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When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

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From Karts to the Qatar Grand Prix: Climbing The Formula Racing Pyramid

With all the glitz, glamor, and high-speed thrills, not to mention its own Netflix series, Formula One tends to grab all the headlines. The open-wheeled, single-seater racing series might have made household names out of Hamilton, Verstappen, Leclerc, and the like, but it’s far from the only Formula racing series in town. While casual fans might not be aware of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) pyramid, diehards know there’s a full slate of feeder series designed to prepare drivers for racing’s main stage.

Known as the FIA Global Pathway from Karting to Formula One, the racing pyramid was formally established in 2014 with the creation of the Formula 4 series. Starting with Formula 4, drivers progress through Formula Regional, Formula 3, and Formula 2 before finally earning a shot at the big time. These FIA-sanctioned racing series aren’t the only route to F1, as drivers can also earn their FIA Super License through various open-wheel racing series such as the Euroformula Open Championship and GB3 Championship, but they’re often the most direct route. Join us as we check out each of these levels, see what type of equipment drivers are working with, and learn how these lower-tier racing series play such an important role in the journey to F1 stardom.

Kart Racing

Years before reaching pole position at Monaco or carving through Monza’s Parabolica, most F1 drivers get their start behind the wheel of a kart racer. From Schumacher and Senna to Vettel, Räikkönen, and more, karting gives drivers the chance to hone their skills in a comparatively low-stakes atmosphere. Many drivers start karting as young as five years old, rounding local tracks in 50cc, two-stroke “kid karts” that are about as powerful as your average leaf blower. It’s a less competitive environment, more focused on building basic skills than taking home a trophy, but it’s still seen as a great way to get drivers acquainted with the ins and outs of life on the track.

From there, most drivers (in the U.S.) would move onto the SKUSA Cadet class, where they make the step up to 60cc, two-stroke engines that can reach speeds of up to 50 mph. Things start getting serious around age 12 when the jump to the Junior class sees drivers climb into full-size, 125cc karts that can break 65 mph with little effort. A 125cc kart, which typically produces between seven and nine horsepower, might sound relatively tame, but when you factor in its 300-pound curb weight, it provides a power-to-weight ratio that makes every turn feel like an F1 race.

The Junior class leads to the Senior class, where two- and four-stroke engines are both prevalent. With unrestricted exhausts and increasingly bold teen drivers behind the wheel, these karts can reach speeds over 100 mph. This is also where shifter karts start to come into the picture, allowing drivers to practice their all-important gear-changing technique. Some teens jump directly from Juniors into racing series that use actual production cars, such as Spec Miata or Formula Ford. These series are unlike the higher FIA tiers in that they limit drivers to a single model but are a great way to become acquainted with the basic principles of maintaining a vehicle, gaining on-track experience, and working with a team. From there, any driver with the requisite skill, time, and financial resources will take a crack at a professional racing series such as Formula 4.

Formula 4

Formula 4 is the first stop for most aspiring F1 drivers. Established in 2013, Formula 4 was introduced by the FIA as a means of easing the transmission between karting and Formula 3. Reserved for drivers 15 and older, Formula 4 follows a unique structure. Formula 4 drivers don’t compete for one overall championship. Instead, the series is run as separate national or regional championships in distinct geographical locations. This structure eases the burden and logistics of travel, making the racing series more accessible to a wider number of drivers.

Formula 4 started as a single-make engine category but soon relaxed the rules to allow for multiple engine and chassis manufacturers. That said, all Formula 4 cars are capped at 2.0L, 160 horsepower, and must be available for less than $10,000, which is another way the FIA aims to keep the cost of entry below the $100,000-per-year mark. Both turbocharged and naturally aspirated engines are allowed, though they are limited to four cylinders. The Tatuus F4-T421 and Mygale M21-F4 are the two approved Formula 4 chassis. All cars must weigh at least 1,256 pounds.

Regional Formula 3/Formula Regional

On the journey to learning how to control 1,000-plus horsepower F1 cars, it’s important to take a gradual approach. Formula Regional was created to bridge the gap between 160-horsepower Formula 4 cars and the significantly faster 380-horsepower Formula 3 models with its 270-horsepower racers. The series might be a step up in terms of power and skill, but like Formula 4, it still follows a localized structure that sees drivers compete within their own geographical regions. These regions include the Formula Regional Americas Championship, European Championship, Japanese Championship, Indian Championship, Middle East Championship, and Oceania Championship. Formula Regional cars employ Tatuus F3 T-318 or Ligier JS F3 chassis, have their engine displacement limited to 2.0L, and must weigh at least 1,400 pounds. While the series has been branded as Regional Formula 3 since 2017, it will be simplified to Formula Regional for the 2024 season.

