By Stefan Kristensen
March 4, 2022

How Does Formula 1 Qualifying Work?

If you're pretty new to the world of Formula 1, odds are you've got all kinds of questions about how it works. In particular, you might be wondering how the order of the starting grid is determined before each race. Is it some kind of lottery, or is it perhaps based on the finishing results of the previous race?

As it turns out, it's neither of those things; the order of the starting grid is determined by the results from qualifying, which typically takes place on the second day of a race weekend. In Formula 1, qualifying basically takes the form of a time trial.

In this article, we're going to be talking all about qualifying in Formula 1. We'll explain how exactly it works, and we'll also talk about some of the alternatives to the existing Formula 1 qualifying system that the FIA is thinking about using.

What's the Format of a Race Weekend?

Before we get more into how, specifically, qualifying in Formula 1 works, we should probably talk a little bit about the overall structure of a race weekend is set up. A race weekend in Formula typically starts on Friday and ends on Sunday.

On the first day of the race weekend, all the teams do is practice. Each team has three hours of practice sessions on Friday, during which the drivers get a feel for the track and their cars and help the mechanics and engineers collect data to do some last-minute tuning before the race.

Saturday begins with one final free practice session, and then qualifying starts. We'll explain more in detail about how qualifying works in the next session, but basically, every driver competes to set the fastest lap time around the track. The better a driver's time is, the closer to the start of the grid they're placed.

Finally, on Sunday, the actual main race is held. With the exception of the Monaco Grand Prix, all Formula 1 races are set up to take about 1 1/2-2 hours to complete, and the standard length of a Grand Prix is 305 km (190 miles).

How Qualifying Works

Now that we've talked about how the overall structure of a race weekend works, let's talk about how qualifying fits into that structure. As we've mentioned, qualifying involves the drivers competing to set the fastest time, but it's not as straightforward as just having all of the drivers race around the circuit at the same time.

Qualifying actually did work this way in previous years, but this was changed in an effort to make things more fair and exciting. In those days, all you had to do to get the top spot in qualifying was have the fastest car, so audiences could pretty much always guess who would take pole position before qualifying even started.

The current qualifying format came about in 2006 when the FIA decided to really shake things up. The new system of qualifying was more complicated than the old one but brought a lot more excitement to the process of determining the starting grid order.

A Formula 1 qualifying session takes place over 45 minutes and is divided into individual sessions called quarters (even though there are only three of them). The first quarter (Q1) is 18 minutes, the second quarter (Q2) is 15 minutes, and the final quarter (Q3) is 12 minutes.

During Q1, all of the drivers are out at the same time, competing to set the fastest lap. At the end of this quarter, the five slowest drivers are eliminated. These five drivers will occupy the last five spots on the grid, with the slowest driver obviously being at the very end.

Q2 is essentially the same thing, except the drivers have a bit less time to set a good lap time. Once again, at the end of Q2, the five slowest drivers are eliminated and placed on the grid according to their respective times.

The final quarter, Q3, involves the remaining 10 drivers competing for the best time. Once Q3 is over, these drivers get placed on the first half of the grid based on their lap times.

It's worth noting that drivers aren't obligated to drive for the entirety of each quarter. For example, if a driver only drives a couple of laps but sets a really good time that they think won't be beaten, they might choose to retire from the session early.

The Future of Qualifying

This qualifying format has been in use for over 15 years now. It's been shown that it works pretty well, but in recent years, the FIA has been concerned that race weekends just aren't as entertaining for fans as they could be.

While the current race weekend format works well for teams, it doesn't always translate into entertaining TV for fans. For example, there's the fact that Friday is entirely taken up by practice sessions with no actual competition between drivers; these sessions are important for the teams, but there's not much that really compels the fans to pay attention to them.

So, in an effort to mix things up a little, the FIA is experimenting with a new format for future race weekends that would involve a new qualifying process. Instead of having practice sessions on Friday and qualifying on Saturday, this new format would have a practice session and qualifying happen on Friday and a sprint race happen on Saturday.

Specifically, Friday will contain one hour-long practice session, and then a qualifying session. However, instead of determining the starting grid for the main race, Friday's qualifying session would determine the starting grid for the sprint race.

Saturday would also start off with a practice session, and then the sprint race would begin. The sprint race would be about one-third the length of a Grand Prix, and take about one-third of the time to complete as a result. These sprint races are intended to be fast and intense, so pit stops are allowed but not mandatory.

Sunday would be held as normal, with the Grand Prix being the main event. The difference is, of course, that instead of the starting order of the Grand Prix being dictated by a time trial, it would now be dictated by the results of the sprint race.

If the FIA does decide to use this new qualifying format, it wouldn't entirely replace the existing format; the existing format would still be used the majority of the time, with the sprint race format being used for events where the FIA hopes to increase audience engagement.

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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