A
t the beginning of 2015, it was understood that if you drove anything but a silver Mercedes-AMG, your chances of winning the championship were slim at best. Last season, the Silver Arrows continued to dominate, breaking the records for number of pole positions and 1-2 finishes in a season — records they had set the year prior. There was a serious fear that Mercedes would hold a complete monopoly on wins in ‘15, but as soon as the season’s third race was underway, Sebastian Vettel, driving for Ferrari, put those fears to rest. In that race, Vettel, a German, earned his first win for Ferrari as well as Ferrari’s first win in 34 races.

However, he would become the only winning driver last season not in a Silver Arrows car, and would remain in the championship hunt well into the season. But Vettel was no match for Lewis Hamilton, who, driving for Mercedes, edged out a teammate to win the whole thing with four races left to run. Still, while 2015 was branded a predictable season marked with predictable race results, 2016 is shaping up to be anything but.

For the first time in 30 years, there is an American F1 team back on the grid. Haas F1, led by the legendary Gene Haas of IndyCar and NASCAR fame, is throwing his hat in the ring. Haas isn’t going in wearing rose-tinted glasses: with newer teams like Lotus and Caterham dead and gone and upstart Manor F1 hungry for a win, he knows it’ll be a fight to make to just the midfield. Renault are back as a full-fledged constructor, ending a seven-year absence. Mercedes would love to continue their dominance and dazzle with a hat trick of championships, but Ferrari have been working overtime all winter and look to have made promising performance gains. As reigning champs Mercedes know, the other teams have done their best to catch up, but considering the way the 2015 season ended, the biggest hurdle will be the team’s own driver feud.

Last season’s outcome may have been clear cut from the beginning, but with technical regulations and team rosters remaining relatively stable going into ‘16, performance levels are on the rise and rivalries are heating up. Upsets, jubilation, close calls and even closer racing: whatever 2016 has in store, this is your guide to help keep an eye on it all.


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Three-Day Weekends

Friday: An F1 race weekend, or Grand Prix, kicks off on Friday with two practice sessions. The teams and drivers use these sessions to learn the track, test new parts and dial in the car’s set up to get the best out of it come race day.

GET TO THE POINTS

F1 is split into two championships: the Driver’s and the Constructor’s. In every race, each rank from 1st place through 10th earn points: 25, 18, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 1 respectively. Every point a driver earns (if any) goes towards his grand total in the Driver’s championship. Subsequently, the points drivers earn also go towards their team’s tally in the Constructor’s championship.

Saturday: A third and final round of practice is run to fine-tune the car and get it right. Soon after, qualifying is run to determine the starting order of all the cars for the race in a three-session elimination-style format, new for 2016. Each session is timed, with the slowest driver eliminated every 90 seconds and only the fastest times advancing to the next session. Since there are 22 drivers in 2016, Q1 sets the starting positions for places 16-22, Q2 sets places 9-16 and Q3 determines pole position back to 8th place. Q3 is run like Q1 and Q2 — however, the elimination stops when just two drivers remain and a head-to-head shootout for pole position takes place over the remaining time.

Sunday, Race Day: Barring any last-minute penalties or extraordinary circumstances, the drivers line their cars up in the order they qualified. When the starting lights go out, the cars take off and then it’s up to the Fates to decide who sees the checkered flag first. During the race, teams decide when to call in their drivers for pit stops to change tires, and depending on how the competition is doing on the track, the timing of these calls can make or break their race.

There’s no refueling allowed during an F1 race. So pit stops only entail the changing of all four tires and maybe small aero adjustments. Today, stops under three seconds are the norm and are orchestrated by no less than 14 mechanics.


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Man and Machine

The driver’s exposed seating position directly in front of the engine, and exposed wheels combined with massive front and rear wings, give F1 cars their iconic shape. The aerodynamics of those massive wings and diffusers push the cars to the ground while at speed, which allows drivers to take sweeping turns at triple-digit speeds. This results in excesses of 4 g in turns and around 5 g under braking. On designated stretches of the track, drivers can use an active aerodynamics system (Drag Reduction System or DRS) that flattens the rear wing, similar to the street-legal McLaren P1 and LaFerrari. The DRS system lowers drag and increases top speed, allowing for more passing and re-passing throughout the race. With the average race lasting around 60 laps, depending on circuit length, it’s all over in no more than two hours. And for those two hours temperatures inside the cockpit can reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit, drivers’ pulses average 150 bpm and they’ll burn around 1500 calories. To endure such incredible and prolonged stresses, modern F1 drivers train like boxers, swimmers and marathon runners — anything less and they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the competition, let alone the car.

