The Complete Guide to Formula One – For Beginners

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To understand the history of F1, you have to go back to when the first automobile was produced in 1885 by Karl Benz. Nine years after the first 4 stroke engine came to life, a “reliability test” was held in France. It was fifty miles, and the winner averaged a blazing speed of 14 mph. For the next 40 years, auto technology took off and in 1913 the Model T hit the production line.

The populace got its first taste of organized competitive racing with the European Grand Prix that started in 1906, one race was held. In fact, there was one race a year all the way until 1921(minus the war) and that’s when they stepped it up to 2 races. As most races were held on dirt roads, this wasn’t the ideal condition for cars. It proved dangerous to spectators and performance suffered. But, that changed with the idea of creating a track specifically for competitions. And in 1907 in Brooklands, the first motor racing track opened. Constructed of concrete and featuring banked corners, it spanned nearly 3 miles. 

While the Grand Prix ran intermittently until the 1940s, in 1946 the standards that would govern F1 were laid when the FIA came to existence. The Federation Internationale de I”Automobile’s is a governing body that changed racing, they set the standards of the sport and decided what was okay and what wasn’t.

What does Formula One mean?

Formula One, which also used to be called Formula A and Formula I, is the idea that racing cars should operate within a set of regulations. For example, these include things like the type of engine allowed to be used, gearboxes, chassis and pit stops. It gets even more specific than that.

A recent huge change is that in 2010 they scrapped the idea of refueling during a race altogether. In it’s history, Formula One has allowed teams to experiment with steering, aerodynamics, suspension and steering without much restriction.

As you can imagine, some rules are outlined for safety and some are quite controversial. There are ebbs and flows in the sport, as to what is making it more competitive and what is ruining it. A constant narrative exists between changes, with times that fans and participants believed everything was healthily balanced.

In retrospect, that is something that will naturally happen with such an entity. Most importantly, when all these things are made equal or specified within a range, it creates a very competitive engineering war for teams to find their edge every year in the sport.

The First F1 Championship

A championship for motorcycles was first held in 1949, and so it was the FIAs opportunity to respond. That they did, and in 1950 the first F1 championship was held. They made it a series of six races to decide an overall winner. You might recognize some of the notable teams in the early years, Maserati and Ferrari. They’ve been in the thick of it since the beginning. 

The Afla Romeo 158

But, there was one car manufacturer that is a former racing powerhouse. That’s Alfa Romeo, and their 158 was the victor of the first F1 race. The 158 had a 1.5-litre engine and eight cylinders. The model was originally produced in 1938, but engineering modifications throughout it’s run made it a force to be reckoned with. By the time of the 1950 race, it had been upgraded to deliver 254 bhp. In 54 Grand Prix’s that this car was entered, it zipped away with 47 wins. Making it one of the most successful racing cars to ever be produced.
The driver was Giuseppe Farina, an Italian. He continued to race until 1955. 

F1 in the 1950s

Although the Alfa Romeos had extremely powerful engines for the time, they came at a cost of fuel consumption.  By 1951 the Alfa Romeo was only pushing about 1.5 miles to the gallon. Ferrari realized this shortcoming with the 1.5-litre and starting working on ways to overcome it. Enzo Ferrari swapped out his 1.5-litre supercharged model and switched to a v12 4.5-litre aspirated engine. This brought a huge swing in the races as the new v12 could go nearly 7  miles per gallon. The opposition had to refuel frequently during races, or bear down their vehicles with extra weight in fuel tanks. 

Since Alfa was a state run company and needed new designs to compete, they went to their government for funding. This was denied, and so Ferrari was given free reign to the sport. Continuing to dominate until the 1954 season. It was in 1954 the FIAs new regulations were to go into effect, and teams now had to use 2.5-litre atmospheric engines. A series of improvements and new competitors entered the scene for this new season and it was the first time fuel injection was used in automobiles. Mercedes became the dominant force for the next two seasons. But, due to a historically awful crash at Le Mans, Mercedes would leave the sport after their brief dominance.  

Historically, cars had always had their engines mounted in the front of the vehicle. Against a fierce field that included the best of Maserati and Ferraris, the Argentine Grand Prix was won by a Cooper and a private team. The engine was notably mounted behind the driver, and this was revolutionary. The following Grand Prix was won by the same car, with more competition in the field. The little Cooper began to gain notoriety. 

In 1958 the first woman to ever race in F1 hit the track. Maria Teresa de Filippis raced a private Maserati at a Grand Prix.

