F101 ~ Laura Mariee: Grand Prix weekend

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Last week I spoke about the drivers so far confirmed for 2010. This week on F101 I thought I’d explain about a typical Grand Prix weekend, and what happens, and what to watch. I thought that before I get into the technical stuff and explain the rules and regulations, I’d talk about something simple that as a fan you need to know in order to even watch the sport…

F101

The F1 weekend officially starts on Friday with practice, which is commonly referred to as FP1 and FP2. There are three practice sessions over the weekend, the first on the Friday morning. These sessions are a chance for the team to get a feel for the car on that specific track and work towards a race strategy, which they have to decide upon before qualifying on the Saturday. Data has already been gathered by the teams through simulations (calculations through the computer) ahead of the weekend, but practice is about taking the data, and with different track conditions, getting the right setup.

As in-season testing was banned prior to the start of last season, the free practice sessions enabled the teams to test new upgrades and parts on the cars ahead of the race for the first time. The drivers go out, and using different fuel loads and tyres they gather crucial data that enables the engineers to develop a race strategy that works for the car.

Every team is different, and some cars work better at different tracks than others. For example, in 2009, the Brawn BGP001 was better at tracks with a warmer track temperature, due to the way the tyres performed, and that was different to the Red Bull RB5, that didn’t have issues with tyre temperatures, and that was why at tracks where the BGP001 suffered, the RB5 did rather well.

The teams know how well they are likely to do from the data gathered in practice. It doesn’t always mean they’ll do as well in qualifying or the race – McLaren’s weekend at Spa is an example of this – and it doesn’t always mean they’ll do so bad – Button and Brawn were a frequent example of this throughout the second half of the 2009 season.

On Friday, FP1 and FP2 last for an hour and a half, and in that time the teams and the drivers spend as much time on or off the track as they like. On Saturday mornings, ahead of qualifying, practice lasts an hour. In the UK, all three sessions are available to watch on the BBC Red Button, with commentary from 5Live. It is so easy to watch over here, and it is easy to get addicted watching it.

Practice well and truly gets you into an F1 weekend with ease. And it’s a great place to learn about how the cars work, and what the drivers have to do to get the car to perform. By the time you get to qualifying, or quali as it is otherwise – and better – known, you have a good idea how well the driver you support is likely to do, and how high up the grid he is likely to qualify. However, practice doesn’t always determine who is likely to end up where, and there are a number of reasons for this. Up until the end of the 2009 season, one of the reasons for this was fuel, as to secure pole position in quali, the less fuel you had in the car the better the chance, and this was because the fuel put in at the beginning of Q3 (I’ll explain in a bit…), which was also the fuel that would have been used in the first stint of the race, wouldn’t have been as heavy.

Generally, practice gives the teams and the fans a good idea of who is going to be good in qualifying and in the race. Understanding the track itself can indicate who will do well before the teams even arrive in the paddock.

Simulations carried out before the teams even arrive at the track give them a fair idea of how their car will work, and by the time quali starts, they would have chosen the right set up, based on their data.

Qualifying is in three stages, the first, Q1, is a 20 minute session where (in 2009), the bottom five drivers, or rather the slowest five drivers, were eliminated from the competition. In 2010, this figure is set to change depending on how many teams and drivers make the first race in Bahrain. Q2 is a 15 minute session, eliminating the next five slowest drivers, and Q3 is the top ten shoot-out, where the ten remaining drivers battle it out for pole position in ten minutes.

By the end of an hour, all three sessions will be completed – unless something happens, such as torrential rain as in this year’s Brazilian quali, and the Hungarian qualifying where Felipe Massa had his accident – and there will be a pole sitter, who will get the benefit of starting on the clean side of the grid on race day. That is a big advantage, an additional advantage on top of being the fastest, as at some tracks it is hard to win from anywhere on the grid except from the front row.

On race day, each driver will have their own strategy that would have been decided prior to qualifying, and they have their own engineer who sits on the pitwall and informs the driver of their position, how the car is performing, who is where and how many laps they have until their pitstop. The first ‘stint’, before the first pitstop, is the bit where up until the end of the 2009 season, the drivers have had to use their fuel from Q3 – for the top ten drivers. As of next season, this will not be the case as refuelling has been banned, and the car will have to go full race distance on one tank, with the drivers coming in solely for tyres.

Everything that has happened so far over the race weekend, and all the information gathered by the teams, has built up to the race. For the fans, it is the time to sit back and enjoy the racing, and get behind their driver. The top drivers are rewarded with the points, and while this is undergoing amendment, up until the end of 2009, the winning driver scored ten points, with second and third getting eight and six points respectively, completing the podium. Between fourth and eighth, the points have been awarded from five to one. From next year, the points system is likely to change…

Following the end of the weekend, it is time for the teams to pack up and go home, or head to the next race. For the fans, it is back to counting down to the next race, and at the moment, that is still a fair way off… So now you know what happens, you have to wait a bit longer to see the first race of 2010, but now you can join the rest of us in counting down… And that is it for this week, join me again next week for more F101, where I will get a bit more technical, and explain a bit more about those all-important regulations…

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