How Formula One Works

        Auto | Motorsports

A Lotus-powered Formula One race car. See sports car pictures.
Shawn Curry/AFP/Getty Images

­When the French held the first grand prix in 1906, the race organizers, the Automobile Club de France, couldn't have guessed how big their motor sport would become. That first race featured 32 cars on a 65-mile course near Le Mans and took two days to complete. The average speed of the winning car, a­ Renault driven by Hungarian Ferenc Szisz, was 62.887 mph.

­

­From those humble origins, Formula One racing was born, and over the years, it has grown to be one of the most popular sports in the world. It appeals to millions of fans, attracts a huge sponsorship and delivers champions who are as revered as Olympic medalists. Why? Because Formula One racing satisfies our fundamental need ­to push technology to its limits and to enjoy, even if vicariously, the thrill and excitement of high-speed travel.

­

This article will introduce you to the basics of Formula One. It will focus on all of the elements that make a grand prix race special, from the cars and drivers to the teams and tracks. And it will help you understand why Formula One has been described as "a saga of ecstasy and agony" [source: Hilton].

­

Formula One Racing

Two cars vie for position in the Brazil Grand Prix on Oct. 21, 2007.
Two cars vie for position in the Brazil Grand Prix on Oct. 21, 2007.
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Formula racing refers to a class of motor sport defined by open-wheeled, single-seat race cars. Open-wheeled cars have their wheels outside of the car's body, unlike "normal" cars and stock cars, whose wheels are under the fenders. As its name implies, Formula One is the pinnacle of formula racing, featuring the best drivers in the most powerful, technically advanced cars. To be a champion in Formula One is to be the absolute best of the best -- the No. 1 driver in the world. But no one jumps into a Formula One car on a whim and races to victory. Today's drivers compete for many years and across thousands of miles before they're ready for the ultimate test in the ultimate driving machine.

Most Formula One drivers cut their teeth in other types of formula racing. In fact, the other categories of formula racing can be thought of as feeders to Formula One -- proving grounds where a driver can develop his skills and, if he's good enough, earn a place on one of the 10 or so Formula One teams.

Formula racing is, by definition, highly regulated. Specific rules -- or formulas -- define exactly how cars must be configured and exactly how a race must be run. Formula One rules come in two distinct categories. Sporting regulations cover all aspects of the race itself, from how a race is started to how it's concluded and everything in between. Technical regulations provide specific details about the car's major systems, including the engine, transmission and suspension. Throughout this article, we will be looking at some of these rules more closely. The next section, for example, will examine many of the technical regulations, while the section on race-day conventions will focus on some of the key sporting regulations.

­You might think having rules and regulations takes away some of the drama and excitement of Formula One racing, but in reality, it elevates the driver's skill to center stage. It also showcases the performance and efficiency of the cars themselves. It's no surprise that a Formula One season includes a championship for the manufacturers right alongside drivers, just as it's no surprise that names such as McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus have become synonymous with automotive excellence.

Formula One Cars

© 2007 HowStuffWorks

Fundamentally, Formula One cars are no different than the Chevy parked out in your garage. They use internal combustion engines and have transmissions, suspensions, wheels and brakes. But that's where the similarity ends. Formula One cars aren't designed for casual driving or cruising down the interstate. Everything about them is tweaked and tooled for one thing and one thing only -- speed. Formula One cars can easily attain speeds of 200 mph -- but during a race, the speeds are generally lower. During the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix, the winner's average speed was 101.769 mph, and in the 2006 Italian Grand Prix, it was 152.749 mph.

Let's take a look at the major systems of a Formula One car.

Chassis

The heart of a Formula One car is the chassis -- the part of the automobile onto which everything is bolted and attached. Like most modern cars and aircraft, Formula One race cars feature monocoque construction. Monocoque is a French word meaning "single shell," which refers to the process of making the entire body out of a single piece of material. Once upon a time, that material was aluminum, but today it's a strong composite, like spun carbon fibers set in resin or carbon fiber layered over aluminum mesh. The result is a lightweight car that can withstand the enormous downward-acting forces that are produced as the vehicle moves through the air.

