want to use, when they want to perform pitstops and a lot more!

The first two practice sessions are held on the Friday, while the final session is held before qualifying on Saturday. A new rule for the 2021 season has reduced the length of the two practice sessions held on Friday to 60 minutes each, rather than 90. Saturday has always been a one-hour long session; but having one hour less of practice overall is a rule intended to put the teams under more pressure to get the car setup right, and make the racing a lot more close on Sunday!

It's also worth noting that Practice is also referred to as 'FP1,' 'FP2' and 'FP3' - which is a shortened version of 'Free Practice' for each session.

Qualifying is the next event in the race weekend, which is a three-stage knockout process that will determine the starting order for the race the next day. The first qualifying session (Q1) includes all 20 cars driving out on track and setting the fastest lap times they can. Anybody that finishes the 18-minute session in 16th or lower is knocked out of the session and will start from their finishing spot on the grid. For instance, if you qualify 17th, you won't progress to the next session and will start the race from 17th (this can change if a driver receives a grid penalty).

Qualifying 2 is the next session, and the drivers repeat the steps of Qualifying 1, but this time aiming to finish in the top 10 in order to progress to Q3 (and this time, in just 15 minutes). The difference with this session is that any driver that does make it into the top 10 must start the race on the exact same set of tyres that they used to set their fastest lap of the Q2 session, unless the weather changes. If you qualify between 11th and 15th in this session (or were knocked out in Q1), you are allowed a fresh set of tyres for the race. Much like Q1, anyone between 11th and 15th is knocked out and will have to start from their respective positions.

Qualifying 3 is the final stage of qualifying for the 10 fastest drivers, and will determine who will take pole position (the driver that starts at the front) over the course of 12 minutes. All drivers will use the softest compound of tyres - more on this later - and set the fastest time possible. The Q3 drivers' positions are only determined at the end of this session; meaning a driver can narrowly avoid being knocked out in Q1 by finishing 15th, narrowly avoid being knocked out of Q2 by finishing 10th, but still get pole position in Q3!

Finally, there's the race. The race is a strategic endurance that is counted in laps, with the number of laps being calculated based on the distance of the track and how many laps can be completed before reaching a total distance of 305km. Races are also required to be no more than 2 hours long, which means that in the case of a delay or if a race is a small street circuit, the number of laps will be reduced. Drivers and teams will create a strategy based on when to come into the pits and change tyres, and how to do this in relation to their opponents.

Once a Formula One race is completed, the top 10 will be awarded points, while drivers that finished in 11th or lower, or did not finish (DNF), will not be awarded any points. The driver that sets the fastest lap of the race will also score an extra point, as long as they finish in the top 10. These points will be contributed to the drivers and constructors championship standings. The top three finishers will also be a part of the podium ceremony, where their performance is rewarded with a shiny trophy and a bottle of champagne being sprayed in their faces. The below diagram illustrates how many points a driver will receive for finishing in a certain position:

The drivers championship keeps a tally of each of the drivers' individual points, with the highest-scoring driver being crowned the 'world champion' at the end of the year. The constructors championship is the tally of points within a team, and is the sum of each of their drivers' points over the year. Whichever team has the most points at the end of the year are crowned the 'constructors champions.'

The current Formula One grid has 10 teams, with 20 drivers - two drivers for each team. However, you may sometimes see more than 20 drivers in the driver's standings if a driver is replaced during the season - such as Nico HΓΌlkenberg replacing the Racing Point drivers on two occasions last year when they contracted COVID-19 and becoming the 21st driver in the championship. This will also impact the constructors standings, as it will add up the points of each driver that races for every team during the season.

Now that you understand the basic structure of a race weekend and season, let's move on to the cars!

The Cars

Formula One cars are fast, light-weight pieces of machinery worth hundreds of millions of pounds, with their fate resting in the hands of the 20 best drivers in the world. When watching a Formula One race, you will hear the commentators mentioning several terms relating to the cars - this section is going to explain exactly what all of these terms mean.

