Formula 1 racing is an incredibly exciting sport to watch, but if you’ve ever been in the stands or online watching the formation lap, you might wonder what it’s for. Why is there a formation lap in F1?
The formation lap gives the drivers an opportunity to scout out the track for overtake points, warm up their tires, and complete one final check for any mechanical issues.
As you can see, there are several reasons behind why the formation lap has become a part of F1 racing. The rest of this article will discuss why drivers complete a formation lap in F1.
A formation lap is, in layman’s terms, a warmup lap. An official Formula One race always starts with a formation lap, and over time, the formation lap has become an expected ritual in F1 racing.
No one is allowed to overtake on the formation lap, and drivers return to the starting line in the exact same position as before the formation lap.
The rules for formation laps are standardized across all official Grand Prix races. The pole sitter (the driver with the fastest qualifying time) sets the pace, although some formation laps take longer simply due to the size of the track.
The formation lap offers drivers an opportunity to see the playing field, get a feel for the other drivers, their positioning, and to make sure there are no mechanical issues with their vehicles before the actual race begins.
As it turns out, warm tires grip much better than cold tires do. Warmer tires are softer, which means that they stick to the track better.
The F1 tires specifically are designed to work better in high temperatures because they naturally produce a lot of heat due to the friction of the tires on the track. F1 tires are designed to handle these high heats and in fact require them in order to get the best performance out of the car. Somewhere around 210 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for optimal performance.
F1 teams regulate their tire temperatures in different ways, and the formation lap isn’t really important for getting good speeds during the race; it is, however, crucial in getting a good start.
F1 drivers want the maximum amount of acceleration and grip they can get for the best start in the race. As such, that little warmup lap helps prep the tires for a better grip on startup. You’ll notice the drivers weaving from side to side to warm up the tires even more during the formation lap.
Similarly to the tires, brakes are a crucial part in getting good performance out of the car, so drivers will pump the brakes every now and again to warm them up for best performance during the race.
The engine is also designed to run super-hot, so the drivers must get it into optimal ranges before placing it under a taxing load. Even in the pits, the F1 cars constantly get a supply of warm oil in the engine to keep it running properly.
The formation lap is not only about warming up the cars. It also serves to help prepare the drivers for the race ahead. If you think about it, these drivers are understandably tense right before the race—they’re about to travel hundreds of miles at insane speeds, having to manage extremely tight turns and potential overtakes.
As a result, the formation lap is a good way to calm their nerves and focus on the task ahead. Professional drivers will also take this time to scout out the track one last time, consider potential overtake spots, and plan their strategies.
The formation lap offers a good reminder of when to brake, when to accelerate, and where to perform an overtake.
Depending on the weather conditions of the track, drivers can get a feel for how the tires are going to behave if there’s been rain or other inclement weather in the area. Drivers and teams can also communicate about what areas of the track to avoid, further increasing their preparedness for the race ahead.
The formation lap also gives the pit crew time to set up, prepare for pit stops during the race, and shake off any nerves. The lap gives the crew a chance to get into position and get their gear ready for the race.
Another important factor of the formation lap is the ability to test equipment. Built with extremely high precision, F1 cars are filled to the brim with sensors that monitor crucial information about how the car is running.
As such, the team can monitor the car to make sure it’s ready and keep an eye on everything to make sure it’s under control. Regular radio checks also ensure that the team is able to freely communicate throughout the race.
If a car breaks down during the formation lap, the rest of the drivers are obligated to complete another formation lap so that the affected team can decide whether to retire the car early or try to spot-fix it for the race.
F1 cars don’t usually break down during the formation lap, but it’s better for the car to malfunction during the low-speed formation lap than while accelerating to over 200 miles per hour. As such, the primary purpose of the warmup lap is to make sure all the cars are in tip-top shape for racing.
The formation lap has become an ingrained part of F1 culture, and something mandatory to get the cars warmed up has become part function, part ritual.
It’s a chance for fans to get hyped up about the race to come while the drivers have a chance to calm their nerves and go over their game plan in their head. With so many useful functions, the formation lap will remain a staple of F1 racing for years to come.
(Top photo: Drew Bates, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)