The monocoque incorporates the cockpit, a strong, padded cell that accommodates a single driver. Unlike the cockpits of road-ready cars, which can show great variance, the cockpits of Formula One cars must adhere to very rigorous technical regulations. They must, for example, meet minimum size requirements and must have a flat floor. The seat, however, is made to fit a driver's precise measurements so his movement is limited as the car moves around the track.

Engine

Before 2006, Formula One cars were powered by massive three-liter, V10 engines. Then the rules changed, specifying the use of 2.4-liter V8 engines. Even though power outputs fell with the rule change, Formula One engines­ can still produce nearly 900 horsepower. To put that into perspective, consider that a Volkswagen Jetta's 2.5-liter engine produces just 150 horsepower. Of course, the Jetta's engine is probably good for at least 100,000 miles or so. A Formula One engine needs to be rebuilt after about 500 miles. Why? Because generating all of that power requires that the engine run at very high revolution rates -- nearly 19,000 revolutions per minute. Running an engine at such high rpms produces an enormous amount of heat and puts a great deal of stress on the moving parts.

The fuel that powers such an engine is not the typical unleaded gasoline you pump at the neighborhood Exxon, but it's similar. Small quantities of non-hydrocarbon compounds are allowed, but most power-boosting additives have been banned completely. All in all, Formula One teams use about 50 different fuel blends, tuned for different tracks or conditions, in a typical season. Each blend must be submitted to the FIA, the sport's governing body, for approval of its composition and physical properties.

Formula One Transmissions and Aerodynamics

A shot from the Monte Carlo Grand Prix
A shot from the Monte Carlo Grand Prix
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Transmission

It's the job of the transmission to transfer all of the engine's power to the rear wheels of the Formula One car. The transmission bolts directl­y to the back of the en­gine and includes all of the parts you would expect to find in a road car -- gearbox, differential and driveshaft. The gearbox must have a minimum of four forward gears and a maximum of seven gears. Six-speed gearboxes were popular for several years, but most Formula One cars now run seven-speed units. A reverse gear must also be fitted. The gearbox is connected to a differential, a set of gears allowing the rear wheels to revolve at different speeds during cornering. And the differential is connected to the driveshaft, which transfers power to the wheels.­

­Shifting gears in a Formula One car is not the same as shifting gears in a road car with a manual transmission. Instead of using a traditional "H" gate selector, drivers select gears using paddles located just behind the steering wheel. Downshifting is done on one side of the steering wheel, upshifting on the other. Although fully automatic transmission systems, including systems with sophisticated launch control, are possible on Formula One cars, they are now illegal. This helps reduce the overall cost of the power train and enables drivers to use gear-shifting skills to gain advantage in a race.

Aerodynamics

A Formula One race car is defined as much by its aerodynamics as it is by its powerful engine. That's because any vehicle traveling at high speed must be able to do two things well: reduce air resistance and increase downforce. Formula One cars are low and wide to decrease air resistance. Wings, a diffuser, end plates and barge boards increase downforce. Let's look at each of these in greater detail.

  • Wings, which first appeared in the 1960s, operate on the same principles as airplane wings, only in reverse. Airplane wings create lift, but the wings on a Formula One car produce downforce, which holds the car onto the track, especially during cornering. The angle of both front and rear wings can be fine-tuned and adjusted to get the ideal balance between air resistance and downforce.
  • Lotus engineers discovered in the 1970s that a Formula One car itself could be turned into a giant wing. Using a unique undercarriage design, they were able to extract air from beneath the car, creating an area of low pressure that sucked the entire vehicle downward. These so-called "ground-effect" forces were soon outlawed and strict regulations put in place to govern undercarriage design. The bottom of today's cars must be flat from the nose cone to the rear axle line. Beyond that line, engineers have free reign. Most incorporate a diffuser, an upward-sweeping device located just beneath the engine and gearbox that creates a suction effect as it funnels air up and passes it to the rear of the car.
  • Much of aerodynamics is concerned with getting air to move where you want it to move. Endplates are small, flanged areas at the edges of the front wings that help "grab" the air and direct it along the side of the car. The barge boards, located just behind the front wheels, pick up the air from there, accelerating it to create even more downforce.

