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F1 is Back in Austin – So What's Actually Happening On the Track?

Judi Radice Hays
An aerial view of the Circuit of the Americas racetrack.

A version of this story first ran Nov. 16, 2012.

Formula One events begin today at the Circuit of the Americas track.

F1 doesn’t have a huge following in the U.S. – it’s only in its second year in Austin – and a lot of people may not know the first thing about the sport. Here's what we learned about the basics.

First things first: what is the “formula”?

“It’s a new formula every year,” said Bill Dollahite, owner of Driveway Austin, a racing school east of town. “It’s a whiteboard with nothing on it except for a set of rules, and everyone looks to the rules and they say ‘OK, now how can we get a technical advantage with this set of rules?’”

So everyone builds a car from scratch each season. Each season runs from March to November. Now, who’s everyone?

There are 11 teams this year and 22 drivers. Each team has a rabid following.

“Ferrari is the passion and the history,” F1 fan Tom Yemington of Austin said. “It’s sort of the equivalent of rooting for the New York Yankees, I guess.”

Mac Morrison, who writes for Autoweek, agrees. “Ferrari is, you can imagine, bigger than God in some parts of Italy,” he said. “The people in Italy who follow motor racing — it’s Ferrari and that’s all they care about. Everyone else they want to lose, crash, you know, blow up, whatever.”

“There’s McLaren, which is always sort of a second fiddle to Ferrari but wins often, wins lots of championships,” Yemington said.

And so on. So what about the schedule? Friday is mainly a practice day.

“They start out with a day of testing, which is really important for this track because nobody’s ever run on it,” Yemington said. More practice on Saturday and then three qualifying sessions.

At the end of the first and second rounds, the slowest bunch of guys are knocked out. That’s called Q1 and Q2.

“That’s kind of Formula 1 lingo,” Morrison said. “In Q3, it’s 10 minutes, and the last group of guys go out, and when it’s over, that’s it. Whoever was quickest, you’re starting on the pole position, and it just goes down from there, based on your time.”

On to Sunday!

“Now when it comes to the race, you’ve got 56 laps,” Morrison said. “The circuit is 3.4 miles and change around, so it comes out to … almost 200 miles.”

“It lasts two hours, and they’ll typically say it’s a particular number of laps but if there’s a delay, then it ends up being a certain time as opposed to the original target number of laps,” Yemington said.

It really is all about the show.

“And the show must go on, right?” Yemington said. “So if it’s raining, great, come in and put on rain tires. And they’ll drive in almost all but hurricane conditions.

So a little before 1 p.m. Sunday, the cars will line up according to their qualifying time.

With engines running, the drivers wait. And that, Dollahite says, is when the pressure is on.

“Your highest blood pressure, your highest respiration, your highest heart rate is sitting on the grid,” he said. “You close your eyes and you’re thinking, ‘OK, what am I going to do?’ You’re going to play the scene in your head, what’s going to happen next.

“Once everybody’s in position, everybody’s got the thumbs up, everybody’s ready to go, you’re going to see the light bar. There’s five lights up there. Red. You’re going to see the lights go on. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. And then they’re going to go off. … These things will accelerate from that dead stop to 100 mph in about two seconds.”

So 56 laps or two hours, whichever comes first. Maybe a few pit stops in there.

“You’ll do a four-tire change in about 2 to 3 seconds.” Dollahite said. “One. Two. Three. Gone.”

And then whoever crosses the finish line first wins? “Yep, when you get to the time limit or the set number of laps,” Yemington said. “So it’s about getting the most laps in that particular time or being in front when the last lap comes around.”

And depending where you finish, you get a certain number of points.

“Guy who finishes first gets 25, guy who finishes second gets 18, third place gets 15,” Morrison said. The top 10 guys get points.

So what’s with the points? Each of the season’s 19 races is worth the same number of points.

“End of the year, all the points add up, whoever has the most: you’re the world champion, it’s that simple,” Morrison said.

Actually, it not quite that simple. There’s a team champion and a driver champion.

Each team has more than one driver, so the driver champion may not necessarily be on the championship team. That’s not the case this year. The Red Bull Team already has the team championship locked down – and Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel clinched the driver’s championship weeks ago. Vettel would set a record for consecutive wins if he takes Sunday’s Grand Prix in Austin.

Austin is the next-to-last race this season. By Monday morning the teams will be packed up, ready to go, to finish this season — in Brazil.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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