Open-wheel racing (or formula racing, if you live outside of North America) is one of the most intense forms of motorsport there is. However, with all of the different classes of open-wheel racing that exist, it can be difficult to differentiate between them. The cars usually look pretty similar between the various classes, and the races aren't drastically different either.
Despite how it may appear at first glance, there are actually plenty of significant differences between the various levels of formula racing that exist today. The most obvious differences have to do with the performance levels of the cars in each class, with Formula 1 having the fastest, most expensive cars and Formula 4 having the slowest and least expensive.
Today, we'll be going over everything you'll need to know to tell the difference between the various types of formula racing. We'll be giving you a rundown of the cars, the races, and anything else you might be interested to learn. Let's get right into it!
Formula 1 is, of course, the highest tier of formula racing. Compared to the other levels of formula racing, Formula 1 cars are by far the most powerful, most technologically advanced, and fastest cars around.
Formula 1 is also the oldest tier of formula racing, with the first Formula 1 Grand Prix being held either in 1946 or 1947 (depending on what you consider to be the first "true" Grand Prix). And the world championship started from 1950.
Formula One Car, Lukas Raich, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Formula 1 cars have used a wide variety of engines over the years, from inline 4s all the way up to V10s. These days, Formula 1 cars use a 1.6-liter single-turbo V6, but don't let the size of the engine fool you; these engines are massively powerful, and depending on how they're tuned, they can produce about 1,000 horsepower.
The cars themselves are mostly made from carbon fiber and other strong but lightweight materials. Each car needs to meet a minimum dry weight requirement; this requirement changes often, but as of the end of the 2021 Formula 1 season, the minimum weight of every F1 car must not be below 790 kg (this includes the weight of the driver).
Each Formula 1 team designs the chassis for their own cars. Each design has to comply with the established regulations, of course, but other than that the teams can come up with whatever designs they want.
Teams can't design their own engines, but they can buy an engine of their choice from one of four suppliers. Currently, the four engine suppliers in Formula 1 are Ferrari, Mercedes, Honda, and Renault.
For the past few years, Formula 1 cars have used hybrid powerplants, for both greater performance and increased efficiency. Modern Formula 1 cars have a small electric motor that can add about an extra 160 horsepower to the car's power figure when needed.
Formula 1 cars also use a kinetic energy recovery system, known as ERS-K. This system is able to save the kinetic energy lost during braking and supply it to the wheels later when more speed is needed.
Modern Formula 1 cars also use a drag reduction system, or DRS. This is basically just a panel on the car's rear wing that can be moved either up or down in order to increase or decrease drag. Drivers can only use their DRS on certain sections of each track, however.
Formula 1 is an international race series, and as such races are held in locations all around the world. Each Formula 1 Grand Prix takes place over the course of a weekend, and consists of three practice sessions, one qualifying session, and the race itself.
The race weekend begins on Friday, and is divided as follows: on Friday, there are two practice sessions, on Saturday, there is a final practice session followed by the qualifying session, and on Sunday, the actual race is held.
During the qualifying session, drivers compete to try and set the fastest lap time. This is important, because the drivers' results from qualifying directly determines where drivers get to start on the grid. Obviously, being at the front of the grid is the most preferable, since it basically gives you a head start.
Formula 2 is, of course, the second highest tier of formula racing. Formula 2 is not nearly as popular as Formula 1, and while Formula 2 has been around for about as long as Formula 1, its existence has been somewhat sporadic. Over the years, Formula 2 has been retired or replaced by other race series on multiple occasions.
The current iteration of Formula 2 has only existed since 2017, when it replaced the old GP2 Series. The GP2 series was itself initially a separate series from the previous version of Formula 2, which was discontinued in 2012. GP2 cars used basically the same chassis as Formula 2 cars, but had more powerful engines.
If all this sounds confusing, then don't worry; it absolutely is confusing. Essentially, what you need to know is that Formula 2 has gone through a ton of changes over the years, but it has always been the penultimate tier of racing before Formula 1.
F2 Car, Lukas Raich, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Unlike Formula 1, where each team gets to design their own chassis and select one engine from a few different options, Formula 2 teams don't have nearly as much freedom. All Formula 2 teams have to use the same chassis and the same engine.
Since 2018, the chassis for all Formula 2 cars has been built by Dallara, who are also the chassis designers for the Haas Formula 1 team and the chassis suppliers for the IndyCar Series since 2007. The current engine in all Formula 2 cars is a 3.4-liter turbo V6 that makes about 620 horsepower.
Formula 2 cars are also lacking in some of the technology that Formula 1 cars have; namely, Formula 2 cars are missing the hybrid and ERS-K technology that helps make Formula 1 cars as quick as they are. However, since 2015, Formula 2 cars have included DRS.
While Formula 2 cars do weigh a bit less than Formula 1 cars, the lack of all this technology means that Formula 2 cars are typically about 10 seconds slower around any given track than Formula 1 cars.
