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What does 'tow' mean in F1?

Jake Nichol November 6, 2021
What does 'tow' mean in F1?
Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

Qualifying for the Mexico City Grand Prix has taken place with cars hunting for the tow behind rivals. But what is the meaning of ‘tow’ in F1 and why is it important?

At high-speed circuits with long straights such as the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and Monza in Italy, an F1 car will achieve a faster lap time if it follows another car.

This is called ‘the tow’.

F1 tow meaning explained

Effectively, it is one car ‘towing’ another around the lap.

As the car in front will be punching a hole in the air, the driver behind will benefit from higher speeds around the lap.

The tow is also known as a ‘slipstream’.

However, it is surprisingly difficult to execute right, with cars sometimes failing to get the tow.

A fine margin in getting the tow right in F1

Teams will often try giving the tow between their two drivers throughout practice.

If the car behind is too close, it will suffer through the corners from following in the dirty air of the car ahead.

Obviously, the further away you are, the less the benefit.

The tow is estimated to be worth around 0.2s on the main straight at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

Tow leads to qualifying chaos

In qualifying for the 2019 Italian GP, the desperation from some to receive the tow bordered on the ridiculous.

Ahead of the final runs in Q3, all ten cars stayed in their garages until the last possible moment.

Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg was first out but ran wide through the Turn 1 chicane, hoping another driver would pass him – so he could receive, and not give, the tow.

Racing Point’s Lance Stroll was told not to pass Hulkenberg, which led to farcical scenes of the entire pack backing up.

Eventually, only McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr made it to the line to set a lap time, as the other nine missed the flag.

Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Drivers often back up into the final corner of a lap in an attempt to secure the tow and position themselves correctly.

Any car can give another a tow, not necessarily teammates.

In qualifying for the Mexico City Grand Prix, Red Bull were among the teams trying to execute the tow.

On the first runs in Q3, Max Verstappen was too far behind Sergio Perez to benefit.

Although he was closer on the second runs, Verstappen could only manage third on the grid.

Valtteri Bottas took pole position with Lewis Hamilton riding shotgun on the front row.

Photo by Bryn Lennon – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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Jake can usually be found writing about or watching anything to do with motorsport – from Formula 1 to NASCAR to British Truck Racing. His work as a motorsport journalist has been published by the likes of Autosport, Motorsport.com and Motorsport News – all highly respected names. Away from racing he is a keen amateur astronomer, podcast listener and enjoys long walks in the park with his three dogs.