Most Grand Prix Winners By Season 1950s

  • 1950: Alfa Romeo
  • 1951: Alfa Romeo
  • 1952: Ferrari
  • 1953: Ferrari
  • 1954: Maserati, Mercedes
  • 1955: Mercedes
  • 1956: Ferrari
  • 1957: Maserati
  • 1958: Vanwall
  • 1959: Cooper-Climax,Cooper-BRM, Ferrari, Vanwall

F1 in the 1960s

Ground Effect was discovered in the 60s, notice the fan!
In 1961 things were moving a little too fast for Formula One and so they decided to sanction speed. All engines had to be 1.5-litres and non-supercharged. They kept this in place for half the decade. Ferrari again answered the call, designing a V6 engine to meet the requirements and give them their best performance. It has one notable upgrade, the engine was located in the rear. Yet again, Ferrari proved their prowess and was dominating the field. In 1962 Lotus introduced a car featuring an aluminum monocoque chassis, a huge breakthrough for racing. It reduces weight and evenly distributes the load during motion. It helps the suspension and handling of the vehicle. Lotus went on to win in 1963 and 1965 in large part to this innovation. In 1966 Formula One changed their rules, engines of 3.0-litres were allowed as long as they were normally aspirated. 1.5-litre supercharged engines were also allowed. Innovation struck again as vehicles saw their first use of composite materials.  The next year Lotus used the Ford-Cosworth DFV V8 engine and this would prove to be one of the most remarkable racing power-trains to dominate the sport for the foreseeable future, the Lotus’ rights to the engine expired in 1968. As aerodynamics became more important, teams all experimented with adding wings to their cars and ground effect was discovered. Note, creating downforce with aerodynamics to improve handling is a completely different concept than creating ground effect. The concept that you could create a car with incredible handling due to creating a design that took advantage of it. It would “suck” a car into the track by utilizing low pressure underneath it. Ground effect is fascinating.

Most Grand Prix Winners By Season 1960s

  • 1960: Cooper-Climax
  • 1961: Ferrari, Lotus-Climax,Ferguson-Climax
  • 1962: BRM
  • 1963: Lotus-Climax
  • 1964: Lotus-Climax
  • 1965: Lotus-Climax
  • 1966: Brabham-Repco
  • 1967: Lotus-Ford
  • 1968: Lotus-Ford, Matra-Ford
  • 1969: Matra-Ford

F1 in the 1970s

Racing slicks maximize traction

Slick tires hit the scene in 1970 and Ferrari had a new flat-12 engine that could finally compete with the DFV. Lotus won the championship in 1972 with a very young driver, 25 year old Fittpaldi. At the time he was the youngest champ to compete in F1. Even though he won the championship that year, Fittpaldi felt slighted by Lotus as he wasn’t given the reigns to be the lead driver for the brand. So, he took to driving for McLaren.

Every decade has one or two game changing innovations, and in 1975 Ferrari added a transverse gearbox. This allowed it to handle and distribute weight more efficiently. It helped propel them to the title that year. 

During the next few years teams continually experimented with aero designs, often testing new configurations. On the cusp of aerodynamics was Lotus, who in 1977 brought a car to the track that used ground effect effectively as discovered in the 60s. Most notably in the fan car.The Lotus 78 which used these innovations won five Grand Prix in 1977. They improved on this the next year with the Lotus 79 and other teams took notice. Adding ground effect to their plans. Ferrari and Ligier would improve upon this design in 1979. 

Most Grand Prix Winners By Season 1970s

  • 1970: Ferrari
  • 1971: Tyrrell-Ford
  • 1972: Lotus-Ford
  • 1973: Tyrrell-Ford
  • 1974: McLaren-Ford,Brabham-Ford
  • 1975: Ferrari
  • 1976: McLaren-Ford
  • 1977: Lotus-Ford
  • 1978: Lotus-Ford
  • 1979: Williams-Ford

F1 in the 1980s

carbon fiber f1 car
Carbon Fiber Composites are still used today

The first carbon fiber composite chassis was brought to light by McLaren in 1981. Drivers and teams had well founded doubts on how it would respond in a crash but when John Watson crashed his MP4/1 violently in 1981, the technology proved it’s worth. Leaving him without a scratch. Turbo-charged engines had come a long way from decades proper and during the early 80s teams saw the light and made the switch. They no longer drank fuel and were faster than DFVs on nearly every track in F1. 

McLaren and Williams were the two brands to dominate the 80s with superior cars and crews. Ferrari fell away as a competitive force int he last decade and wouldn’t see a championship again for nearly 20 years, with the exception of 1982. The 1980s also gave rise to a special driver, Senna. Who is still known as one of the best Formula One drivers, ever. 

