How does Formula 1 qualifying work? Explaining the rules, format to determine F1’s starting grid


Lights out is on Sunday, but the race really starts on Saturday.

Qualifying is, arguably, the most important part of a Formula 1 grand prix weekend. All 20 drivers vie for the fastest lap to set themselves up for advantageous positioning once the race gets underway on Sunday. 

This year, there are even more changes to the way the FIA is conducting qualifying weekends. After the introduction of sprint races on Saturdays in 2021, there’s been another major shift in the way that sprint qualifying weekends are conducted in 2023 and beyond.

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Here’s what to know about qualifying, and why it’s so important for every driver on Saturdays:

Formula 1 qualifying format

Under a traditional qualifying weekend, Qualifying happens on Saturday, after the trio of practice sessions for the F1 field.

— Qualifying is split into three sessions: Qualifying 1 (18 minutes), Qualifying 2 (15 minutes) and Qualifying 3 (12 minutes). Racers may enter the track whenever they want from their garage, and may reenter the garage as needed. 

— There is also a certain allotment of fuel allowed for an F1 car, with teams scraping by with the bare minimum to make the ride as light (hence, as quick) as possible.

— Once they hit the track, all 20 drivers have unlimited opportunities within the confines of the time constraints to set a lap time. 

— After the first qualifying session (Q1), the five drivers with the slowest lap times are eliminated from qualifying, and placed from 20th (slowest) to 16th.

— After the second qualifying session (Q2), the next five drivers with the slowest lap times from 15th to 11th are ranked on the grid.

— The last qualifying session (Q3) is a shootout for pole position, with the remaining 10 drivers vying for the top spot, and to set up first on the grid for Sunday’s race.

Obviously, pole position (finishing first in qualifying with the fastest lap) is the goal for every driver on the course on Saturdays, and securing side-by-side qualifying spots is the ultimate reward for all 10 teams. A driver who finishes first on the grid only has to worry about getting off to a good start and not to vie with the rest of the pack, where a majority of races are won and lost.

Should his teammate finish beside him, (colloquially known as a “row lockout”), then strategy comes into play. That teammate may defend against racers behind him, giving a better opportunity for his teammate to fight ahead or build a lead.

If a driver crashes during qualifying, should he set a lap time before the crash, then he is positioned based on that time. If they crash and need to make mechanical changes ahead of the race, then they’ll incur a grid penalty, and will lose spots on the grid.

There’s also the teamwork aspect of qualifying. Lining up behind a fellow driver to try and pick up a slipstream and some extra mph down a straight could shave tenths of a second off of your time.

MORE: Which driver has the most pole positions in F1 history?

What is sprint qualifying in F1?

In 2021, the FIA introduced sprint qualifying, which is a drastic change to a qualifying weekend, with the rules changed again in 2023.

Rather than have the traditional knockout and shootout style of a qualifying weekend, sprint qualifying introduces a short race (therefore, sprint) on Saturday afternoons.

While a typical race weekend consists of Practices 1, 2 and 3, Qualifying and the Race, a Sprint Qualifying weekend consists of Practice 1, Qualifying, Sprint Shootout, the Sprint and the Race on Sunday. 

This presents a departure from the 2022 format, where the sprint qualifying race set the grid for Sunday’s race. Essentially, Saturdays during sprint weekends are their own event, independent from the main race on Sunday. 

During a sprint qualifying weekend, Friday’s qualifying session sets the grid for Sunday’s race. On Saturday morning, a “Sprint Shootout” session sets the stage for the sprint race — which usually lasts about a half hour — with the winner earning points for their team. That is unlike a typical qualifying weekend, which doesn’t offer any points for the top qualifier.

MORE: What is F1 Sprint? Explaining the format in 2023

In 2023, six F1 races will have sprint qualifying weekends:

  • Azerbaijan Grand Prix (April 30)
  • Austrian Grand Prix (July 2)
  • Belgian Grand Prix (July 30)
  • Qatar Grand Prix (Oct. 8)
  • United States Grand Prix (Oct. 22)
  • Sao Paolo Grand Prix (Nov. 5)

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