Understanding Formula One: A Guide to Common Terms and Phrases

Understanding Formula One and some of the terms and phrases used can be confusing for new spectators of the sport. This blog attempts to explain some of the most common.


12829230_f1024Downforce is the downward pressure that air places on a vehicle when moving, particularly at high speed. Formula One cars have a number of wings, just like an aeroplane.

Whereas an aeroplane directs air to lift it, and F1 car has wings to push it down and into the ground. This allows the car to corner considerably better than a normal car – as if is is being pushed into the ground – providing my better grip and traction.

So when you’re thinking about an F1 car think about it as a kind of upside-down aeroplane. The faster it goes, the further it’s pushed into the ground.


DRS (Drag Reduction System)

Because downforce pushes an F1 car towards the ground, drag is created. This means that at very high speeds (such as on a straight) an F1 cars top speed is compromised.

The Drag Reduction System (DRS) is a letterbox type opening on the rear wing of an F1 car. A driver can press a button to open this, which allows air to pass more freely, creating less drag and therefore high top speeds on the straight.

A driver will never operate the DRS on a corner as the lack of downforce makes the vehicle loss grip and handle very badly.



Formula One cars don’t have a standard internal combustion engine, but instead use a very clever and advanced F1 Power Unit.



One of the most common phrases you might here is a commentator saying a driver has switched to ‘slicks’.

Slicks is a nickname for a type of tyre (tire in American English) a driver can chose from. It’s a smooth tyre with no cut tread (unlike a road car).

Once up to an ideal temperature, the flat surface provides considerably more surface area than a standard grooved tyre.



Wet tyres are very different to slick tyres. They are grooved and designed to disperse water. They are also designed to be used in a colder condition and drivers will often be seen moving onto the ‘wet’ line if a track begins to dry as overheating wet tyres makes them degrade very quickly and lose grip.


‘Intermediates’ or ‘inters’

Intermediate tyres are a type of tyre which can be used or wet and dry tracks.

However, used on a dry track they result in reduced lap times and wear out very quickly. Equally, if used on a very wet track they provide less grip than wet tyres (sometimes referred to as “full wets) and therefore provide less group; which can also result in reduced lap times.

It is vital a time judge just when to move from intermediates to slick tyres. Too soon and the wet track will make the slick useless due to the cooler temperatures and wet condition. Too late and other teams will already have switched and will be putting in faster lap times.


Virtual Safety Car (VSC)

Introduced formally to Grand Prix races in 2015, partly as a result of the death of Jules Bianchi, the Virtual Safety Car (VSC) is a system which means drivers must reduce their lap time to 35% of race pace. In addition a “VSC” sign will appear illuminated at the side of the track to warn drivers as well as on each drivers steering wheel display.


Change gear on the beeps

Sometimes you’ll hear a driver’s engineer tell them to “change gear on the beeps”.

Every driver wears a pair of headphone/ear defenders which allows them to hear their engineers over the team radio. As well as audio from their team, there is a small beep which is played to the drivers every time they should change gear.

The beeps can be adjusted. For example, if a driver needs to save fuel to make it to the end of the race, the beeps may be shorter to reduce engine revs and conserve fuel.


Speed Trap

In Formula One terms, as Speed Trap is the fastest point on the circuit. Generally towards the end of the longest straight and just before the braking point, the purpose of the Speed Trap is to compare the fastest speeds amongst drivers.

It may mainly be a function of the engine/car that one is driving but sometimes also the set up (high or low downforce etc) that could determine who is highest in the speed trap.


Strat mode 2, Multi 21, etc.

During a race you might hear an engineer tell a driver to “switch to strat mode 2” or “multi-21”.

There are two things that this usually refers to, either an engine mode (which the driver can change to using a dial or switch on their steering wheel, or a command to change strategy i.e. to let their teammate past to allow them to win.

A team might tell a driver to change their engine mode to save fuel. Equally, they might do the same to allow them an extra “burst” of power to overtake another car.


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