Turbo-charged engines tumultuous relationship with F1 resumed in 1989 when they were banned. They were replaced in regulations by naturally aspirated engines up to 3.5 litres.

Most Grand Prix Winners By Season 1980s

  • 1980: Williams-Ford
  • 1981: Brabham-Ford
  • 1982: Ferrari, Renault, McLaren-Ford
  • 1983: Renault
  • 1984: McLaren-TAG
  • 1985: McLaren-TAG
  • 1986: Williams-Honda
  • 1987: Williams-Honda
  • 1988: McLaren-Honda
  • 1989: McLaren-Honda

F1 in the 1990s

Senna was owning the sport in the late 80s and early 90s but a flash of controversy surrounded him after he admitted driving into his teammate, Prost, in a Grand Prix. This marked his reputation and was condemned among the racing community. 

Williams had taken a backseat to McLaren but things were about to change with their improved technology. Renault engines coupled with the best aerodynamics of all cars afforded them the fastest setups on the circuit. Three huge innovations were used in this decade; active suspension, traction control and semi-automatic gearboxes. As always the FIA must determine if technology is giving too much of an edge to certain teams for the sake of competition. They agreed, and many of those recent innovations were banned in 1994. 

Safety hit a forefront of the sport with two well known drivers dying; Ratzenberger and Senna. This brought a cry from fans and the sport to increase safety regulations and so the focus shifted from speed, to prevention.  New sanctions and requirements were handed down rapidly, changing the landscape. 3-litre engines became the maximum engine displacement allowed.

Most Grand Prix Winners By Season 1990s

  • 1990: McLaren-Honda
  • 1991: McLaren-Honda
  • 1992: Williams-Renault
  • 1993: Williams-Renault
  • 1994: Benetton-Ford
  • 1995: Benetton-Ford
  • 1996: Williams-Renault
  • 1997: Williams-Renault
  • 1998: McLaren-Mercedes
  • 1999: McLaren-Mercedes

F1 in the 2000s

Michael Schumacher

Meeting the best mix of power to fuel consumption was like walking a tightrope, and one engine met those requirements. That was the V10. Every team agreed, and it was the only engine being used from 1998 on. Meanwhile, the sleeping giant Ferrari had finally started to surface again. Bellowing around the racetrack like an awakened monster, they had a new golden boy. His name was Michael Schumacher. From 2000 until 2004 he would own the sport. With a dominant setup comes boredom, and fans were tired of seeing Ferrari win for so long. Their flashes of arrogance were offputting, this along with other brands leaving the sport entirely lead to a decline in viewership. 

Yet again the FIA stepped in as a counterbalance. Rule changes included a new points system and 2003 was a much more competitive year than before, but Ferrari still won and again the next year. This decade was a testament to Ferrari’s engineering. They took 8 championships in total. 

Near the end of the decade it became clear that F1 cars were so advanced, that racing was being discouraged. There wasn’t competition between drivers and it wasn’t as fiercely competitive as it had been in it’s heyday. So yet again, to try and turn the tide, the FIA stepped in. In 2009 more sanctions were put on configurations with the hope it would make the sport competitive again. 

New technology to gain the edge is always on the table for F1, and the Kinetic Energy Recovering System was introduced. It works by saving energy through a flywheel while braking which then is then transferred to the drivetrain. This saves the momentum lost while braking, and increases acceleration. 

Most Grand Prix Winners By Season 2000s

  • 2000: Ferrari
  • 2001: Ferrari
  • 2002: Ferrari
  • 2003: Ferrari
  • 2004: Ferrari
  • 2005: Renault, McLaren-Mercedes
  • 2006: Renault,Ferrari
  • 2007: Ferrari
  • 2008: Ferrari
  • 2009: Brawn-Mercedes

F1 in the 2010s

By 2010 KERS was banned. But where one innovation fades, new ones take its place. F-Ducts hit the scene, engineered by McLaren.  This system adds about 3MPH and reduces drag by directing airflow in strategic locations on the vehicle. 

2010 was one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory. In the final round, four drivers were still in contention for the championship. Vettel was the last man standing, and became the youngest to win it all.  KERS again resurfaced the next year and has been allowed back into F1 racing.

Turbochargers once again rose from the depths of banishment in 2014. Currently F1 cars run 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 hybrids. Say that five times fast! In the 2010s the teams to dominate have been Red Bull and Mercedes,  with the latter being the most recent victor. 