­­The result of all this aerodynamics engineering is a combined downforce of about 2,500 kilograms (5,512 pounds). That's more than four times the weight of the car itself.

Next, we'll learn about Formula One suspensions, brakes, steering and tires.­ ­

Formula One Suspension and Other Systems

Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkone pops champagne after winning the 2007 World Championship.
Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkone pops champagne after winning the 2007 World Championship.
Orlando Kissner/AFP/Getty Images

­Suspension

The suspension of a Formula One car has all o­f the same components as the suspension of a road car. Those components include springs, dampers, arms and anti-sway bars. How Car Suspensions Work provides detailed information about each of these parts and even includes a section on Formula One suspensions. To keep things simple here, we'll say that almost all Formula One cars feature double wishbone suspensions. Before any race, a team will tweak suspension settings to ensure that the car can brake and corner safely, yet still deliver responsiveness of handling.

Brakes

You would recognize all of the parts of the disc brakes found on Formula One cars. The big difference, of course, is that the brakes used in Formula One must stop a vehicle traveling at speeds greater than 200 mph. This causes the brakes to glow red-hot when they are used. To help reduce wear and tear and increase braking performance, carbon fiber discs and pads are now used. These brake systems are extremely effective at temperatures up to 750° C (1,382° F), even though they are lightweight. Holes around the edge of the brake disc allow heat to escape rapidly. The cars also have air intakes fitted to the outside of the wheel hub to cool down the brakes. The air intakes are changed for the different braking requirements of each track [source: F1 Country].

Tires

The tires of a Formula One race car may be the most important part on the entire vehicle. This seems like an overstatement until you realize that the tires are the only things touching the track surface. That means all of the other major systems -- engine, suspension and braking -- do their work by way of the tires. If the tires don't perform well, the car won't perform well, regardless of the technical superiority demonstrated in other systems.

Like every part of a Formula One car, tires are highly regulated. Slick tires -- those with no tread pattern and a high contact area -- were introduced in the 1960s and used until 1998. Then the FIA change the rules to reduce cornering speeds and make the sport more competitive. On today's Formula One cars, the front tires must be between 12 and 15 inches wide and the rear tires between 14 and 15 inches wide. Four continuous, longitudinal grooves must run around the circumference. The grooves must be at least 2.5 millimeters (0.098 inches) deep and 50 mm (1.97 inches) apart. In rainy conditions, cars can have "intermediate" and "wet" tires, which have full tread patterns designed to channel water away from the road surface.

Formula One tires are made from very soft rubber compounds which, as they heat up, adhere to the road and provide enormous gripping power. In fact, racing tires perform best at high temperatures, so they have to be warmed up before they are race-ready. The tradeoff is decreased durability. A Formula One tire is designed to last for, at most, about 125 miles.

Traction control can extend the life of tires by limiting wheel spin, especially under loads imposed by cornering. Traction control systems use electronic sensors to compare the speed of the wheel to the speed of the road the wheel is driving over. If the wheel is traveling faster than the road surface -- an indication that the wheels are dangerously close to spinning -- then the engine is automatically throttled back. Traction control has been allowed and banned at various times throughout modern Formula One history. It has been allowed since the beginning of the 2002 season, but it will be outlawed altogether at the start of the 2008 season.

2007 HowStuffWorks

Steering wheel

The steering wheel of a Formula One car bears little resemblance to the steering wheel of a road car. As the car's command center, it houses a dizzying array of buttons, toggles and switches. During the race, the driver can control almost every aspect of the car's performance -- gear changes, fuel mixture, brake balance and more -- with just the touch of a finger. And, amazingly, all of this control comes on a steering wheel that is about half the diameter of a normal car's steering wheel.

The rules state that the driver must be able to get out of his car within five seconds, removing nothing except the steering wheel. To allow for this, the steering wheel is joined to the steering column via a snap-on connector.

Formula One racing is a team effort -- more than 100 people on each team work to make the season success. We'll learn about them on the next page.

