You need a lot of things to race in Formula 1 — money, sponsorship, skill, a lifelong investment in perfecting race craft. But when it comes to logistics, there’s really only one thing you absolutely have to have: A super license.
Basically, a super license is the competition license you need to race in F1. Understandably, the method of obtaining a super license is incredibly complex — which is something we’re currently seeing as AlphaTauri pursues IndyCar driver Colton Herta for 2023. Herta, though, isn’t eligible for a super license under the current points system, which has sparked a lot of discussion on social media about whether or not he should be given an exemption.
That’s a discussion for a different time — and one that’s based primarily on personal interpretation. Today, we’re going to run through the super license basics so you can make your own call.
(Welcome to Motorsport Explained, the series where we break down racing rules and concepts in an easily digestible way for all the beginners out there. If there’s something in racing you’ve always wondered about, or something that has never made sense, leave your topic in the comments or email me at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
To put it quite simply, a super license is like a driver’s license, but instead of allowing you to drive on public roads, it lets you compete in a Formula 1 race. The point is to only allow drivers with a demonstrated ability to compete to enter an F1 race.
Super licenses have existed for decades in some form or fashion, and they’ve been the subject of debate many times before. In fact, the addition of new, unwanted clauses in a driver’s super license contract led to a drivers’ strike at the 1982 South African Grand Prix.
The most recent iteration of super license eligibility rules was introduced ahead of the 2016 season and includes the following clauses:
- The driver must be 18 years old at minimum when they contest their first F1 race.
- They must already hold an International Grade A competition license.
- They must have a valid driver’s license.
- They must pass an FIA theory exam that tests the driver’s knowledge of regulations and F1 sporting codes.
- They must have completed 80 percent of two seasons of any single-seater Championship that awards super license points (more on that below).
- They must have accumulated a total of at least 40 super license points in the previous three seasons of competition (again, more on that below).
Now we get into the nitty-gritty. Many FIA championships and non-FIA-sanctioned top-level racing series are eligible for super license points, based on a driver’s finishing position in the overall championship of their respective series. For example, if you win the W Series championship, you earn 15 super license points. If you win in IndyCar or Formula 2, however, you get all 40 points you’d need to apply for a super license.
To make things a little easier, the FIA allows drivers to combine points from the previous three years. So, if you won a championship in Formula 4 one year, took a championship in W Series the next year, and then won the Super Formula championship in your third year, all of those finishes would count toward your points total, and you’d be able to apply for a super license. If you waited another year, during which you failed to place well in any championship, only the points you scored in the W Series and Super Formula would be eligible.
Further, a series has to feature at least 10 full-time drivers in order to be eligible for super license points. Drivers can also score one super license point by competing in a Formula 1 Free Practice session.
The full list of eligible series and their respective points offerings is available on the FIA’s website.
While it’s never exactly been easy to get a super license, it got a whole lot harder after Red Bull fast-tracked a teenage Max Verstappen to Formula One in 2015 to fill an open slot on its secondary Toro Rosso team. At the time, Verstappen had only just started competing in Formula 3; before that, his only experience was in karting. While Verstappen did prove to be a competent driver, the super license points regulations were implemented to prevent future extremely young drivers from entering F1 too quickly.
As with most hard rules, there are exemptions or clauses that can help an otherwise-ineligible driver receive a super license — or that could discount a driver who would normally qualify.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the delay, cancellation, or severe amendments of racing series around the world. In light of this, the FIA is currently allowing drivers to count their three highest championship finishes from the previous four years of racing results toward their super license, instead of the standard three.
The FIA also grants itself the ability to award a super license to a driver without 40 super license points based on “circumstances outside their control or reasons of force majeure.”
That “force majeure” clause is keeping Herta’s super license hopes alive right now. Currently, Herta’s 2018 Indy Lights season does not count for super license points because fewer than 10 full-time drivers competed in the series; he needs those points in order to qualify for a super license. The FIA could theoretically decide that those 2018 results should count — it all depends on the opinions of the people who will ultimately make that decision.
In theory, the weighted rankings for super licenses exist as a way to evaluate a driver’s readiness for Formula 1. That’s why open-wheel racing series like Formula E or IndyCar are ranked higher than, say, IMSA GTD Pro or NASCAR Cup Series racing. There’s a more relevant transfer of skills from those open-wheel series to F1.
Regarding Herta’s situation, there’s a big debate about why IndyCar — a top-tier professional racing series — earns fewer super license points than Formula 2. The FIA hasn’t given any official answer for why that is, but it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First, these points were developed almost a decade ago, during which time IndyCar was still recovering from a messy split and reunification of the series. While the FIA intended to update the points it awards to certain series to more accurately reflect the competition in those series, it has not yet done so.
Second, Formula 2 is a feeder series to F1, so organizers naturally view it as the penultimate step on the road to F1, more so than IndyCar. Finally, the FIA is primed to give more credence to other FIA series, simply because they race under the same general rulebook regarding things like points payouts for race wins. Because IndyCar is not sanctioned by the FIA, it runs on a different set of rules.
Nothing in this world is free, including a super license. A driver who holds a super license is charged an annual fee. In 2012, it cost €10,000 (or $12,800 at the time) to obtain a super license. Drivers who compete in F1 and renew their license are also charged an additional €1,000 for each championship point they scored the previous year.
It isn’t clear if those fees are still the same, as F1 and the FIA are notoriously tight-lipped about finances. If it were the case, though, Max Verstappen would have paid €405,510 (or roughly $400,855 based on today’s exchange rate) to maintain his super license. Some drivers have reportedly paid a one-time fee of over $1 million to renew a super license.
Like any set of rules, super license regulations are complex, imperfect, and always in need of a refresh — though the exact nature of a “proper” fix is going to depend on who you ask. Someone from a European open-wheel background may not feel there’s anything wrong with the current points payout for IndyCar versus Formula 2; an American open-wheel fan may feel differently. Some folks might think IndyCar’s relevance is understated thanks to a high level of competition in the series; others may feel it gets too much credit because the series is not and has never been designed to be a stepping-stone to Formula 1. It's important to remember that, no matter what else happens, motorsport isn't exactly a meritocracy, and neither is the super license system.