A Formula 1 Grand Prix is generally a three-day event. The weekend kicks-off with circuit walk and media madness on Thursday, which is a precursor to the Grand Prix. Then comes Day 1, with two sessions of free practice, 90 minutes each. On Day 2, you have the third free practice session which is 60 minutes long, followed by a qualifying session. The race takes place on day 3 and is typically 2 hours long.
Over four days, the F1 drivers are put under the media scrutiny, with their every move recorded, broadcasted and commented upon. There are multiple interviews every day, fan interactions and sponsor commitments. All these are over and above the rigours of ensuring the car is set up and ready for the race.
On Thursday, the day begins with the drivers and their entourage taking a stroll down the circuit. This helps them get a feel for the shape, surface and conditions of the circuit. Next, the constructors send out their team principals first to face the music from the media. The day ends with the driver pairings put under the media scanner.
Free Practice (FP):
Fridays are frantic for the teams. Constructors are working hard to ensure that the cars are re-assembled and good to go for the first free practice session. During this session, drivers go out and try to understand the twists and turns of the circuit. They are also looking to ensure they get the braking points right.
It is also an initial test of the setup of the car. Every circuit is different. Some require low downforce, some require high downforce, some are power heavy, some depend on how quick the car is in the corners. Some examples are Monaco and Singapore, which are both high downforce circuits.
Monza is a high-speed circuit with very quick straights and fast corners. Hungary, on the other hand, is probably the slowest circuit on the calendar. Bahrain is a real test of tyre management with drivers facing high tyre degradation. Meanwhile, Japan and Silverstone (UK) are high power circuits. Cars need to be set up differently at each circuit to cope with their challenges.
Friday’s free practice sessions end up being about optimising the set up of the car. Most of the data collected before Friday will be from wind tunnel and design offices. This is simulation data, collected by the teams running experiments during the offseason while building their F1 cars. Some teams start from scratch every year while others look to make incremental gains year-on-year to improve their cars.
This data forms the starting point in terms of the car set up for teams before FP1. As you progress through the day, driver feedback helps optimize the lap time. Almost always, the lap time for the first and last flying lap of Friday is a couple of seconds apart. This is because the drivers provide feedback to their teams on what is working and what is not. This feedback is converted into action items and incorporated into the car as a part of its continuous improvement.
These gains can be explained by several factors. Continuous running on the circuit improves the grip on the braking zones. This is called track evolution. Sustained improvements in the car and in driving lead to sustained gains throughout the day. Each driver also looks at the gains made by their competitors to set the direction for their car evolution as well.
At the end of these free practice sessions, the aim of the team and the driver is to understand the optimal set up required to maximize the output of the car during the race. Thus the free practice sessions, although not very entertaining to watch, already give a hint about the driver and team who will have a good race as well as the drivers who might struggle.