Can Formula 1 Cars Reverse?

As one would expect, Formula 1 drivers spend the vast majority of a race going round the track with their nose in front. Having to go backwards is an extremely rare occurrence. But in the unlikely event that an F1 car has to reverse, will it be able to?

There are actually 2 ways to answer this question. First of all are Formula 1 vehicles physically capable of moving in reverse? And secondly do the myriad of rules in the sport allow the drivers to move their car backwards?

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Imola, 2021 · RaceFans
Creator: XPB Images | Credit: XPB Images

Is it Physically Possible?

Let’s start by ascertaining whether or not a Formula One machine can spin its wheels in the opposite direction. Absolutely they can! The pilot merely has to engage the reverse gear by by pressing a dedicated button on their steering wheel. Once the “R” hear is selected, all the F1 driver has to do is squeeze on the accelerator and the rear wheels will spin backwards to pull the car out from a wall or gravel trap.

However, virtually all teams put barely a smidgen of effort into designing the reverse gear. Fair enough; the F1 regulations state that a reverse gear is required for safety reasons but since it doesn’t help give the team an edge on the racetrack in any way, outfits would rather direct their time and spending on more important components.

In fact, race engineers discourage the selection of reverse to their driver, as it can cause the entire gearbox to malfunction or even break. Unless space is at a premium, it is better to just spin the car around.

File:F1 gearbox components (7448373026).jpg
David Precious from Stevenage, Herts, England, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Is it Allowed?

So are Formula One cars allowed to go backwards? Sometimes, but not always. For example, at the 1989 Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril, Ferrari’s Nigel Mansell was disqualified from the event after reversing in the pitlane. It is still to this day explicitly stated in Article 28.3 “At no time may a car be reversed in the pit lane under its own power”.

On the other hand, Lewis Hamilton wasn’t given any sort of penalty for his similar antics at the 2021 Emilia Romagna GP. He had slid off the track while trying to surpass the lapped car of George Russell and ended up in the gravel trap. He had no other option but to go into reverse back onto the tarmac.

While there is a rule in place banning selection of the reverse gear in the pitlane, there is no related rule for on the track. The only regulation is that re-joining the track must be done in a safe manner which respects other drivers going round the circuit. This is decided on a case-by-case basis and is up to the interpretation of the stewards. At that particular race of the 2021 season, Michael Masi and his team determined that Hamilton reversed back into contention in a way which was not dangerous and so he was allowed to continue.

Mansell's black-flag pitstop - YouTube
Nigel Mansell was black-flagged after missing his pit box, and subsequently reversing to be able to change his tyres

Reversing is Dangerous

There is an added danger to reversing an F1 car; that is you haven’t the faintest of idea where you are going! Save for a pair of miniscule wing mirrors, the pilots have next to no visibility behind them.

This was made clear for all to see at the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where Daniel Ricciardo was penalised for backing into the Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat when trying to exit an escape road. However, reversing is much safer when compared to getting a load of marshals out on track to push a vehicle backwards from a humanitarian standpoint.

Furthermore, it is much faster to perform a neat pirouette and point back towards the racing line than select reverse. The gear is designed on F1 cars in a way which makes it nigh-on impossible to select by accident, as this can have dire consequences when battling wheel-to-wheel with another racer. Therefore many F1 gearboxes require drivers to come to a complete stop, select neutral gear then hold down a button or paddle for an extended period of time before R is activated. This loses valuable seconds to a team’s rivals in a race scenario.

A beautiful example of a spin recovery by Nigel Mansell

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