The rules behind F1 qualifying are not clear to everyone. Today we will try to explain to you as simply as possible what are the mechanisms by which the starting grid of Formula 1 races is determined.
Let’s start with the basics
Each team has 20 sets of tires (one set corresponds to four tires, ed.) available for each race: 7 wet (including 3 full wets and 4 intermediates) and 13 dry. Each set features a particular type of compound that differentiates one from another in hardness, performance, and durability.
The challenge for teams is to be able to find the best balance between these characteristics to make the most of them and be fast in both qualifying and the race. Proper tire exploitation is the basis of any winning strategy.
Tires are further divided, as mentioned earlier, by category: wet and dry. In the first case, the racing teams can count on two types of compounds: full wet (recognizable by the blue color on the tire shoulder) to be used in particularly adverse environmental conditions, or intermediates (in green) when the asphalt is somewhere between dry and wet. For dry weather tires (slicks) the compounds become 5, recognized as C1 (compound) for the hardest compound up to C5 with the softest compound. To be precise, hard (white) are used for long-distance runs; medium (yellow) for a compromise between run length and performance; and finally soft (red) for the maximum possible grip. Each weekend Pirelli demarcates the tires that can be used with these 3 items, but in some races the mediums are considered soft depending on track conditions.
Tire behaviors on the track also vary with asphalt temperature, a temperature that greatly impacts tire wear.
In the jargon, a track is referred to as “rubberized” when the trajectories are covered by the rubbery residue from the passage of cars that have run several laps and the grip is optimal.
F1s first cleaned the trajectory, such as lifting the inevitable dust, and then rubberized the track resulting in improved lap times.
There are many ways to interpret and predict what the right strategy might be. Sometimes on TV, team strategists equate the performance of a “used” hard tire (i.e., with optimal temperature reached and grip with stable terrain) with that of medium tires. Conversely, a yellow at full speed achieves similar performance to soft. Ultimately, circumstances change depending on temperature, setting, driver feeling, and car settings…. only engineers engaged in the specifics are able to decipher the immense amount of data at hand and sometimes make the right choice.
After this brief but necessary digression, let us return to explaining how qualifying works in Formula 1.
Structure of the weekend
The race weekend begins on Friday with two free practice sessions, better known as FP1 and FP2 (free practice), lasting one hour each. In FP1 and FP2 The teams have a chance to try out set-up changes, test new parts, maybe get the third driver on the team to run a few miles. At the same time, FP1 and FP2 serve to adapt the pilot to the track (FP1) to better understand the braking points and get some initial data on the race pace (FP2) that the car can sustain.
The times of these sessions are not really comparable; each team uses them according to its own needs and resulting schedule.
Saturday begins with a final free practice session(FP3) in which refinements are generally made on the work done previously before arriving, barring unforeseen circumstances, three hours later at qualifying.
These are divided into three separate sessions: Q1, Q2 and Q3.
Q1 – The duration is 18 minutes. All riders are required to record a useful time that places them among the top 15 finishers. The zone between the sixteenth and twentieth is called theelimination zone. From Q1 come the first verdicts for the starting grid, as drivers who end up in the ‘elimination zone will start from the position obtained during this practice round.
Q2 – The time decreases to 15 minutes, as does the number of drivers participating. The elimination zone moves between the 11th and 15th positions. Same for the grid.
Q3 – Getting into the swing of things. The available minutes become 12, and the 10 drivers remaining in this last phase will play for the infamous pole position, or the first place on the starting grid for Sunday’s race.
A new feature introduced for the 2022 season is the option to choose whether to use the best compound used in Q2 for the race as well, a mandatory choice until the previous edition. A paradigm shift that really makes a difference in performance, as adoptable strategies can now vary more judiciously and with fewer constraints.
In special cases where it is not possible to hold/resume qualifying, the grid for the race will be drawn up based on the results obtained in the last free practice held, then FP3.
Room for news: what is Sprint Race Qualifying
In the 2021 season, a new qualifying mode was experimented with the introduction of Sprint Race Qualifying. The federation decided to repeat the experiment for the 2022 season of the Formula 1 World Championship on three different occasions as well: Imola, Austria and Brazil.
Sprint Race Qualifying is a 100-kilometer mini-race (lasting a maximum of 30 minutes) with no mandatory pit stop that decrees the starting grid for Sunday’s race.
Points are awarded to the top 8 finishers that will add up in both driver and manufacturer rankings. The first gets 8 points, the second 7 until the eighth gets one point.
Of course, the schedule with the canonical scheduled events varies: space for FP1 on Friday with Q1, Q2 and Q3 to follow. The traditional qualifying sessions will be used to decree grid positions for Saturday’s sprint qualifying.
The intent is to add spectacle to the weekend by effectively removing a free practice session. This is a race in its own right, as the points awarded are added to the rainbow rankings.
Whoever wins the Sprint Race is in pole position for Sunday’s race. Whoever records the best time during Friday’s qualifying will start from the first place on the grid in Saturday’s sprint race.
An interesting feature is that there is no requirement to stop at the pits to change tires, unlike the races we are used to. The driver may decide together with the team to finish with the same set of tires with which he started, complicit in the reduced mileage.