1 - Aerodynamics: Formula One cars are built to be aerodynamic, which is the idea of a solid object manipulating the flow of air in order to travel quicker. F1 drivers need to travel at high speeds, therefore they need to reduce the amount of drag (air slowing the car down by pushing it back) by making use of components that are aerodynamic. If you compare a Formula One car to a truck that you see on the motorway, the truck is going to have a lot more drag as it has a large surface area on the front exposed to the air; while F1 teams mould their components for air to travel over the car quickly and efficiently.

The front wing is connected to the nose cone, and provides downforce to the car. (Image: George Bale via Unsplash.)

The front wing is connected to the nose cone, and provides downforce to the car. (Image: George Bale via Unsplash.)

2 - Downforce: While F1 cars want to travel as fast as they can in a straight line, they also need to be able to travel quickly in the corners. A crucial part of designing an F1 car is considering downforce, which is the act of pushing the car to the floor in order to give it more grip. If an F1 car didn't have any downforce, it wouldn't be able to carry as much speed through corners without going off-track and crashing.

Aerodynamics and downforce go hand-in-hand with the setup of a Formula One car as too much downforce will slow the car down on the straights as there is a bigger force pushing the car to the ground. However, too little downforce and the car would have to slow down in the corners a bit too much. F1 drivers and teams will work hard during the practice sessions to find the perfect balance of downforce by tweaking the aerodynamics of the car.

3 - Front Wing: The front wing is a very crucial part in Formula One as its purpose is to direct a smooth flow of air, as well as provide downforce to the front of the car. This carbon-fibre structure is very delicate, and will often break if light contact is made with another car. If a driver does lose their front wing during a race, they can replace it in the pits; however, the driver will lose a lot of time driving slowly into the pits with reduced downforce, and lose around 10 seconds in the pitstop during the repair.

Another component of the front wing you will often hear are 'endplates' - these are small, vertical pieces of carbon fibre on each end of the wing and are used for aerodynamics; but are one of the most fragile pieces on the entire wing. If a bit of contact is made, you will likely hear the commentators explaining that the 'endplate' has fallen off. Harder contact with another car will likely result in half or the whole wing falling off.

4 - Nose Cone: The nose cone is the downwards-sloped section of the F1 car that the front wing is connected too. This extends past the chassis, and starts just in front of where the driver's feet and pedals are located. In order to replace the front wing, the entire nose cone needs to be removed during a pitstop and a new one has to be fitted - this is why it takes so long!

5 - Rear Wing: While front wings are unique to Formula-style cars, rear wings are common on almost all cars found in motorsport, and are also found in sportscars, supercars and other cars found on the road. These wings have the same affect as the front wing - but they direct air to the back of the car and also give the rear a lot more downforce for the corners. The rear wing is usually a lot harder to replace, so on the rare occasion that a driver crashes into the back of you and destroys your rear wing, it usually will result in a DNF...

6 - The Cockpit: The cockpit of a Formula One car is the small area in the centre of the car that the driver sits in while driving. Located below the engine intake, the cockpit is equipped with a soft, foam headrest that screws into the car via pins. These headrests help protect the driver's heads in the case of an accident, and will prevent them from hitting their heads on the side of the car upon impact and damaging their helmet.

7 - The Halo: The halo is a strong, curved bar located above the cockpit as a safety measure for the drivers. Often compared with the plastic part of a flip-flop that goes on top of your foot and between your big toe and second toe; the halo is designed to stop large objects from impacting a driver's head in the case of an accident.

The halo has saved drivers many times from potentially-fatal accidents. Image: Mercedes F1 Media Site // LAT Images.

The halo has saved drivers many times from potentially-fatal accidents. Image: Mercedes F1 Media Site // LAT Images.