Formula One Racing Team

The Ferrari team celebrates after winning the Belgian Grand Prix in September 2007.
The Ferrari team celebrates after winning the Belgian Grand Prix in September 2007.
Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

During a grand prix, it's easy to think that Formula One racing begins and ends with the driver. After all, the purpose of having such strict regulations about the car is to eliminate all variables except for the skill and expertise of the driver. But a Formula One driver is just one member of a huge team that employs hundreds of people. Let's break down a typical Formula One team to understand who does what.

Team Boss

The nature of the boss depends on the nature of the team. Some teams are owned by the car manufacturers, who turn over management of the team to one of their top employees. For example, the team boss of Ferrari is Jean Todt, the CEO of the company. Todt himself answers to Luca di Montezemolo, chairman for Fiat, Ferrari's parent company.

Other teams are privately owned, and the owners usually founded the team and risked their own finances to get a car ready to compete. With so much at stake, team owners are almost always the team boss. Two well-known owner-bosses are Ron Dennis of McLaren and Frank Williams of Williams F1. A famous owner-boss of the past was Enzo Ferrari, who founded his team in the 1940s and stayed on as boss even after Fiat bought Ferrari in 1968.

Commercial Director

A Formula One team must effectively manage the commercial and technical aspects of the business. The commercial director attracts sponsors and seals the deals. One of his main jobs is to determine levels of sponsorship and placement of logos on the car. Main sponsors can pay handsomely -- on the order of $50 million -- for the privilege of having their brands displayed on a Formula One car.

Technical Director

The technical director heads up the crew of engineers, designers and R&D scientists who construct the cars. In many respects, the technical director is more important than the driver because a fast car is such a high priority in Formula One. The chief aerodynamicist, chief designer and chief of research and development report to the technical director.

Chief Aerodynamicist

The chief aerodynamicist oversees a whole squad of aerodynamicists who dedicate themselves to making sure the car design reduces air resistance, yet creates the right amount of downforce.

Chief Designer

The chief designer determines the basic layout of the car, as well as the materials that will be used to build it. Each team typically employs two chief designers -- one for the current season and one for the next season.

Chief of R&D

Chief of R&D

The chief of R&D heads up automotive-innovation projects, exploring new materials and technologies that can keep his team ahead of the competition.

Drivers

Each Formula One team has two drivers. You might think this creates an atmosphere of support and camaraderie, but that's not necessarily the case. A Formula One driver is out to beat his rivals, including the other driver on his team. In some cases, a team may ask a driver to let his teammate overtake him or even win the race. This practice is technically against the regulations, but it's difficult to enforce.

­­So, other than the ability to put up with the politics of a racing team, what makes a Formula One driver unique? Most drivers share many qualities, including strength, endurance, mental alertness, quick reflexes and a desire to be the best race car driver in the world.

On the next page we'll learn about the Formula One season and how the teams prepare for the grands prix.

Formula One Season

2007 HowStuffWorks

A Formula One season consists of a series of races, or grands prix, held on circuits across the world. The results of each race are combined to determine two annual championships: the Formula One World Drivers' Championship and the For­mula One Constructors' Championship. The former celebrates individual performance, and the latter celebrates team performance -- and, ultimately, the performance of the vehicle.

The first auto races were on public roads, not permanent circuits. Public pressure forced race cars off public roads and onto tracks designed just for the sport. Today, the only Formula One race that remains on the street is Monaco. All other races are held on purpose-built tracks designed to handle the needs of high-speed racing.

Any track, be it street or purpose-built, requires its own unique strategy. Monaco, because it is a "tight" street race, forces drivers to slow down considerably. In fact, Monaco is one of the slowest races of the Formula One season. It's also very narrow and bumpy, and it is not unusual for cars to make contact with the barriers. Extra wings are also used on the cars that race at Monaco to make sure enough downforce is created. Because overtaking is almost impossible, securing a good grid position is absolutely essential to securing a victory at Monaco (we'll get into grid positioning later).

A points system decides the champions for a given season. A driver earns points based on how he places in each race. The driver with the most points at the end of the season is crowned champion. The table here summarizes how points are awarded.

Teams earn points using the same system, except they get to total the results of both drivers. So, if the two drivers of a certain team finish first and third in a given race, the team earns 16 points.

