My Thoughts on F1 Sprint Qualifying - A Promising Start!
Formula One has just completed its first Sprint Qualifying test - here are my thoughts.
Formula One has followed the same qualifying format for decades, with the only exception to this being for a handful of weekends in 2016 when the 'knockout qualifying' concept was deemed a complete failure.
Four years later and the team at Formula One wanted to find a way to make F1 more interesting for the fans, as well as bring the field closer in terms of grid position. The result? A one-third length feature race held on Saturday afternoon to decide the order for Sunday's full-length race.
This article is going to explain exactly what sprint qualifying is, as well as what my personal thoughts on the new format are. I will share my praises and concerns for this revamped qualifying session, but would also love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
How does it work?
Sprint Qualifying, which is being trialled at three events this year, has replaced FP3 as a more exciting way for drivers to qualify for the final race. The race weekend is still split in three days - Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but sees the order of the sessions shuffled around.
FP1 is the first session hosted on Friday, which is the usual 60-minute session that we are used to seeing at the start of a race weekend. Later on in the afternoon, drivers will take to the circuit again to complete a traditional, three-stage qualifying session in order to decide the order for the sprint race.
Moving on to Saturday and the drivers will compete in another 60-minute practice session (FP2) in order to gather some more data for the sprint race and actual race. Several hours later, the drivers will line up on the grid in the order from Friday's qualifying session and start a 100km sprint. Pitstops are not expected in the sprint race, though the option is still there if a driver suffers damage, such as a puncture.
Points are offered to the top three drivers at the end of the race; with first place receiving three points, second place being offered two points, and third place receiving just one point. The final finishing order in the sprint race is the same order that the drivers will start in on Sunday afternoon.
It is also worth noting that following sprint qualifying, all drivers will start the main race on a fresh set of tyres, which was only a luxury enjoyed by those outside the top ten in the classic format.
How did the Sprint Race go?
The first sprint race trial occurred today at the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit in Great Britain, which saw Max Verstappen jump ahead of Lewis Hamilton to take pole position for the British Grand Prix. Hamilton had put in a superb performance on Friday evening to beat Verstappen to pole position for the sprint race; but lost the position to his championship rival at the first corner of lap one, and was unable to make his way past again.
Silverstone's sprint race was only 17 laps long, which is equivalent to 100km of the circuit. The usual race length for the British Grand Prix is 52 laps, which means the drivers completed just under a third of the typical race distance. At a circuit like Monaco, which has 78 laps, there will be more laps available in the sprint race to accommodate for the smaller circuit.
Personally, I was a big fan of what I saw in today's race. Not only did we see a battle continue at the front of the field, but the midfield pack was bunched together until the very end of the race. Fernando Alonso made an excellent start, jumping six places on the first lap, before eventually being passed by Norris and Ricciardo to qualify seventh place for tomorrow's race.
All of the teams struggle to match the one-lap pace of Red Bull and Mercedes in qualifying, but the gamble that is competing in a twenty-driver race (rather than the less risky one flying lap) helped produce a starting grid that we likely wouldn't have seen through a regular qualifying session as a result of exceptional performances - but is still realistic enough to reward the teams that have the better cars.
With every race comes a risk, and for Sergio Perez, the risk of pushing in qualifying didn't pay off. Around halfway through the 17-lap race, Perez spun at the exit of Chapel and somehow kept his car out of the wall; though dropped to the back of the grid and damaged his tyres. Red Bull strategically retired the Mexican's car (as he was running around in 17th, only ahead of the two Haas') on the penultimate lap to save the engine as he can easily re-overtake Schumacher and Mazepin at the start of tomorrow's race.
This is the beauty of sprint qualifying - pushing hard can give be incredibly rewarding, such as in Alonso's case; but going that step too far can punish you massively and see you starting from the back of the grid.
What are the Negatives of Sprint Qualifying?
While I really enjoyed the idea of having a second race held on Saturday, there are several issues that I believe need to be pointed out. Firstly, I don't believe sprint qualifying should offer points for the three fastest drivers.
Qualifying has never offered points for the fastest driver, and I personally don't believe it should. For the last year and a half, we have often seen the same three drivers - Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas - take the top three spots on the grid, with the only exceptions being if one of the drivers have a bad day, if the car doesn't perform as well at a certain track, or if another team make a huge leap in that particular weekend.
Furthermore, the Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas combination has become the most frequent podium combination in F1 history, and continues to extend this lead most weekends of the year. While sprint qualifying makes qualifying and the race weekend in general more exciting, having points in the session doesn't make the championship more exciting. Sure, midfield drivers may take a gamble and qualify near the front of the grid; but if Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen continue to dominate the front three spaces, then the points gained will see them run away from the rest of the field in the championship.
Toto Wolff also made a comment in regards to this afternoon's sprint race, saying that he wished there were five laps instead of 17. I totally understand the Mercedes team principal's thought process on this, as the extra engine mileage will not only strain the components of the cars (which could see a reliability failure destroy the championship battle we have been enjoying) but also take away from the race on Sunday.
As I explained earlier with Monaco theoretically having more sprint race laps if this setting was permanently adopted, having all sessions consist of five laps would not be fair due to the shorter or longer nature of some circuits (think of the difference between five laps at Belgium and 5 laps at Monaco). Instead, F1 could consider lowering the overall distance to perhaps 75km or 50km. While I am conflicted about whether I think the sprint race is a good length or not, I definitely think all the options should be considered.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the entertainment of sprint qualifying, but am concerned about how it would cope at circuits where overtaking is difficult, such as Monaco and Spain. Regarding the future of this format, I believe sprint qualifying should continue to be an experiment in 2022, rather than become the adopted format. Next year's regulations changes should see the cars become a lot more competitive with their improved ability to follow each other; but I think Formula One should consider 2022 as an extra year of testing under the new regulations.
Regardless, I think the adoption of a new format is a good idea for the sport. Personally, I never watch Free Practice for a combination of different reasons, but would be a lot more likely to tune into the traditional qualifying on Friday instead of FP2.
What did you think of sprint qualifying? I would love to read your thoughts in the comments section below!
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