HYBRID POWER

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As of 2014, any engines used in F1 (as decided in the rules) have to be 1.6-liter turbo V6 hybrids. What makes them hybrids is that through various systems, excess heat and kinetic energy are stored and then released in conjunction with the engine. Each team likes to keep their official power output hush-hush (for competition’spalm sake) but the best guesses say it’s somewhere between 800 and 900 horsepower for 2016. Combine that with a 1,547-pound F1 car and you’ll be able to go from 0-100 mph before most road cars even hit 60 mph. Learn More


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New Teams, New Drivers, New Liveries

AS 2016 MERCEDES PROFILE

Mercedes-AMG
Lewis Hamilton (44), Nico Rosberg (6)

AS 2016 MERCEDES PROFILE

Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel (5), Kimi Raikkonen (7)

AS 2016 WILLIAMS PROFILE

Williams
Valtteri Bottas (77), Felipe Massa (19)

AS 2016 WILLIAMS PROFILE

Red Bull
Daniel Ricciardo (3) Daniil Kvyat (26)

AS 2016 FORCE INDIA PROFILE

Force India
Nico Hulkenberg (27), Sergio Perez (11)

AS 2016 McLAREN HONDA PROFILE

McLaren
Fernando Alonso (14) Jenson Button (22)

renault

Renault
Jolyon Palmer (30), Kevin Magnussen (20)

AS 2016 TORO ROSSO PROFILE

Toro Rosso
Max Verstappen (33), Carlos Sainz, Jr. (55)

AS 2016 SAUBER PROFILE

Sauber
Marcus Ericsson (9), Felipe Nasr (12)

AS 2016 MANOR PROFILE

Manor F1
Pascal Wehrlein (94), Rio Haryanto (88)

AS 2016 HAAS PROFILE

Haas F1
Romain Grosjean (8), Estaban Gutierrez (21)


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The Racing Classics

monaco-track-map-gear-patrol Monaco: The jewel in F1’s crown, Monaco is the most prestigious race on the calendar and has been since the dawn of Formula 1. Every F1 driver dreams of threading through the narrow streets of the principality and coming out victorious, but any lapse in concentration means a swift rendezvous with the barriers shrink-wrapped around the track.

spa-track-map-gear-patrol Belgium: The Spa Francorchamps circuit is the longest and one of the fastest tracks raced on all year. Speeds in excess of 200 mph are seen on the back straight and 4 g turns are sprinkled throughout the 4.4-mile course. Titanic racing in unpredictable rain storms have been this track’s calling card since the very first season of Formula 1 in 1950.

monza-track-map-gear-patrol Italy: Known as the “Cathedral of Speed,” Monza Circuit sees the highest speeds of any track all season, and it’s been a stalwart on the calendar all but one year of F1’s existence. In true Italian motorsport fashion, fans flood the track during the podium celebrations, cheering for Ferrari, naturally, regardless of their result.


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The Best New Races

red-bull-ring-track-map-gear-patrol Austria: Red Bull bought an existing track, refurbished it and made a few tweaks to bring it up to current F1 standards. 2014 saw the first race on the new Red Bull Ring and it did not disappoint. The classic layout of the track offers sweeping turns that flow from one to the next, and once drivers get into their groove, there’s fast action until the finish.

circuit-of-the-americas-track-map-gear-patrol United States: The Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas is one of the newest tracks on the F1 calendar, but almost all of the drivers already sing its praises. Most of the turns are inspired by sections of tracks from around the world, in a “greatest hits” kind of way. CoTA’s signature turn one is a six-storey climb into a blind hairpin, which then leads back downhill into a sweeping right-hander. It’s a sheer roller coaster ride for drivers and spectators.

F1-Mexico-Gear-Patrol Mexico City: After a 23-year absence from the F1 calendar, the Mexico GP returned in 2015, and in stunning fashion. The Hermanos Rodriguez Circuit last held the Mexico GP, but the track layout was slightly revised and modernized. At last year’s outing, cars reached speeds well over 220 mph, rivaling that of Monza, and a new stadium-section series of turns provided great overtaking thrills and gave fans a fantastic view. The track also happens to include an old baseball stadium, which is where the podium ceremony takes place. It makes for one hell of a post-race celebration.

Every race this season is on NBCSN, starting with the season opener on March 20.