By Stefan Kristensen
January 28, 2022

What Does 'Delta Positive' Mean In Formula 1?

There's a lot of technical jargon used during a Formula 1 Grand Prix, and it's sometimes a little tricky to keep up with all the terms being used. If you're not extremely familiar with the world of Formula 1, you could totally be forgiven for not knowing what these terms mean.

One of the terms you might encounter during a race is "delta positive". If you hear this, it means the drivers are being instructed to drive slower than a pre-defined lap time. This usually happens during situations where the virtual safety car is activated.

Today, we'll be explaining everything you should know about delta time in Formula 1, including why this term is used and what it can refer to in different contexts.   

What Is Delta Time In Formula 1?

In general, "delta" is a term used by engineers, mathematicians, and scientists to refer to a change in quantity compared to a reference quantity. 

In Formula 1, the term "delta time" refers to the difference between a driver's current lap time and a pre-determined lap time. Depending on whether the driver is above or below the pre-determined lap time, the driver's lap time might be referred to as "delta positive" or "delta negative", respectively.

If a driver's lap time is exactly the length of the pre-determined lap time, that's referred to as "delta zero". As you can probably guess, it's very rare for a delta zero to ever occur during a race.

The term delta time can be used in a variety of contexts; it might be used to refer to a target time during qualifying, or a rival's lap time. In practice, however, it's most common to hear delta time being used when the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) is active.

Teams use delta time in a race because it makes it a little bit easier to communicate quickly whether or not a driver is above or below the pre-determined lap time. 

Occasionally, delta is also used in Formula 1 to refer to changes in performance between two different types of tires.

What Is the VSC?

If you're not familiar with the VSC, let's take a minute to explain how it works, as this might help you understand delta time a little better. The VSC was first implemented in 2015 as an alternative to the traditional safety car

The safety car is used during a race to slow the race cars down during incidents where there could be a safety risk from driving at speed. However, it's not always practical to bring out the safety car for every incident that might require the drivers to slow down. 

Thus, the introduction of the VSC. The VSC works by having a predetermined lap time for each track, which is about 30% slower than the average lap time for each track as determined by the FIA. When the VSC is activated, drivers are alerted via the digital displays on the side of the race track and by a display on their steering wheels.

While the VSC is active, drivers have to keep their speed low to ensure that they meet a minimum lap time. Tracks are divided into sections, and each section of the track has a minimum time limit that the driver has to meet. 

Recording lap times like this helps maintain distance between the drivers and helps prevent drivers from taking advantage of the VSC. If the lap time for the VSC was for the whole track and not for the individual sections of the track, you might have drivers driving as fast as they could for most of the lap and just slowing down right at the end.

The advantage of using the VSC over an actual safety car is that the VSC can be activated right away since there's no need to wait for an actual safety car to enter the track. Not having an extra car enter and exit the track also makes using the VSC a little safer than using an actual safety car. 

What Does "Keep Delta Positive" Mean?

So we've explained what delta time means and how it often relates to the time set by the VSC, but what does it mean when the team tells one of their drivers to keep delta positive? Simply put, when a driver needs to "keep delta positive" it means they need to maintain a slower lap time than whatever lap time has been determined.

In such situations, drivers usually try and drive as close to the delta zero time as possible to try and avoid giving the other drivers an advantage.

Drivers can drive at the speed they want after being given the delta positive order, but the recorded time in each of the track's sections needs to be delta positive in order to conform to the regulations. A driver in violation of these regulations might be faced with a time penalty or possibly be disqualified from the race.  

How Do Formula 1 Penalties Work?

If a driver is found to have violated one of the race regulations, they usually receive a penalty as a result. There are a few kinds of penalties that a driver might receive, although most of them are based on time.

For example, you have the 5- and 10-second penalties. If a driver gets one of these penalties, they have to wait for an extra 5 or 10 seconds in the pits after making a pit stop. If a driver gets a time penalty but doesn't need to pit stop, then the extra time gets added on to their actual final time after the race ends.

There's also a drive-through penalty, where a driver has to enter the pit lane, drive through it at the pit lane's speed limit (which is 60 kph) without stopping, and exit the pit lane. This penalty is used for minor infractions since it doesn't slow the driver down too much.

On the other hand, if a driver violates a more serious regulation, they might be subjected to a stop-and-go penalty. In this case, the driver has to enter the pit lane, park in their pit, and wait there for a short amount of time, usually about 10 seconds. During this time, the pit crew is forbidden from doing any work on the penalized car.

A driver may also be given a grid penalty that only takes effect during the next race. If a driver receives a grid penalty, they'll be forced to start further down the grid than where they actually placed during qualifying. For example, if a driver places second during qualifying but incurs a five-place grid penalty, they'll have to start in seventh place for the actual race.

The most severe kind of penalty a driver can receive, however, is the black flag. If a driver does something to warrant a black flag (usually something that endangers another driver in some way), then they will be immediately disqualified from that race.  

Written by Stefan Kristensen
I have been passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many technical features, strategic plays, humans and their stories that all together drives this amazing sport to make it as interesting as it is.
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