The race format of a Formula 2 race is also pretty different from how it is in Formula 1. Formula 2 races also take place over the course of a weekend, but the schedule is a lot different.
Instead of two practice sessions, on Friday there is one practice session and then a qualifying session. The racing actually begins on Saturday, but the full race event isn't held until Sunday; instead, there are two shorter sprint races.
The way the starting grid is determined for these sprint races is a bit unusual. It uses the placement of the drivers during qualifying, as you might expect, except the order of the top 10 drivers is reversed. For example, if a driver were to place 10th during qualifying, they would start at pole position for the first race.
For the actual race of the weekend (the feature race), the starting grid is determined by the original finishing position of the drivers during qualifying.
Formula 3, as you can guess, is one tier below Formula 2. If you're wondering why all of these different tiers of formula racing exist, most of them serve as "feeder series" for Formula 1. They provide drivers with a lot of the skills and experience they need to succeed in Formula 1, but at only a fraction of the cost.
Essentially, Formula 2 and Formula 3 are just training to try and get into Formula 1.
F3 Car, Lukas Raich, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Formula 3 cars are pretty similar to Formula 2 cars, only differing slightly in their basic appearance. In addition, the chassis for Formula 3 cars are also constructed by Dallara, and Formula 3 cars also use the same 3.4-liter V6 engine that Formula 2 cars use.
However, the engine in Formula 3 cars is naturally aspirated, with no turbocharging. As a result, Formula 3 cars usually make between 380-400 horsepower. Formula 3 cars have been equipped with DRS since 2017, but they don't use any kind of hybrid technology.
Formula 3 cars are also lighter than either Formula 1 or Formula 2 cars, with a minimum weight requirement of about 670 kg including the driver and fluids.
The race format of a Formula 3 race weekend is pretty similar to that of a Formula 2 race weekend. Friday starts off with a practice session and a qualifying session, Saturday consists of two sprint races, and Sunday holds the feature race.
The only minor difference between Formula 2 and Formula 3 is that for the sprint races, Formula 3 races base the order of the starting grid off of the top 12 drivers instead of the top 10.
Otherwise, it's exactly the same; the finishing order of the top 12 qualifying drivers is reversed for the first sprint race, and for the feature race, the original standings from the qualification session are used to determine who gets placed where on the grid.
Aside from Formula E, Formula 4 is the newest tier of formula racing that currently exists, with the first Formula 4 race being held in 2014. Formula 4 was conceived as a means of bridging the gap between kart racing and Formula 3, and is intended to be the least expensive type of formula race to take part in.
Unlike the other types of formula races, Formula 4 has no global championships. Instead, individual countries host their own championships. However, each championship has to comply to the same rules and regulations.
F4 Car, Lukas Raich, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Formula 4 cars might look pretty similar to Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars, but they're actually quite different. For one, drivers hoping to enter a Formula 4 race aren't stuck with using the same chassis and engine as everyone else; they have a choice of four different chassis and six different engines.
There are four chassis suppliers and six engine suppliers for Formula 4. Teams can buy a chassis from Tatuus, Dome, Ligier, or Mygale, and engines from either Abarth, Ford, Geely, Honda, Renault, or TOM'S-Toyota.
Formula 4 cars can only use 4-cylinder engines with a maximum of 160 horsepower, but aside from that, pretty much anything goes. There's no limit in terms of what the engine's displacement can be (although all current Formula 4 engines are between 1.4 and 2 liters), and the engines can be either naturally aspirated or turbocharged.
Because Formula 4 championships are hosted by individual countries, there are often differences in how exactly race weekends are formatted. In general, however, the format is pretty standard; practice sessions are held on Friday, with a qualifying session being held either late on Friday or early on Saturday.
It's usually pretty common for there to be three races during a Formula 4 race weekend. Unlike in Formula 2 and Formula 3, however, all three races are the same length.
Last but certainly not least, we have Formula E. Formula E is another new racing series, with its first championship race being held in 2014. As the name implies, the cars that race in Formula E are fully electric.
Formula E Car, Kevinbeets1995, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Formula E cars are probably the most distinctive formula cars, as their design makes them look more like IndyCars than formula racers. This makes sense, considering that Dallara has been the sole chassis constructor for Formula E from 2014 to 2021.
In the first season of Formula E, all teams were forced to use the same electric motor. However, since the second season, teams have been able to purchase a motor from nine different suppliers. All motors must produce the same amount of power though, and all teams must use the same kind of battery for their power supply.
Starting in 2022, power levels in Formula E cars will be restricted to 400 horsepower for races, and 470 horsepower for qualifying, which will be the highest power figures in Formula E yet.
Formula E race weekends are a lot more similar to Formula 1 than any of the other formula races. Each race weekend consists of two practice sessions, a qualifying session, and one race.
The main difference between Formula E and Formula 1 is the duration of the races. While Formula 1 races are usually between 2-3 hours long, Formula E are only about 45 minutes. Other than that, the race format is essentially the same.