­The number of races per season can vary because tracks are added or retired all of the time. For example, in 2007, the FIA decided that Germany would no longer host two grands prix and that Japan's Fuji Speedway would be the site of a Formula One race for the first time in 30 years. Generally, however, a season consists of 15 to 17 races, with the majority of the races concentrated in Europe.­

Winning in Formula One brings prestige -- and financial rewards. A driver's salary is established by his contract with the team. It's usually a flat fee and requires the driver to participate in a set number of test sessions and make a certain number of appearances on behalf of his sponsors. On top of that base salary, a driver can earn a bonus -- perhaps $150,000 or so -- for winning a race. He can also earn a bonus for winning the Driver's Championship. Then there's merchandising and endorsements. Michael Schumacher, who earns an estimated $30 million a year, is one of the highest-paid sportsmen in the world.

Of course, it's not just the driver who gets to cash in. Formula One teams also enjoy the spoils of victory. The amount a team earns from the sport's television rights is dependent on where it finishes in the title chase.

Winners of every grand prix receive a trophy. Then, there's the Championship Trophy, which is given to the driver and the team with the most points at the end of the season. The Championship Trophy is given out in December at the FIA awards ceremony in Monte Carlo.

Each grand prix is a major undertaking for a team. Read on to find out exactly what happens during a grand prix weekend.

Grand Prix Preparation

2007 HowStuffWorks

Few sports have the same logistical issues as motor sports do, and for Formula One in particular, with circuits spread to the far corners of the globe, logistics is an enormous challenge.

The first challenge involves transportation of team members. Normally, about 100 people travel from the team's headquarters to the grand prix. The team must also rent cars, buses and vans -- or, if the race is in a highly congested area, charter helicopters. At the track itself, the team operates from a large mobile facility. A catering staff prepares meals for the team in a kitchen that could rival many restaurant kitchens.

Most teams transport three cars, one spare chassis and several spare engines to each race. Technical partners and local contractors ship tires, fuel and other equipment not manufactured by the team. All teams are headquartered in Europe, so for the European races, they'll pack their equipment into articulated trucks and drive it to the destination. For the races in Asia, Australia and the Americas, the teams fly out their equipment on transport planes.

Formula One races are on Sundays, and everything must be set up and ready to go by Friday morning, when practice and qualifying sessions begin. Drivers can practice as much or as little as they want during the sessions, but their goal is to sort out how to set up the car to achieve maximum speed on that particular track, in specific weather conditions. The driver, working closely with the race engineer, will choose suspension and aerodynamic settings, pick tires and determine optimal fueling. The race engineer and the driver will continue to communicate and tweak their strategy during the race.

T­­­he two qualifying sessions almost immediately follow the practice sessions. Friday qualifying measures one thing -- speed around a single lap. The car has to carry only enough fuel to get it around the track once. The results from Friday determine the lineup on the next day.

Saturday qualifying is a bit different. The rules specify that no fuel can be added between the end of Saturday qualifying and the driver's first pit stop during the race on Sunday. That means cars are much heavier on the second day of qualifying and much harder to control. If a driver spins out of control or leaves the track, he doesn't get a second chance. He must either continue the lap or abort it altogether. Either way, he will not enjoy a favorable position on Sunday. Aborting the lap does offer one advantage: The driver will have more fuel at the start of the race, which could help him gain an advantage over the rest of the field.

Saturday's fastest driver gets to sit in the pole position on Sunday, which means he starts from the very front. This has obvious advantages in any kind of race, but for Formula One, it is particularly advantageous, mainly because overtaking another car is a rarity. The other racers line up behind the pole position based on their Saturday performance, forming a two-row grid. Once all of the cars have passed a prerace inspection, a final grid is issued and the stage is set for the race.

On the next page we'll find out what happens after the race finally gets under way.

Formula One Race

Spanish driver Fernando Alonso on the track at the Chinese Grand Prix on Oct. 7, 2007
Spanish driver Fernando Alonso on the track at the Chinese Grand Prix on Oct. 7, 2007
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

­S­unday is race day in the world of Formula On­e, and it kicks off with each team plotting its strategy, trying to gain some advantage while adhering to regulations. Shortly after the rules reintroduced fueling stops, teams realized that they could carry less fuel and run faster, knowing that they could refuel during pit stops. A 2007 rule stating that all teams must use tires from a single supplier is another change that has had an enormous impact on race strategy.

