I'm an F1 enthusiast and have followed F1 since childhood. During all those years, I have gained a lot of knowledge about Formula 1.
Do Practice Sessions Matter in F1?
Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport. With incredibly technically advanced cars driven by the best drivers globally, it definitely is a spectacle worth watching. Many F1 fans are very excited when qualifying and the final race arrives, however, practice sessions do not receive as much attention as they should and those sessions are by the mainstream followers often referred to as being quite boring.
The fact is that practice sessions are absolutely crucial for F1 teams and their drivers for the overall result and performance. These sessions are simply an inevitable part of a racing weekend. When an F1 driver misses a practice session because of, for instance, durability issues or a crash, it often creates a tough setback that usually tends to compromise the result in a negative way.
How Teams Prepare Themself During Practice Sessions
There are three practice sessions that an F1 team attends during a regular race weekend. Every practice session takes an hour to complete.
The format is now being changed a little because of the recent experiment. F1 decided to try out a whole new session consisting of sprint qualifying that replaces one of the regular practice sessions, more specifically FP2. This means that the teams get even less time to prepare during these special weekends. However, this new concept is only tested at a few venues at this point and is therefore not so relevant for the overall championship yet.
This article covers the regular weekends' format where three practice sessions are featured.
Free Practice 1 is the first official session of a Formula 1 weekend. This is the very first-time drivers get to feel how the car is behaving on the race track. They try different setups and eventual upgrades to the cars - if such are available. The teams cover all of the actions and collect all the data they need to for the following debrief where strategy is decided before the qualifying and the race.
Simply put, in FP1 the main goal is to get the right feeling with the car and understand how tires behave. This can vary a lot from time to time. Just because the race track feels good one day does not mean it will suit the car the following day and vice versa. All these tasks naturally continue during the following sessions as well, however, it is in FP1 where drivers build their confidence to then be able to push harder as the weekend progress. If a driver forces to skip this session because of a car failure or some other issue it means a huge setback to the whole preparation program and data gathering as well as drivers confidence.
Free Practice 2 is much more specific when it comes to testing the car. There are two main tasks that the team tries to cover. The first one is the race simulation. You may ask how is it even possible to do a race run when a normal F1 race lasts between 1,5 up to 2 hours while the practice session only takes an hour. The teams got to do a short race simulation instead. The short one can not fully predict the race, which in fact is never possible to predict no matter what due to many factors as for example eventual crashes, sudden weather changes, et cetera. What it can do however is to show the way of how the car and its tires behave with heavier fuel loads aboard and also the differences between the different tire compounds. With this information gathered, it is much easier to set up a good strategy before the race.
The second thing that teams test out is the qualifying performance. This one is most important for the drivers themself. Getting a stunning lap out of the car requires extreme concentration and the right balance. If the car is not balanced the right way the driver will most likely struggle to perform in qualifying and therefore losing positions before the race. To qualify high up in the field is not the most important thing, but it surely increases the chances for a great result in the race. There are also city tracks on the calendar where overtaking is extremely difficult and a very risky business, which makes the qualifying session even more important at these venues.
The last practice session of the weekend is mostly used to get up to speed and try the car before qualifying. It is not worth taking any risks whatsoever in this session as the qualifying usually starts just about two, three hours after the last practice session has received the chequered flag. Crashing here means that the mechanics may not have enough time to get the car prepared for qualifying which puts the driver at the back of the grid.
This is also the last session where changes to the setup of the car can be made. If the car feels unstable at this point it is very important to get out there and do as many laps as possible to get the right feeling before performance really starts to matter. When a car leaves the garage spot for the first time during qualifying, it is basically locked and no additional setups changes can be applied to it.
Now you know why practice sessions are of such huge importance for Formula 1 teams. As stated above, these sessions all matters and together constitutes a preparation program before the qualifying and the race itself. A well-executed practice program means a great start to both qualifying and the following race.
Before this year, teams had slightly longer practice sessions as well as longer test days at the beginning of each season. With all these aspects now being significantly shortened, it essentially means that every minute out on track matters and every minute a car has to spend in the garage due to an issue sets back the whole preparation process, both for the drivers and the team as a unit.
© 2021 Jan Stepan