The Formula One season starts Sunday, just at ungodly hours for some of us in the Western Hemisphere. Whether you’re waking up early, staying up all night or casually turning on a TV at noon because you live in a better time zone, there are a few things you should know about F1 this year. We’ll make sure you do.
Here’s how you can keep up with the entire F1 season starting with the opener in Australia this weekend, especially now that you’ll be able to stream it without cable or commercials—one of these days.
A Rundown Of Formula One For The Non-F1 Fan
If you’re not at all familiar with F1 but want to give it a try this year, perhaps because you’ve seen all of the drama and quit threats from the Ferrari team or perhaps because you commend the series for ending the antiquated concept of grid girls, here’s a quick rundown of how F1 works.
There are 10 teams, four engine suppliers, 20 drivers per race, and 21 races per season. The engine manufacturers aren’t always the same as the team names, like the McLaren race team. It used Honda power units, which were horrible and laughably unreliable, last year before moving to Renault this year.
Here’s a chart of the teams, drivers and power units:
In recent years, Mercedes and Ferrari have been at the top of the performance list. Red Bull Racing is usually right behind, but often inconsistent because of reliability issues. Renault and Honda are on the lower end of reliability in terms of power units, with Honda saying last year that it wanted to surpass Renault. That would have improved it to second worst engine supplier in F1.
An F1 race isn’t some kind of segmented puzzle like NASCAR is these days, so there’s not much to understand about the racing except that the drivers run a certain amount of laps and F1 uses safety cars and virtual safety cars to slow down the field when there are dangerous conditions on the track.
One of the more confusing parts of F1 is the Drag Reduction System, which allows a driver within one second of another to change the angle of the rear wing flap and reduce aerodynamic drag for a speed advantage. DRS can only be used on certain parts of the track and race tracks are usually limited to two DRS zones, but F1 added a third for the Australian Grand Prix opener this weekend to “increase overtaking at a track where it is traditionally difficult.”
Drivers get points for how they perform in races, and the sum of those points ultimately determines who wins the championship. In 2017, that was Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton for the fourth time.
New Faces, Rules And Race Tracks
F1 does major rules overhauls and agreements on how the sport will run every few years and 2018 wasn’t one of them, so there weren’t a ton of rules changes for this race season. The next time that’ll occur is 2021, when the series wants to mandate louder and cheaper engines across the board.
The changes that did happen for this were major, though.
Perhaps the biggest storyline going into this season is that F1 and its governing body, the FIA, mandated the halo cockpit-protection bar. Drivers have called for cockpit protection in F1 for years, and while the halo wasn’t the favorite option among people in the sport, F1 rolled it out for this season.
The Mercedes team claims the halo can hold the weight of a double-decker bus, and most drivers say it’s not bothering them too much. It is bothering people watching, though, and the biggest complaints seem to be that viewers can’t see past it to tell drivers apart and that onboard camera angles aren’t great with it. (F1 teams use almost identical paint schemes for each of their two drivers, so a lot of people tell the drivers apart by their differing race helmets.)
But some kind of cockpit protection was necessary, even if not everyone is a fan, and the halo will probably get better looking over time. Safety is more important than looks or camera angles, even if it is frustrating at first.
New Tire Options
Pirelli announced at the start of the season that it would add two dry-surface tire compounds to its F1 lineup, making tire options in the sport look like an actual rainbow for this season. Pirelli even calls it the “Pirelli Rainbow.”
As is typical of F1, adding tire compounds to the spectrum just led to more ambiguous and confusing names attempting to refer to how hard or soft each compound is. Just check these out:
The two new tire compounds are the pink “hypersoft” tire and the orange “superhard” tire. F1 only allows teams the choice between three predetermined dry compounds each race, though, so you don’t have to worry about trying to figure out which of the seven different compounds a team is choosing during each pit stop.
Softer tires are typically faster, which is why Pirelli announced that all of its compounds would be a step softer this race season. Pirelli said on its website that it doesn’t expect to use the new superhard compound at all, but made it as “an insurance policy, just in case the performance of the 2018 cars didn’t match expectations.” It’s in case things got a little too soft with the other compounds.
The three compounds for Australia are soft, supersoft and ultrasoft, and F1 has the lineup for the next races in Bahrain and China on its website.
Tracks That Are In And Tracks That Are Out
F1 added France and Germany to its race calendar this year, and got rid of the Malaysian Grand Prix. That’s unfortunate, because Malaysia was great. It’ll be the first time for F1 to race at Circuit Paul Ricard in France since 1990.
Changes Outside Of The Racing
The new owners at F1 are making a lot of changes to the sport and its climate, most of them for the better. F1 is finally embracing the internet, including a new subscription streaming service for certain areas of the world. It won’t be ready in time for this weekend’s race, though, and F1 hasn’t said when it will be.
Start times are also being pushed back, with F1 announcing a couple of months ago that most races would start a little over an hour later than they have in the past. That’s good for people in America, who usually have to wake up around 6 a.m. to watch a race live—or watch it later and complain about spoilers on those dang internet websites (like this one).
There was also the phasing out of grid girls and replacing their role with grid kids, which was a great step toward lessening the major gender divide—men as the main show and women on the sidelines—that motorsports and other major sports often give off. The bosses at F1 still don’t really get it, but at least they made the right decision—even with the wrong reasoning behind it.
The Current Climate in F1
Teams aren’t sure where they stand on the proposed louder and cheaper engine regulations for 2021, and the Ferrari F1 team has been threatening to quit the sport and even start a rival racing series for months. Ferrari doesn’t want F1 to diminish the importance of powertrain uniqueness between manufacturers, which is one of the main reasons it’s a dominant team.
The FIA president and a former Ferrari team boss probably isn’t making Ferrari any more inclined to stay around, since he wants to get rid of the team’s veto power that it’s had on series rules since the 1980s. In what seems like a huge conflict of interest decades later, Ferrari has the power to shut down rules made by the governing body of a series it races in. The FIA president wants that gone when a new agreement comes around in 2021.
There’s more information about that dynamic here.
There are also some other works in progress by the new series owners, such as looking into a huge problem the series has: boring race tracks. On-track passing was drastically lower last year than in recent years, and part of that is in track design that doesn’t allow enough passing. F1’s new owners want to change that under their reign.
How The Teams Are Doing So Far This Year
To keep things short, series dominator Hamilton is happy that other teams are closing the gap between himself and their race cars, and despite switching from Honda power units to Renault in 2018, the McLaren F1 team has not at all gotten rid of reliability problems.
Practice sessions have the usual teams up top—Hamilton topped them both, and the Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull teams were in the top seven across both of the first two practices in Australia. Haas driver Romain Grosjean also did well, finishing seventh in the first practice and sixth in the second.
The first race of the season will be at 1 a.m. ET this Sunday on ESPN2. Have fun with your all-nighter if you’re in America, and don’t forget the caffeine.