Formula 1’s Grand Experiment is Set for Silverstone; Bring on Sprint Qualifying
This weekend’s British Grand Prix will mark one of the biggest shake-ups to Formula 1’s format in its 71-year history.
Formula 1 has long pondered methods with which to enhance the action while retaining the ethos of the championship. It also has the bottom line to factor in when contemplating its ideas. This weekend its newest idea will be evaluated.
The current three-stage knockout qualifying session, which has been in place since 2006, will still occur but will do so on Friday evening—prime time for European viewers—but that outcome will not set the grid for the Grand Prix but instead it will just set the grid for the new-for-2021 Sprint Qualifying race.
Sprint will take place on Saturday afternoon, and will be a race of length 17 laps (100 km or approx. 62 miles), which is about a third distance of a Grand Prix), with free tire choice and no mandated pitstop. The result of Sprint will determine the grid for Sunday’s F1 British Grand Prix. Saturday’s top three finishers in the qualifying race will receive points—3, 2 and 1—for their efforts.
No, there will not be a podium ceremony on Saturday, but instead the top three will receive laurel wreaths and be taken on a parade lap.
Sprint has been a couple of years in the making. One prior idea for a reversed-grid race to determine the grid for the Grand Prix was twice rejected. Eventually F1’s stakeholders settled upon this new format.
Drivers have, in a perfunctory way, already experienced different formats.
Qualifying on occasion has been shifted to Sunday morning, while last year’s Imola round took place across two days, as did the preceding Nürburgring round—albeit unintentionally, when fog halted Friday’s action.
And having multiple standing race starts at a weekend is nothing new. Under regulations introduced for 2018, Formula 1’s race director has the option of having a grid start after a red flag rather than a rolling restart as per post a Safety Car phase. Last year’s Mugello race had three standing starts—with only 12 cars lining up for a 13-lap shootout—while Azerbaijan’s Grand Prix, held last month in Baku, had a grid restart with just two of the 51 laps left to run.
The desire from Formula 1 chiefs is that a short 30-minute race, on lower fuel loads and with less tire concerns, will lead to thrilling wheel-to-wheel battles. The fear is that drivers and teams, especially up front, adopt a conservative stance with Sunday’s greater rewards in mind.
“I am not for it or against it at the moment, I will just let it happen and see how it will work out,” said title leader Max Verstappen. “For the race, you try to win it. It’s three points extra you can get so you definitely try to win it even though you know on a Sunday it’s the most important race. We first need to do a weekend like this then we can properly judge everything.”
“If you start at the pointy end you might be a little bit, I do not want to say cautious, but not take as many unnecessary risks,” said McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo. “But if you are a bit further back you see it as an opportunity to try and gain a handful of positions at the start.”
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz added that “knowing F1 drivers, and the way we act at the start and first lap, I don’t think we’ll be thinking much about Sunday in the first six or seven corners. I think I’m going to just go for it. But once the race settles down maybe yes we start thinking about Sunday.”
The new format will place a greater emphasis on Friday’s opening practice session, with only one hour of running before set-ups must be locked in.
“It’s a bit more crucial in terms of the set-up of the car, as we only have one session to find the set-up and then we’re stuck with it for the rest of the weekend,” said Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas. “Both Lewis (Hamilton) and I were in the simulator earlier this week, trying different approaches, I think now we have a pretty good understanding, in theory, on how we should start the weekend, in terms of set-up.
“I would say we took a bit more of a detailed preparation, in terms of set-up itself than in other weekends, because we won’t have three practice sessions to find the best balance.”
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc concurred, calling FP1 “crucial,” before adding: “I think it will be pretty busy but very, very important to try and understand the car, try to do the last set-up work before qualifying and then that’s it. You get to stay with that car for the rest of the weekend.”
As part of the format change, the victor of the 17-lap race will officially be credited in the record books with pole position, regardless of the fastest qualifier for the Sprint race itself. Four-time champion, Sebastian Vettel, who has 57 pole positions, is not a fan.
“Pole is the fastest lap time achieved in qualifying, so it gets all a bit confusing,” Vettel said. “Obviously it depends, if this is a one-off, it doesn’t do much harm but if we end up doing 10 sprint races next year or in the future, I just think it’s a bit weird. Pole position should go to the guy who is fastest on one lap.”
“Pole position should go to the guy who is fastest on one lap.”
Formula 1 has previously indicated that it will assess feedback from drivers, teams and fans alike before committing to Sprint beyond 2021. But consider that a title sponsor has already been secured for Sprint, creating an income avenue that had not existed previously, and the new format will mean there are three ‘must-see’ sessions on each day to pique interest.
Formula 1 has used its digital platforms to promote previous frantic finales to races, alongside a special ‘Sprint’ logo. More eyeballs will help oil the wheels of the lucrative broadcast deals, particularly in a pandemic, with only 17 of the proposed 22 events having been delivered in 2020. Teams directly benefit from Formula 1’s revenue, and indeed only approved Sprint once the finances had been settled. They demanded more, around $150,000 per Sprint Qualifying, amid concerns over wear and tear and greater damage potential of their cars.
The concern is at what stage a product becomes overly saturated and its prestige lessened. There will be further trials of Sprint in Italy and, likely, Austin. But if it is proven to have a beneficial financial outcome for Liberty Media—Formula 1’s U.S. owners since 2017—then it will surely be here to stay.
For now all eyes are on Saturday afternoon’s experiment, which is precisely what F1 wants.
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