Formula 3

While the lower racing series we’ve discussed so far have all been fairly recent creations, Formula 3 can trace its roots back to the 1950s. Initially emerging from the post-WW2 auto racing scene, Formula 3 originally saw drivers compete in lightweight tube-frame chassis powered by 500cc engines lifted out of motorcycles. Today, Formula 3 consists of two major events: the season-long Formula 3 Championship, and a one-off race called the Formula 3 World Cup.

Launched in 2019 after the GP3 series merged with the Formula 3 European Championship, the Formula 3 Championship follows a similar format to the F1 series, with drivers competing in a Friday qualifying session, a 40-mile sprint race on Saturday, and a feature race on Sunday that lasts for 45 minutes plus one additional lap. Drivers are limited to a single Dallara F3 2019 chassis, but the cars are more powerful than ever thanks to a 3.4L naturally aspirated V6 that produces up to 380 horsepower. As one might expect, the costs also rise by a substantial margin, with one estimate putting the annual price tag of competing in the Formula 3 Championship at around $1.2 million.

Formula 2

Formula 2 is the last step before the big show. F2 was originally formed in 1948 but was rebranded as the futuristic-sounding Formula 3000 in 1985. The FIA nixed that name in 2009 in favor of the Formula 2 Championship but simplified it to Formula 2 in 2017. The international driving series is open to drivers 17 and above and is the fastest way to qualify for the Super License needed to compete in F1. Popular F1 drivers like Charles Leclerc, George Russell, and Oscar Piastri have all emerged from Formula 2 since 2017, speaking to the series’ role as a feeder system. Like Formula 3, a Formula 2 race weekend includes a Friday practice and qualifying session, followed by a 120 km or 45-minute sprint on Saturday and a 170 km or 60-minute feature race on Sunday. These races are run at the same tracks used by the F1 series, allowing drivers to gain valuable experience navigating turns, speeding through straightaways, and jockeying for position.

The real difference between Formula 2 and Formula 1 comes down to the cars themselves. Formula 2 is the last FIA racing tier that requires all drivers to use the same single-spec platform. This differs from F1 in which teams are allowed to build their own one-off racers completely from scratch, which can easily result in a multimillion-dollar price tag for each car. In contrast, F2 teams are limited to a single Dallara F2 2018 chassis paired with a 3.4L turbocharged V6. These F2 cars must weigh at least 1,600 pounds and can produce upwards of 620 horsepower. These limitations go a long way toward leveling the playing field between racing teams, making F2 racing more about driver skill and strategy than who can afford the best engineers and R&D facilities. Winning the Formula 2 Championship doesn’t guarantee a driver a place in F1, as it often comes down to funding and sponsorships, but it is a good indication that they’re ready to test their mettle against the world’s best. To qualify for an F1 Super License, a driver must be 18, hold an International Grade A competition license, pass an FIA test, must have accumulated at least 40 points over the previous three seasons in any FIA-approved championships, and completed 80 percent of two full seasons in an approved championship.

Formula E

Formula E might not exist within the standard FIA pyramid, but it’s a growing series that’s certainly worth a mention. Formed in 2014 and officially known as the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, Formula E is essentially F1 for electric cars. Conceived as a means of reducing carbon emissions while promoting the development and marketing of hybrid and electric vehicles, Formula E has become an increasingly popular series for racing fans across the world.

Electric cars might sound antithetical to FIA’s high-octane roots, but that’s no longer true. Even F1 cars have used hybrid architecture since 2014, replacing the V8s of old with a new generation of hybrid V6 engines. Like in F2 and below, all Formula E racers use the same car, which is currently the Gen3 Formula E model featuring a Spark Racing Technology chassis and Williams Advanced Engineering battery. With a 350 kW electric motor under the hood, the Gen3 car can reach almost 200 mph with lightning-fast acceleration that allows it to speed from zero to 60 in just 2.8 seconds.

Formula E follows a more condensed race day format than F1 and is generally run on smaller (1.2- to 2.1-mile) street circuits located in dense urban areas. Formula E has become a popular alternative to F1 for those drivers who can’t earn a place on racing’s main stage, with former F1 drivers like Jean-Eric Vergne, Lucas di Grassi, Sebastien Buemi, and Stoffel Vandoorne making the jump.

While there’s no touching the captivating, high-stakes world of Formula 1 racing, the rest of the FIA pyramid plays a vital role in driver development. Without karting, there would be no Schumacher to take the last-minute checkered flag at the 1995 Belgian Grand Prix. Without Formula 3 there wouldn’t be a Valtteri Bottas to guarantee Mercedes’ recent F1 dominance, and without Formula 2 there would be no place for drivers to get a taste of the F1 lifestyle. These lower series might not draw the viewers or sponsorships of F1, but they’re an important part of the racing scene as a whole. Series like Formula 3 and 2 give fans a chance to get up close and personal with the stars of tomorrow, while Formula Regional and Formula 4 enable drivers to break into motorsport without simultaneously breaking the bank. All-in-all, these series allow the FIA to cultivate the stars of tomorrow while making Formula 1 the global phenomenon it is today.

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