Most of this planning and tuning comes down to the most critical part of a Formula One race -- the start. On many circuits, where overtaking is nearly impossible, the race start all but determines the winner of the race. The start procedure looks something like this:

  1. Thirty minutes before the race start, cars can be driven from the pit lane to their grid positions. If a car doesn't make it out of the pit lane in that half-hour window, it must start the race from there and can't enter the track until the field has completed its first racing lap.
  2. Once the cars are in their grid positions, mechanics make final preparations and adjustments.
  3. Five minutes before the race, all personnel (except the drivers) leave the grid.
  4. A green light signals the beginning of the formation lap, a single loop around the track. During this lap, drivers are not allowed to overtake unless it is to regain a grid position.
  5. At the end of the formation lap, the cars once again take up their positions on the grid. The safety and medical cars also take positions further back.
  6. A race official walks onto the track, behind the grid, and uses a flag to signal the race controller that the field is in place and everything is ready.
  7. The race controller initiates the starting light procedure. Green lights are no longer used to indicate the race start. Instead, a random sequence of red lights flashes until a final red light comes on and goes out.
  8. When the final red light goes out, the race begins.

­The sprint to the first corner is all-important as drivers jockey for position. Depending on the quality of his start, a driver will take either an offensive or a defensive strategy. A driver on the offensive is trying to gain position, and a defensive driver is trying to protect his position. The sporting regulations specify what a defending driver is allowed to do to prevent another driver from overtaking him. If a driver is defending his position, he can't weave back and forth. He is allowed a single blocking move and no more.

­As you might expect, close racing, with four or five cars abreast, is common at the beginning of the race. But after the first corner, the field begins to separate and the focus shifts from general chaos to isolated battles between drivers. Overtaking after the race start is quite difficult, although it can happen.

On the next page we'll look at three factors that affect a Formula One race after the critical start.

Formula One Race Factors

A Formula One pit crew has only seven to 10 seconds to complete a pit stop.
A Formula One pit crew has only seven to 10 seconds to complete a pit stop.
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Cornering

The tires of a racing car have a finite amount of grip to offer, and nothing tests this more than cornering. If a car's speed is too great for a corner, it may spin out of control. If a car slows down too much, it may lose precious seconds. Achieving the fastest time through the corner requires just the right combination of braking, turning and power so that the tires are pushed exactly to their limits.

Straightaways

Passing on straightaways comes down to power: If a car's engine can generate enough power, its driver might be able to blast by another before the next corner. However, the engine performance of today's cars is so evenly matched that passing on straightaways is extremely rare.

Pit stops

How a team manages its pit stops during a race is almost as important as the driver's skill out on the track. In a matter of just seven to 10 seconds, the pit crew has to complete the following:

  • Change the tires
  • Refuel the car
  • Adjust the wings
  • Replace damaged bodywork
  • Clear debris from the car's intake
  • Get the car safely back on the track

It's not just the duration of a pit stop that's important, either. Timing of stops is equally important. Before the race, the team usually has its pit stop strategy worked out based on the characteristics of the track, the car's grid position and the positions of the other cars in the field. Of course, the strategy can be changed during the race in response to changing weather conditions or other events.

­­Next to the start, the finish of a grand prix is the most important part of the race. The first driver to cross the finish line receives the checkered flag. After the checkered flag, the winner must complete another lap, known as the slowing down lap. Only then is he allowed to return to the pits to celebrate with his team members. This, however, is not the end of the race. After entering the pits, the driver must direct his car to an area called parc fermé, which in French means "closed park." Parc fermé is a fenced-off area where only race officials and drivers are allowed, and it is in this area that the winner's car is inspected to make sure it meets all of the technical regulations. The driver must also be weighed to make sure the car and driver do not exceed the specified weight limit. Finally, if the car and driver pass these inspections, they are declared winners. The driver is then escorted to the winner's podium and given champagne to pop as part of the celebration.