Most Grand Prix Winners By Season 2010s

  • 2010: Red Bull-Renault. Ferrari
  • 2011: Red bull-Renault
  • 2012: Red Bull-Renault
  • 2013: Red Bull-Renault
  • 2014: Mercedes
  • 2015: Mercedes
  • 2016: Mercedes
  • 2017: Mercedes
  • 2018: Mercedes

Notable F1 Drivers

Ayrton Senna

During a 4 year span, Senna won three championships(1988,1990 and 1991). His legacy places him as being one of the best Formula One drivers ever. Like many F1 drivers, Senna got his start in karting and eventually made his debut in 1984 for F1 for Toleman-Hart and then to Lotus.

In 1988 he would start his reign with teammate Alain Prost. They dominated the competition into the early 90s. Although teammates, they were not friends. 

With Senna taking it so far as to run into Prost on purpose. During a race in 1994, Senna was rounding a corner and crashed at nearly 145 mph. The impact ended his life and lead to sweeping changes in safety across F1. His legacy is still alive and he is one of the household F1 names. In Brasil his passing made waves and he was remembered with three days of mourning, 3 millions people paid their respects as his coffin was marched to it’s resting place. 

Lewis Hamilton

The best driver in recent memory. Lewis Hamilton is a force to be reckoned with, already with four Formula One Championships. He is the only black driver to race in Formula One to date and his reign in ongoing, winning a championship in 2017. He currently races for Mercedes AMG Petronas. 

Sebastian Vettel

Sebastian was only 23 years old when he won his first title in 2010. His four year span was consecutive and remarkable, winning championships from 2010-2013 with Red Bull. He won his first Grand Prix at only 21 years old. In the sport currently it’s Vettel and Hamilton for the foreseeable future. They’re both skilled contenders with Vettel hoping to bring Ferrari to glory once more. 

Michael Schumacher

The man who brought Ferrari back on the map. Now retired, Schumacher is regarded by many to be the greatest driver ever. He has 7 Formula One Championships. He is, by the numbers the greatest to ever race and dominated a decade of the sport.  

Unfortunately, he was involved in a ski accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2014. Updates about his health are sparse, even to this day. His family wantsto keep his private life, private. We can only wish him the best and hope for a recovery. 

Alain Prost

The French four-time Formula One Champ. Known by many as Senna’s rival and teammate. Prost is one of the best to get in a F1 vehicle. Prost didn’t realize he loved racing until he was 14 years old. On a family trip he decided to give go-karting a try, and got the bug.

Having made it to the pinnacle of the sport, he retired in 1993. A year before Ayrton’s passing. More recently he competed in ice racing. His racing style can be described as “foresight”. He would deliberately conserve his brakes and tires in a race so that in the end, when it mattered most, he could take chances. 

Mario Andretti

Americans haven’t had much success in F1 racing, and our most recent win of the Formula One Championship was Mario. That was in 1978, it’s been a while as he is currently the last American to win a Grand Prix. Hopefully this changes soon.  Seen as a Swiss Army Knife kind of rider, he didn’t just stick to F1. Mario was a winner in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 as well. Hey, at least we have something!

Jim Clark

Jim Clark in his Lotus

The British F1 driver had an early death at the age of 32 due to racing. By that time he had accumulated two World Championships in Formula One. He also managed to snag a victory at the Indy 500 and excelled in all types of racing. His career was cut short by unfortunate circumstances but he is still regarded as one of the best. 

In 1963, the Belgian Grand Prix was held in terrible weather. Rain, fog and slick roads. Clark started eight in his Lotus. By the end of the race he had a 5 minute lead on second place. An incredible piece of driving in an era where there was no such thing as traction control. 

Juan Manuel Fangio

In the first decade of Formula One, there was one racer who had the sport wrapped around his fingers while he pumped the gas. That man was Fangio, the Argentine. Back then it was called the World Drivers’ Championship, and he won it five times. That record held for nearly five decades until Schumacher came along and broke it. 

Alan Jones

Alan Jones won the first title for Williams. In what would prove to be a new long-lasting force in F1. He won the 1979 and 1980 Championships and is currently the last Australian to win the Australian Grand Prix. He never fully committed himself to F1 racing, and his career is here and there. Originally retiring in 1981 and even turning down Ferrari when they inquired if he would drive for them. He returned in 1985 to F1 but had to retire the next year as his Haas team ran out of money. 

Nigel Mansell

The F1 Championship winner in 1992, his career spanned 15 years. It’s somewhat surprising that he only won one, as he lead in Grand Pix wins in 3 years total. The points system and unfortunate events during the season meant he only had one win when all was said and done. Nigel switched to CART racing the year after his F1 championship and won their inaugural title. It isn’t just racing that Mansell loves, he competed in the 1988 Australian Open for golf. 