The halo was one of many safety concepts tested following the accident that sadly killed Jules Bianchi at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014. Bianchi suffered major head injuries after losing control of his car in the rain and hitting a crane that was recovering another crashed car. The halo has a vertical bar connected to the curved structure in order to protect the driver's head. Following its introduction for the 2018 season, the halo has been shown to save the life of Charles Leclerc and Romain Grosjean, who were both involved in accidents that would have likely resulted in impacts to the head.

8 - DRS flap: One of the components located on the rear wing is a small, curved flap that will rotate upwards under certain criteria in practice, qualifying or the race. The flap is usually in a vertical position in order to provide the car downforce; however, this flap will rotate when downforce is no longer needed (when driving on long straights) in order to maximise top speed.

DRS stands for 'Drag Reduction System' as the reduced drag is what improves the top speed. Every F1 track has 'DRS zones' - areas where drivers are permitted to use DRS. Drivers can use DRS in these zones at any time in a practice or qualifying session; but must be within a second of another car to use it in the race, prompting more overtaking. The rear wing's flap will close as soon as the driver brakes for the next corner. DRS is activated on lap three of every race, but can be deactivated for all drivers by the FIA if the track is slippery in those zones due to rain or oil. The below Tweet demonstrates the DRS flap being open, compared to other pictures in this article that show the flap as 'closed':

9 - Sidepods: Sidepods are the wide pieces of body work on each side of an F1 car, located between the front and rear wheels. On the above Red Bull, the sidepod is the area that says 'Red Bull' on the side of the car in red.

The sidepod covers the radiators and other components of the car, while also being aerodynamic components that direct air around the car. They also direct air into the car to cool the radiators and the power unit (engine). Bargeboards are connected to these sidepods to reduce the risk of damage in wheel-to-wheel contact.

10 - ERS: The 'Energy Recovery System' is an on-demand boost of power that the drivers can deploy in certain quantities every lap. The system works with two components, the MGU-K and MGU-H (which stands for Motor Generator Unit Heat and Kinetic respectively), which harvests heat energy and kinetic energy from the exhaust and brakes that the drivers can then redeploy when they need more speed.

The next area we are going to look at are the tyres:


One of the most crucial elements of a Formula One race is how the drivers manage their tyres. There are five different compounds of tyre that a driver can use, all of which have different effects:

The Soft tyre: The Soft tyre is the fastest kind of tyre that an F1 driver can fit to their cars, and are indicated by a red circle around the side. However, the biggest draw back to these tyres is that their lifespan is much shorter than the other compounds of tyre that are available. You are essentially exchanging speed for durability.

Sergio Perez leaving the Racing Point Garage on the Soft (red) tyres last year. Image: Racing Point Media.

Sergio Perez leaving the Racing Point Garage on the Soft (red) tyres last year. Image: Racing Point Media.

The Hard tyre: Indicated with a white line around the side of the tyre, the Hard compound is the slowest compound that you can fit to your car, but will offer the most durability during the race. These tyres are often used by drivers towards the back of the field (backmarkers), or on aggressive strategies that only require one pitstop.

The Medium tyre: This compound of tyre is considered the best of both worlds, being the second fastest tyre to choose from, but also the second most durable. The Medium tyre is very common during a race, and will sometimes be used by the front-running drivers in Q2 for an alternate race strategy on Sunday.

The Intermediate and Wet tyres. When driving in the rain, F1 drivers have a choice between two tyre compounds depending on how much water is on the track. For heavy rain, the full wet tyres (with a blue ring) are the best choice; but lighter rain will see drivers use the green-labelled Intermediate tyre.

Formula One tyres require care in order to extract the most speed and durability from them. If you brake too hard, you can lock the front wheels (stop them from spinning) and cause your tyres to flat spot, which is where a flat surface appears on the tyre that causes wear and vibrations in the car.