Formula One Safety

Sauber BMW driver Robert Kubica in the Brazilian Grand Prix in October 2007
Sauber BMW driver Robert Kubica in the Brazilian Grand Prix in October 2007
Orlando Kissner/AFP/Getty Images

Safety has not always been a paramount concern in Formula One racing, and there have been many tragedies -- both for drivers and spectators. In the last few decades, however, much has been done to protect racers and their fans from serious injury. Let's look at some of the key safety measures used in Formula One.

The monocoque (cockpit) incorporates the driver's survival cell -- a superstrong part of the car designed to stay intact and form a protective cocoon around the driver in the event of an accident. The survival cell includes the seat, which is designed to fit a driver's exact dimensions. The seat must be positioned low enough that the driver's head does not stick out too far and get crushed if the car rolls over.

The driver's overalls, when combined with boots, gloves and helmet, form a complete and seamless barrier. Made from a synthetic fiber known as Nomex, Formula One overalls are designed to protect drivers from a fire for at least 12 seconds, the time it should take medical and rescue personnel to reach an accident. The sponsor logos that appear on the overalls must also be made from this fire-resistant material.

The Head and Neck Support System (HANS) is a carbon-fiber collar that fits around a driver's neck and restrains his head and neck in the event of a crash or collision. The HANS connects loosely to the helmet via three straps, allowing free movement of the head yet helping to control helmet deflection during frontal impact. Robert Hubbard, an engineering professor at Michigan State University, developed the HANS in the 1980s as a protective device for powerboat racers, and it was soon adopted in most motor sports. After some design modifications to accommodate the unique needs of Formula One, the HANS became mandatory equipment for all drivers in 2003.

The basic size and shape of Formula One helmets hasn't changed much in the last two decades. What has changed is the choice of materials used to make them. Today's helmets consist of the same layered carbon-fiber material used to construct the monocoque. This results in an ultrastrong, but extremely lightweight, helmet that decreases the momentum a driver's head would experience in a serious crash. All helmets are made to fit a driver's exact dimensions.

A five-point harness secures a driver to his seat. The five "points" refer to the five straps that make up the harness: one over each of the driver's shoulders, one on each side and one that comes up between the legs. All of the straps connect to a central buckle, which is locked for the race. There is a quick-release mechanism so a driver can get out of the car quickly in an emergency.

Other Safety Measures

Formula One employs hundreds of people at each race to help ensure the safety of drivers and spectators. These marshals wear bright orange coveralls and have three primary jobs: Warn drivers of danger, clear debris or damaged cars from the track and keep spectators in their assigned areas. Formula One also keeps two special cars -- the safety car and the medical car -- on hand at each race. The safety car slows up the race in the event of a crash or other incident. When the safety car is on the track, the field must slow down behind it, with the leader in front. No driver can try to overtake another in such a situation. The medical car is used to rush doctors and rescue personnel to a driver who is injured during a race.

Formula One is one of the most popular sports in the world. Each grand prix draws more than 120,000 spectators to the track. Another 30 million people in 150 countries watch the race on television. In comparison, average paid attendance at a regular-season NFL game is about 66,500. A Formula One race, however, is not regular in any way. If anything, it's like the Super Bowl.

And, like the Super Bowl, a grand prix can be an expensive endeavor for a fan. For starters, general admission tickets cost about $150. But for most Formula One fans, the rewards far outweigh the costs. And those rewards are pure and simple: witnessing firsthand all of the agony and ecstasy that results when the world's fastest race cars compete for victory.

Check out the next page for more information on Formula One racing.­

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Inside F1: Understanding the Sport." http://www.formula1.com/inside_f1/understanding_the_sport/
  • Hilton, Christopher. "Grand Prix Showdown!: The Full Drama of the Races Which Decided the World Championship 1950-92." Motorbooks International, 1992.
  • Jones, Bruce. "The Complete Encyclopedia of Formula One." Carlton Books, 2006.
  • Jones, Bruces. "Grand Prix 2007." Carlton Books, 2007.
  • Noble, Jonathan, and Mark Hughes. "Formula One Racing for Dummies." John Wiley & Sons, 2004.
  • Wright, Michael, and Mukul Patel, ed. "How Things Work Today." Crown Publishers, 2000.