F1 and the weather
The weather has an impact on many sports, but there are very few sports where the stakes are as high as they are in Formula One. This year saw the release of 'Senna' - a documentary about the life and career of the man many considered to have been the greatest racing driver of all time. Ayrton Senna was killed in a race at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, proof that even extraordinary amounts of talent can't make you immune to the dangers of high speed driving.
Races proceed in all but the most extreme weather. Because of their design, Formula One cars actually have to be driven at fairly high speeds to be driven safely, as the brake performance and levels of grip generated by the aerodynamic design of the cars only begin to kick in at a certain speed. So, ironically, the conditions most likely to lead to a race being postponed or delayed are those that force the drivers to drive too slowly.
As well as safety, weather impacts upon the small matter of actually winning the race. And in this aspect understanding and anticipating the weather is absolutely paramount, especially as the sport takes place all over the world in a wide variety of conditions.
There are various ways in which the weather will affect a team's tactical choices.
Tyre choice is everything; getting it right or wrong will have a major impact on a driver's final position. In a sport where differences in lap times are often measured in 100ths of a second, this can literally make the difference between winning and losing. There are three types of tyres allowed in F1: wet conditions with standing water on the track (wets), dry weather tyres (slicks), and intermediates (best for showery conditions). Each will work beautifully in the conditions they are designed for, and be disastrous in conditions for which they are not. Wets on a dry track will be several seconds a lap slower than slicks, while slicks on a wet track will have so little grip that they can literally make the car impossible to drive.
Drivers have to use a lot of skill to handle driving in heavy rain. Visibility will be dramatically reduced, and spray coming off the car in front will affect how far drivers can see. Rain can lower brake temperatures, therefore affecting brake performance. If there is a lot of water on the track, a team may decide to raise the front of the car higher off the ground, which will slow the car down because the aerodynamics will be reduced, but it will keep the car above the level of the surface water, making it a bit easier for the driver to see. In wetter weather speeds are also reduced, changing the placement and dynamics of overtaking.
In hot weather, the temperature in the cockpit can easily climb above 50°C and the drivers need to be extremely fit to cope with dehydration. Fernando Alonso once lost 5 kilos in a race after his in-car water bottle broke, and he collapsed with dehydration after the race. Also, in machines built with such tight engineering tolerances overheating can become a real issue, leading to engine failure. Teams will turn down the performance of the engine and instruct their drivers to drive less aggressively if the tyres or engine begin to get too hot.
Wind is not often a particular issue, but strong gusty winds particularly on long straights can affect the aerodynamics of the car and therefore the handling.
Some of decisions relating to weather are made during the race while others are set up before hand and cannot be changed. It means that F1 weather teams are some of the best funded and most weather savvy in the whole of sport.