The Go-Kart Farm System

When you think of the minor leagues, baseball probably comes to mind. But, F1 needs a farm system too. No team is going to put you behind the wheel of their multi-million dollar car if you haven’t proven yourself. For nearly all former and current Formula One drivers, karting filled that void. 

When you’re racing a car going 200 miles and hour and you’re racing one going 50, the same principles still apply. Your reaction time just has to be better. Karting is racing in a pure form, without all the bells and whistles a big budget provides. Parents dedicate money, and time to get their child involved in the sport. 

Your kid can start racing as young as five years old on the track riding a 50cc engine. Once they hit 7 years old they can enter the Cadet class and move up to 60cc. At 12 you can get up to Junior class and that involves looking fora  125cc class of kart. Expect to spend several thousand on those, not to mention the maintenance and hopefully it doesn’t get crashed. At 15 and up you’ll be in the senior class if your kid doesn’t jump carting altogether for a bigger vehicle. Still, karting is to hone the basics and it’s best to start young. 

Lewis Hamilton’s father mortgaged his house for his karting career and it paid off. He’s currently worth around 300 million usd. But, racers should focus on karting because they enjoy it. Lewis was a special case. It is a very expensive hobby and not everyone showed the same promise.

If you’re looking to find a place to take your kid go-karting in the USA, check out our guide

All current F1 drivers have a background in karting

F1 Accidents

With any racing sport that tests the boundaries of speed, there are bound to be memorable accidents. Some of these lead to sweeping changes in regulations by the FIA. Their cause ranging from human error, to mechanical failure and in some cases not enough precautions being taken. 

1961 Monza

The Italian Grand Prix was held in Monza in 1961. The race was going fine until driver Wolfgang von Trips and Jim Clark were fighting for position on a straightaway. Their cars came close, their wheels touched and Trips lost control of his vehicle. Fans were standing close to the track up a hill and his Ferrari veered towards them, becoming airborne. Von Trips was ejected, he died at the scene. The car carried forward and killed fifteen spectators. At the time of his death, Trips was in the lead for the F1 Championship. It is regarded as one of the deadliest crashes in the sport. 

1994 San Marino

In 1994 the San Marino Grand Prix managed to take two drivers lives. Everyone knows about Senna, but Roland Ratzenberger had died during qualifying for the race. In the 12 years before 1994 there had not been a fatal accident in F1. Senna then crashed and died upon impact in the race after his vehicle headed straight into a barrier on a turn. It’s not known for certain whether it was driver error or not, but these two crashes and most  notably Senna’s forced the hand of FIA to rework safety regulations. The official statement regarding his crash is a steering column failure. 

It led to improved crash barriers, track redesigns, higher safety standards across the board and a reduction to a 3-litre engine. 

How do Formula One Teams Make Money?

The drivers get incredible payouts, the cars cost millions to maintain, so how do F1 drivers and teams make money? Well, they don’t actually focus on making money is the answer. Formula One is a marketing vehicle for all major brands, showcasing the superiority(hopefully) of their technology. It’s also a research ground for new technology that may someday make it into the cars of each brand, as has happened over the history of the sport.

To fund themselves and not be a complete money sink, teams use a combination of sponsorship and payouts from winnings. Some teams do lose money year to year, but that isn’t always the case. Teams like Mercedes spend nearly over 200 million dollars a year with all the expenses. Redbull made slightly over a million in profit in 2017, considering their budget – that’s not much. 

Most of all, F1 is an advertising platform and researching ground. With Formula E gaining popularity, the electric series. The sport continues to push the boundaries on automotive research and improvements. 

Where the Sport is Today

The future is bright for F1. With the advent of technology and their willingness to keep at the forefront, they have plans to offer streaming for races and integrate fans in the digital age. The edge on racing has become less competitive in recent years, but as always the FIA will have to figure out a way to balance technology with good driving. 

They have a dedicated official youtube channel that pumps out tons of quality content, like the up and coming drivers featured below. It’s a great place to start if you’re wanting to learn about F1 and see whats going on in the circuit today. Currently Mercedes is having the run of the field and we can hope that competition between teams is restored soon.  The sport has a rich history internationally and it’s a joy to see fine tuned machines at the top of their game. 

Conor

I'm the owner of Beast Auto. I live in Phoenix, Arizona. I love anything automotive related, and taking road trips all across my beautiful state.

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