Like brakes, tyres are also sensitive to heat, and will be most effective at certain temperatures (depending on the track). When tyres start to wear, you will lose grip and start to see them grain, with lines appearing to show their deteriorating structure. Punctures can be a result of pushing a set of tyres too hard in a race, or by contact with another driver.

Drivers must use at least two different tyre compounds during a race, including the tyre they started on. For example, a driver could start the race on the Medium tyre, but must switch to the Soft or Hard tyre at some point during the race. The driver would be allowed to fit another set of Medium tyres in a two-[pit]stop strategy, but must use another compound before the end of the race. This rule is not applied in the rain.

Racing Terminology

Now that you have a basic understanding of how a Formula One car works, let's take a look at some of the terminology used in a race so you can understand exactly what the commentators are saying!

1 - Pitstop: a pitstop is where a driver stops their car for a change of tyres, or to repair any damage from on track. To pit, drivers need to drive through the pitlane, a narrow road off to the side of the track that has a row of garages. The driver will stop at their respective garage, and the pitcrew will service the car in around 2 or 3 seconds (if they only need to change the tyres). The timing of a pitstop is crucial in F1's strategy as the pitlane has a speed limit, meaning a driver will lose around 30 seconds per pitstop.

Sometimes, teams will opt to 'double stack' their drivers, which is where they bring them in the pits at the same time and have to quickly service them both. This is very complicated as it requires the management of four sets of tyres (rather than two) and is impressive to watch when a team gets it right.

2 - Pit straight: The pit straight is the straight portion of track the features the starting grid and start/finish line. The pitlane is always parallel to the pit straight, and the drivers will line up in their grid boxes on the pit straight at the start of the race.

3 - The racing line: in Formula One, it isn't effective to drive in the middle of the road as it will reduce the speed you carry through corners, and results in a slower lap time. Instead, drivers will take what is known as the 'racing line' - an imaginary path through a corner that will help them carry a lot of speed in the corners. You will often see the racing line by default in racing games such as Forza, as they not only show you where to go and when to brake, but they also show you the fastest way around the track.

Another part of the racing line is the 'apex' - which is the optimum point of the racing line through the corner that every driver will aim towards in order to carry the most speed. The below diagram shows the racing line in red, as well as labels the apex of the corner:

F1 drivers will follow the racing line for every corner of the track!

F1 drivers will follow the racing line for every corner of the track!

4 - In-lap or Out-lap: When a Formula One driver exits the pits and joins the track, they are on what is called an 'out-lap'. This is a crucial lap, as the drivers need to reach the optimal temperature in the brakes and tyres in order to be fast on the following laps. The lap that a driver comes into the pits is called the 'in-lap', which is also crucial as drivers will want to be as fast as they can when going into the pits during a race to get an advantage over your opponent.

5 - The Overcut and Undercut: These two pieces of terminology work together with in-laps and out-laps when creating a race strategy, and is based on when a driver comes into the pits in relation to their opponent. An undercut is where a driver will come into the pits one or more laps before their opponent; in order to make use of fresh tyres and overtake (or 'jump') them when the other driver pits a couple of laps later. The overcut is the opposite of this, where a driver tactically pits after their opponent as their tyres may still have enough life for a few more laps, or if they think the other driver may struggle with temperatures on the new set of rubber.

6 - Inside and Outside: When one driver overtakes another driver, you will often hear the commentators use words such as "down the inside" or "around the outside" to describe it. A move down the inside of another driver is where the driver takes to the inside of the track to make an overtake - for instance, overtaking on the right side of a driver when going into a right-hand turn. Going around the outside is a much more difficult method of overtaking as you have to travel further to make the move. Overtakes on the outside are positioned on the outer-side of the track; for instance, driving around the left side of a car in a right-hand corner. The below example shows the red Ferrari driving down the inside of the blue Toro Rosso into a left-hand turn:

7 - Lockup: A lockup is where a driver brakes too hard into a corner, and the rotation of the wheel becomes slower than the speed of the rest of the car. The result of this is a loss of grip in that particular tyre, and a big puff of smoke when the stationary tyre is dragged along the ground. These are the primary cause of the earlier-mentioned flat-spots, which will reduce the roundness of the tyre.

