Initial thoughts about Formula 1’s sprint qualifying

Formula 1 entered a new era of sorts during the 2021 British Grand Prix when it held its first sprint qualifying on the Saturday. It is one of three that are planned to be trialled throughout the remainder of the 2021 season. Here are some of my initial thoughts.

Admit it, it’s a race

Formula 1 decided to term its new session as sprint qualifying. The series ensured it was deemed a qualifying session and not a race when it stated that whoever won, in this case Max Verstappen, that driver would be officially recognised as having claimed pole position for the 2021 edition of the British Grand Prix.

The only problem was that although people started by referring to it as a sprint qualifying session, by the end many either couldn’t decide what to call the session, or came to the conclusion that it looked more like a race, rather than qualifying, and therefore started to call it a sprint race.

The FIA’s tweet where despite the picture saying ‘sprint qualifying’, the tweet refers to the session as a ‘sprint race’

Even some of the drivers referred to it as a sprint race, rather than a sprint qualifying session. On top of this the FIA itself tweeted the results of the session as ‘the inaugural Sprint Race’. To cap this all off there are news articles referring to the session as a ‘sprint qualifying race’.

Which all in all leaves the feeling that Formula 1 needs to admit that although the new session decides the grid for the full Grand Prix, it is effectively a race, therefore calling it a sprint race would make more sense in the future.

New formats won’t solve fundamental problems

While watching the sprint qualifying I felt it highlighted a glaring issue, that hopefully will be partly solved by the new 2022 technical regulations. That being no matter how many different formats Formula 1 wants to either trial or introduce, it is meaningless if the spread between the fastest and slowest car is too big. Even in the 17 lap sprint qualifying it was evident to see the field split into its familiar groups, with Verstappen and Hamilton charging off in front, Bottas attempting to keep in touch and the rest quickly falling, and squabbling, behind.

Yes Charles Leclerc did finish a distant fourth, but he was perhaps helped slightly by the fast starting but slow Fernando Alonso holding up the likes of the McLarens.

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To try and illustrate the above point further, Max Verstappen topped Q1 in Friday’s qualifying session with a 1:26.751 with the slowest time from that session being a 1:29.051 by Nikita Mazepin. That sort of gap between the front and back of the grid won’t help create entertaining races, whether it’s a 17 lap sprint or a full length Grand Prix.

It may be tempting to excuse that as simply Haas and Mazepin not doing a great job in 2021. But Charles Leclerc was third in Q1 with a time of 1:27.051. That 0.3 second gap to Verstappen is a big margin in Formula 1 terms and is the bigger issue that needs resolving.

Any tweaks before the second trial?

Despite the two points I have raised above, the format did show some promise and it will be interesting to see what tweaks, if any, Formula 1 will make to the format ahead of its second outing, due to take place at the Italian Grand Prix.

Those tweaks could include ditching the second free practice session as some, including Max Verstappen and Toto Wolff, didn’t see the point of the session once the cars had entered parc ferme after the first free practice session, which took place prior to the Friday qualifying session.

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There was also a suggestion from Lewis Hamilton that with the sprint qualifying there could be the possibility of turning Formula 1 Grand Prix into two day events. It would therefore be interesting to see whether the series decides to get real world data by making the Italian Grand Prix, or the third sprint qualifying event, a two day event.

There are then other aspects such as the post race ceremonies and also the timings of the sessions, as some did feel that some of the sessions were held quite late in the day.

Does the format have a shelf life?

The new format inevitably had some issues but also did show promise by allowing some strategy elements but fundamentally giving drivers the opportunity to push their cars more.

Yet I fear that there is also the potential that with more sprint qualifying sessions taking place, teams will find a way to inadvertently take some of the entertainment aspects out of the session.

It was new for everyone at Silverstone which helped, but fast forward three or five seasons and Formula 1 teams may have enough data that they come up with an optimum strategy, which as stated earlier could inadvertently take some of the entertainment out of the session.

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There is also the other possibility that some drivers may find themselves ‘getting burnt’ once too often by the sprint qualifying, and therefore decide not to risk too much. For example Sergio Perez initially qualified fifth but due to his sprint qualifying will actually start from the back for the full Grand Prix because of his spin.

Were such an incident to happen to a particular driver once too often, they may decide that it isn’t worth racing fellow drivers too much and focus instead on staying out of trouble and holding onto the position that they have. This once again would take out some of the entertainment that the new session is supposed to provide.

Other stuff

The example of Sergio Perez also to me creates the fear that some drivers or teams will attempt ‘to game’ the session by retiring the car and opting for a pitlane start in the full Grand Prix, so that they can make changes to the car, which they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to do.

It’s important to remember that Formula 1 teams comb through regulations to find any and all grey areas, which also tends to lead to controversies. It begs the question whether it is a matter of time before someone attempts to find a loophole created by the sprint qualifying format.

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Even if it is ultimately decided that the sprint qualifying session isn’t specifically what Formula 1 needs or wants, it has brought the series some success already. That being it, along with teams and drivers, having successfully managed to trial a different format. This will hopefully give the series the confidence to trial other ideas in the future.

With the above point in mind, it will also be interesting to see whether the sprint qualifying will open the door for the series to mix the format of its Grand Prix weekends up a bit more. In as much as NASCAR has oval and road courses, as well as racing on dirt, Formula 1 should see sprint qualifying as one of a variety of formats it can use to help particular Grand Prix standout. This could be achieved by introducing an Indianapolis 500 style qualifying, or a NASCAR style stage system for particular Grand Prix, alongside sprint qualifying and the more traditional Grand Prix format.

Ultimately it was good to get the first sprint qualifying session ‘under the belt’ and it will be interesting to see what happens with the other two trials of the format in 2021.

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