Thursday, March 12, 2009


The start of a Grand Prix is among the most exciting of all sporting moments. A desperate struggle for immediate advantage as a grid full of vastly powerful cars, and vastly skilled drivers, all try to arrive first at the first corner.

This is entirely rational, of course, as the start of any race is one of the best opportunities to gain position. Indeed at races like Monaco, it's one of the very few opportunities to overtake. A good start can make a driver's race; a bad one can all too often finish it.

Drivers try to prepare for the beginning of a race by creating a mental image of the start that they want to make, taking into account different factors of position and track condition. The team will normally try to protect its drivers from intrusive media attention on the grid if they fear this could interfere with his concentration. During this period before a race, as cars are formed up and the final alterations allowed by the regulations are carried out, the grid will often look like a scene of chaos, although all the mechanics, team members and even media will be working to very precise plans.

Once a Formula One car's engine is started its need to move becomes very urgent. As they are designed to operate at high speed (where there is a good supply of cooling air flowing over surfaces) modern Formula One cars have very little in the way of cooling - and the heat created by running engines while stationary puts enormous strain on the mechanical parts of the car, especially at hot races. Once the mechanics have cleared the grid, the cars will be waved away for a single formation lap.

For the driver in pole position, this is quite a challenging test, as he has to carefully control the pace of the formation lap to ensure both that he has the best opportunity to work some heat into his car's tyres (through hard acceleration, braking and cornering), while also making sure that he does not complete the lap so quickly as to be left sitting on the grid for a long period as other cars take their places behind him - as this could damage the car.

Once all the cars have come to a halt on the grid, and the course car and medical cars are also in position further back, the start sequence is initiated by the race controller. Green lights are no longer used to indicate the start of a race, instead once the red lights are extinguished (there is a pre-determined random time delay of between 4 and 14 seconds - over which the race controller has no control - between the lights coming on and the last one going out) the race is underway.

As he accelerates towards the first corner, a driver will adapt his strategy to be either offensive or defensive depending on how good a start he has made. The conflicting demands are those of gaining position on one hand, and defending your current one on the other. Extremely close racing is usual at the start of a race, with the sight of cars four or even five abreast across the width of the track being far from unusual. The situation is made more challenging for drivers as many of them will be approaching the first corner off line, and possibly in areas of relatively low adhesion.

It is fortunate that the extremely high standards of professionalism among modern drivers, in combination with a willingness by the FIA to take stern disciplinary measures when warranted, have dramatically reduced the tendency for first-corner accidents of a few seasons ago.