8 - 'Running wide': Another term on the topic of racing lines is the idea of running wide, or sometimes referred to as 'going deep' into a corner. This is where a driver misses the apex of a corner, and loses speed and time as a result. This could be caused by a lockup, aged tyres, braking too late or being forced wide by another driver during an overtake.

Now that you are familiar with the terminology, let's talk about rules:

The Rules

This article isn't going to cover every rule in Formula One as there are thousands of small details that make up this complex sport. However, there are a few rules that are worth noting!

1 - Flags: There are many different flags that are waved in Formula One to inform the drivers about incidents on track and must be followed. The yellow flag is waved when there has been an incident at a specific part of the track, meaning drivers must slow down and not overtake in these areas. The green flag is waved when the incident has been cleared, and you may return to full racing speed and continue overtaking.

The red flag is waved when the race needs to be stopped. This is often waved for serious crashes, very bad weather (as medical helicopters cannot fly), damage to a barrier that could be considered 'dangerous' and more. The black and white flag is waved when you are given a warning, and a black flag informs a driver that they have been disqualified.

There is also the chequered flag that is waved at the end of the race, a black flag with an orange dot to inform a driver to pit as they have a mechanical problem considered as 'dangerous,' or a red and yellow, striped flag that informs drivers about an oil spill on the circuit. Ignorance in regards to these flags can result in a penalty.

2 - Track limits: Every track has rules on track limits, which are rules that determine how far off the track a car can go without voiding a lap or receiving a warning. Most of the time, drivers cannot have all four wheels go past the white lines on the edge of the track; however, some corners allow this as you are travelling at high-speed.

If you break a track-limit rule in qualifying, your lap time will be deleted. If you break a rule in the race, you will be given a warning, with a penalty on every third instance.

3 - Engine and Gearbox rules: F1 teams are allowed to use a certain number of power units and gearboxes every season, and will receive a grid penalty if they break these rules. Gearboxes are allowed to be replaced every five races, but teams are only allowed three power units per car for the entire season. However, failures do happen, and these will often result in penalties if components fail and you need new parts.

4 - Overtaking: There are certain rules regarding overtaking in order to make the sport more safe. One of these rules is to not weave or change direction more than once if you are the defending car. This is also known as 'blocking' and can result in a penalty.

The rules also state that a driver cannot change direction in the braking zone; as other cars often travel quicker when making a move down the inside or around the outside, and a sudden movement can result in a crash.

5 - Safety car: The safety car is often deployed in a yellow flag situation that is more dangerous, and requires marshals on the track to recover a crashed car or pieces of debris. The safety car will often wait for the leader to catch up and be the driver directly behind it; and let any lapped cars overtake and re-join the queue before the race is restarted. No overtaking is allowed, but it does bring the pack back together and make for exciting racing.

There is also something known as the 'Virtual Safety Car', or 'VSC' for short. This is much quicker for race officials to deploy, but requires drivers to slow down to a 'delta' (a certain pace) and not close the gap to the car behind or in front. These are useful if a marshal needs to pick up a single piece of debris on the track, as it will slow the drivers down and will resume racing quicker; though it isn't as exciting as the pack isn't bunched up as a result.


There are many different types of penalty that an F1 driver or team can receive, whether it is an on track time penalty or even a fine - as was the case with Racing Point last year.

The first type of penalty we are going to discuss is a 'drive-through penalty,' which is where a driver is sent through the pitlane as a punishment for something they have done on track. The drivers are not allowed to take advantage of this penalty and fit a new set of tyres, they simply need to slow down to the pitlane speed limit and drive to the end (usually costing around 25 seconds of time). The driver has three laps to serve this penalty after the team is informed about it before further actions are taken.

