Race weekend approaches…and when you’re talking Formula 1, a global motorsport league, races take place almost half of the weekends in a year. A travelling band of drivers, engineers, mechanics, and other team members come together to pit some of the coolest and fastest race cars against one another, all around the world.
I’d be lying if I said the last few seasons of the Netflix show Drive to Survive, which focused on the sport, were solely responsible for my own foray into F1 fandom — motorsport became cool to me after I learned about the Targa Florio, one of the oldest and most renowned car races of the last century. Zipping around my family’s native Sicily, turning the whole island into a racetrack, car teams like Alfa Romeo and Ferrari got their start and became famous, before speeds ever topped 48 km/h.
But it was the tea, rivalries, and drama of Netflix’s blockbuster racing show that took me out of zone of interest and into obsessive fandom. These days, I watch recordings of teams practicing and I try to catch races live, cheering on my favourites. That is the power of storytelling, and with both the boost of reality TV and billions of investment dollars, Formula 1 has become the world’s fastest-growing sport.
Now’s the perfect time to pick it up — the season is just a handful of its 22 races in. The battles are heating up, and with the rest of the 2023 season in front of you, we’re going to break down how you can follow along.
The history and mechanics of F1
F1 began in 1950 and has continued ever since, with mechanical innovation following suit. Today’s cars are like rocket ships in comparison to the inaugural year, and the millions spent on their design and upkeep likely rivals many a nation’s space programs.
It’s a popular sport in Europe and the Middle East especially, but as drivers become younger and more diverse, it’s picking up a new fandom all over the globe. Formula 1 has raced in over 34 countries, typically hitting around 19 in a given season.
Ten teams race two cars and drivers apiece, with other drivers on reserve and numerous pit crews, which include mechanics and management, on deck within the paddock (the backstage of the track). Teams are just that, and the relationship between the driver and their crew must be solid as a rock, for no reason greater than the mortal danger involved in racing over 354 km/h on a different track each time.
The “winning” isn’t just for the driver alone — there’s the Driver’s Cup, and the Constructor’s Cup, and both are cumulative scores determined via a points system. A team can win both — and they often do — but sometimes one goes to the driver of one outfit and the collective group for another. Following the drama as teams vie for points in every race throughout the season gives the sport an addictive quality that makes it almost impossible to stop following once you’re hooked in.
Some key F1 terms you should know
Safety car: deployed during a race to control the pace and ensure safety on the track in hazardous conditions.
DRS: or Drag Reduction System, this allows drivers to reduce aerodynamic drag, enabling drivers to go faster by opening a rear wing flap — but only at designated strips of track like straightaways.
Pit stop: a pause where drivers come into the pit lane to change tires, refuel, and make any necessary adjustments to their cars, usually over in under three seconds.
Interval: the time gap or distance between two cars on the track. It can be used to measure the lead or the gap a driver needs to close.
Qualifying: drivers compete in a pre-race qualifying round to determine their position on the starting grid on race day.
Grid: the lineup of cars at the beginning of a race, determined by the qualifying results.
Pole position: starting position at the front of the grid, awarded to the driver who records the fastest lap time in the qualifying session.
P1, P10: “P” stands for “position,” and the numbers denote the spot where a driver finishes.
Podium: the top three racers enjoy a ceremony at the podium.
Tire types: teams use different types of tires, including soft, medium, and hard compounds, to adapt to varying track conditions, weather, and race strategies.
Track types: races take place on a variety of track types, like street circuits, road courses, and purpose-built racetracks.
The superstars of modern F1
Team Red Bull: with reigning champion Max Verstappen, Principal Christian Horner, superstar Sergio Pérez, aka Checo, and fan favourite Aussie-Italian Daniel Ricciardo on standby.
Team Mercedes: with passionate principal Toto Wolff, Seven-time world champ and beloved Lewis Hamilton, and newcomer George Russell in the second seat.
Ferrari: Boss Mattia Binotto is a known character, while ever-focused Carlos Sainz Jr. and up-and-comer Charles Leclerc represent the Rosso
Yuki Tsunoda (Team Alfa Romeo) and Pierre Gasly (Team Alpine) may be on opposing outfits now, but they share a camaraderie that might help them both climb the grid.
McLaren and Haas teams share both big personalities in the principals and big ambitions on the track that make them fun to watch.
Williams and AlphaTauri are the Mercedes and Red Bull B teams, respectively, and Aston Martin also has big ambitions with a notably fast car setup this season.
When to watch F1 next
This weekend is the Canadian Grand Prix, where Red Bull and Mercedes’ contenders will duke it out for the top spots — but reports say Aston Martin, Ferrari, and a few others still have a shot at scoring plenty of points this season. Formula One is exciting even though it’s a track race — each course is different, and events are generally no longer than 90 minutes, or occasionally two hours. Fans and drivers come from all over the world, which creates a similar excitement and devotion as seen in other global level competition events like the Champions’ League, Copa America, World Cup soccer, and, uh, EuroVision.
Like many big show sports, more diversity is needed. Drivers of colour are few, and women have yet to step on the grid — so expectations are mounting that as the sport reaches new eyes, these audiences will see themselves reflected within the teams, on the track, and, especially, on the podium.
If you’re not ready to dive into real-time fandom, you can turn on Drive to Survive for some useful background on the sport, or to see if the cinematic treatment lures you in. But twice a month on Sundays, the biggest show in motorsports continues on its global circuit, gaining ground with audiences at every turn.
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