Before every Formula 1 race starts, the drivers do one last lap of the track in what’s called a formation lap. This lap is like the pre-start warm-up or parade laps seen in other motorsport racing federations, like NASCAR or Indycar. The formation lap allows drivers to assess race-day conditions on all track sectors, warm up their tyres, and mentally prepare for the race.
So, what goes into the formation lap in more detail during an F1 race? Does a formation lap occur before every race in Formula One? What happens if a crash or other incident occurs during the formation lap?
Here’s all you need to know about formation laps in F1 races!
What Happens Before the Race?
Before the start of a race, F1 teams will bring their cars to their grid box at the start/finish line. There, they will do final tweaks and adjustments to the vehicle to prepare it for racing. You may see mechanics adjusting the front wing or keeping the tyres warm with heated tyre blankets as they prepare for the start of the race.
What is a Formula One Formation Lap in Detail?
During the formation lap, the drivers will follow the speed set by the lead driver, who earned pole position in qualifying. The drivers must respect the pit lane speed limit until they pass the start/finish line, which may accelerate to keep up with the car in front of them. Drivers are not permitted to pass the vehicle in front of them unless it is disabled or becomes a hazard during the formation lap.
Fans will often see drivers weaving on the track, which helps them warm their tyres. DRS is not enabled during the formation lap, and since cars are going so slowly, there’s relatively little downforce generated, which can impact how some vehicles handle the track.
When the lap is completed, all drivers return to their grid box at the start/finish line. When all cars come to a complete stop, the five red lights on the track will illuminate, signaling the start of the Grand Prix.
Is there a Formation Lap (Parade Lap) at Every F1 Race?
Currently, the FIA rules state that every race should have a formation lap, except for one clear exception. If a race starts during wet-weather conditions, the race director can opt to start the race behind the safety car, a process that removes the need for a formation lap. If this scenario occurs, the race begins immediately as the cars leave the starting grid.
Why do F1 Drivers Do a Formation Lap / Pace Lap?
Historically, Formula One races had an optional formation lap before a race to give drivers one last time to assess track conditions and make final car adjustments. The warm-up lap was less necessary in the past because F1 cars had smaller tyres that didn’t need extensive heating to operate appropriately. A warm-up lap could have also been overly time-consuming, as race distances were long and the cars were slower.
When / Why Did the FIA Make Formation Laps Mandatory?
The FIA made formation laps (installation laps) mandatory in the 1970s to allow drivers to warm up their tyres for a race. If drivers start racing on cool tires, they may stall or spin the tyres, causing them to lock up during the intense launch at the start. This lock-up action can cause serious rear-end collisions, as drivers in the back or the grid don’t expect stationary vehicles ahead of them.
In addition to warming up their tyres via the formation lap, many drivers will communicate with their race strategists and engineers as they review track conditions during the lap. During this time, they can even make slight changes to their vehicle’s setup by adjusting settings on the steering wheel.
Finally, drivers can look at the entire track and review live conditions across the racing surface. This track observation is ideal in the case of changing weather. Some tracks are so long that the pit lane can have a different weather pattern than a far corner.
Can Drivers Change Their Tyres During the Formation Lap?
If a rainstorm occurs at one end of the circuit, drivers may opt for a pit stop to change their tyres to reflect the changing conditions. This change of tyres took place during the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix when most drivers started the formation lap on intermediate tyres anticipating moisture on the track from a recent rainstorm. After the formation lap, almost every driver went into the pits to change for slicks, while Mercedes’s driver Lewis Hamilton started alone on his original tyres in his grid box, causing a bizarre start to the race.
What Happens if there’s an Incident During the Formation Lap?
Formation lap crashes are infrequent in F1 because the cars move at such a slow speed that the drivers rarely lose control. However, if a driver crashes during a lap, there can be a few different outcomes. First, the driver can make their way to the pit lane, and if the repair is minor, like needing a new front wing, the pit crew can repair it. In this case, the driver would start the race from the pit lane.
If the pit crew thinks that the repair is too intensive or too costly to make during the start of the race, the team may choose to retire the car. Historically, drivers may have been able to use a spare car to complete the race.
This scenario happened during the 2005 Chinese Grand Prix when Ferrari Michael Schumacher wove into the path of Minardi-Cosworth driver Christijan Albers during the formation lap. The two drivers retired their cars in the pits and started the race in the team’s extra cars from the pit lane. These days, strict regulations prevent drivers from using alternate vehicles.
Conclusion: What is a Formation Lap in F1?
Formation laps are one of the quintessential starts to any Formula One race. As the cars slowly wind their way around the track, they heat their tyres and allow drivers to build their race-day strategies. However, one of the most important, if unintended, benefits of the formation lap are that it will enable fans to get a good look at their favorite driver before the race starts.
When watching an F1 race, pay attention to the starting procedure. You’ll likely see all the care and attention that goes into it, so each race starts without an incident.