The next type of penalty is a 'stop-go' penalty, which can be taken at a driver's next pitstop. The stewards will give a time for the penalty (likely 5 seconds, 10 seconds or 20 seconds), and the mechanics are not allowed to touch the car in that time. The driver is sat in their pitbox until the time runs out and the mechanics hear a 'beep' in their ear, allowing them to service the car as normal.

A time penalty is a more lenient version of the stop-go penalty that involves adding the time onto the end of your race - usually given out after a driver has made their last pitstop. If the team come into the pits, they can choose to turn the penalty into a stop-go if they would like to. It's important to remember in F1 that the race classification works based on finish time; so if you finish in 9th place, have a 5-second time penalty, but 10th place finished 4 seconds behind you - you are going to be demoted to 10th after the race.

Grid penalties are the most frustrating types of penalties, as they are usually caused by a controversial incident or if a component needs to be replaced. Power unit replacements tend to see the driver start from the back of the grid, regardless of where you qualify. However, a gearbox penalty is only a five-place grid drop; which will be applied at the end of the session from wherever you qualify. If something goes wrong when the car is making its way to the grid, or if it poses a threat at the start of the race, a driver may have to start from the pitlane. Grid penalties can also stack up if multiple parts or incidents occur.

Finally, there is the fine. Teams can be fined hundreds of thousands of pounds if they commit an offense such as cheating, releasing a car into the path of another car in the pitlane, not tightening a wheel properly and causing an injury, and more. Some offenses can also lead to a black flag (disqualification) if they are serious enough, such as going over the maximum fuel allowance in a race.

The 2021 Season

The last part of this guide is going to focus on the 2021 season, with the names of the teams and drivers to look out for. As we discussed earlier, there are 10 teams and 20 drivers contracted to race this season, plus reserve drivers if something goes wrong.

The current constructors champions are Mercedes, who won their seventh consecutive constructors title at the end of 2021. Lewis Hamilton, who drives for Mercedes, is also the current drivers champion - who has won seven titles overall, which is equal to retired-driver, Michael Schumacher's record.

Two new teams introduced in the 2021 season include Aston Martin and Alpine racing. The green-coloured Aston Martin car has taken over from the bright pink Racing Point car in a company re-brand lead by Lawrence Stroll, who is the team owner and father of Lance Stroll, who is racing for the team this season alongside 4-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel. Alpine is a re-brand of the Renault team, who have also signed two-time world champion Fernando Alonso to drive alongside Esteban Ocon this season.

Red Bull was the second fastest team on the grid in 2020, with rising star Max Verstappen now driving alongside the newly signed Sergio Perez for 2021, who won his first race since starting his career in 2011. Perez controversially replaced Alex Albon, who was only in his second year of F1 last year after Red Bull were unhappy with his performance.

Charles Leclerc is also a rising star, driving for Ferrari for 2021 alongside newly-signed Carlos Sainz, who is replacing Sebastian Vettel at the Italian-based team. Lando Norris is another young talent, who is driving alongside Daniel Ricciardo at the McLaren team this year.

The newest drivers on the grid this year are Yuki Tsunoda, a Formula 2 runner-up that will be making his debut at Alpha Tauri. Mick Schumacher (son of Michael Schumacher) and Nikita Mazepin will also be making their debuts for the Haas team this year. For a full look at the 2021 grid, take a look at the Tweet below:

Final thoughts

Phew, that was a lot of information to take in! Whether you have made it to the end of this piece, or only read the details you were unsure of, I really hope this piece answered any questions you may have had ahead of the 2021 season. This year is set to be a great year for Formula One, with new driver line-ups, new teams and hopefully some exciting racing!

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this piece and would like to see more from me, click here to visit my DriveTribe profile!

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Comments (3)

  • Greag article, I always thought FP1 etc was Free Practice 1 but I am likely to be wrong

      4 months ago