Why Formula 1 Doesn't Need Reverse-Grid Races
Despite Pierre Gasly's debut victory at the Italian Grand Prix, I still believe that a change in format won't fix F1's bigger issue.
In a season dominated by the Mercedes team, Pierre Gasly’s emotional debut victory at the Italian Grand Prix was a welcome sight to the fans. It was the first victory for a French driver since Olivier Panis’ win in Monaco in 1996, the team’s first victory since Monza 2008 in their previous guise as Toro Rosso, and the first victory for a team other than Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari in the turbo-hybrid era. Additionally, he was joined on the podium by Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll, who both scored the second F1 podium of their respective careers.
The side-effect of such a bizarre result has, not for the first time this season, brought up the topic of reverse-grid races. The subject had been brought up by the Sky Sports F1 team during practice for the Spanish Grand Prix, when Karun Chandhok presented his concept of a shorter, half-points race on Saturday with the grid being reverse-championship order. This would be in addition to the existing Saturday qualifying and Sunday Grand Prix.
It is worthy of a discussion, especially as Gasly’s victory wouldn’t have been possible without the order being shaken up by the red flag and Lewis Hamilton’s penalty. However, I believe that reverse-grid races are not the change that F1 needs.
As a driver who has raced in various karting categories for more than a decade, I am familiar with reverse-grid races. More often than not, the grid for the first heat of the day is randomly generated, and this also determines where you’ll start from in the second and third heats (i.e. if you’re placed on pole for heat 1, you’ll start last for heat 2 and in the middle for heat 3). These races are short, and the culmination of these results determines your starting position for the final.
On the surface then, this seems like an equalizer, a way to test the adaptability of the drivers. But the importance of these races, combined with the short race length, makes the driving extremely erratic. The probability of being involved in a first-lap collision is very high, as drivers are trying to make progress early on. All of this means that the heats are not an equalizer, but a lottery. If we’re to believe that Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport with the finest drivers on the planet, then it shouldn’t be a lottery.
Furthermore, the viewing figures for the Grand Prix itself would likely drop substantially, and teams would be reluctant to risk damaging the cars in a collision before the next day’s Grand Prix or put extra mileage on their power units, of which the regulation already restricts the drivers to just 3 per season.
But in my opinion, the biggest issue is that no matter how much you tweak the weekend format, it won’t change the fact that Mercedes have, by far, the dominant car of the field.
Cast your mind back to 2012, in my opinion the greatest Formula 1 World Championship in living memory. Over the course of the season there were 8 different winners, 7 of which were in the first 7 races and from 6 different teams! Such a variety of winners has never been seen in any other season, and ultimately the battle for the title came down to a final-race showdown at a dramatic race in Brazil.
Was the weekend format largely different to how it is now? No.
Instead, we need to look into the results to see the difference between the past and the present. The number of race winners didn’t look set to be any more than 3 this season before Gasly’s shock victory at Monza, and doesn’t look set to change again any time soon. And frankly we’re lucky that we have had 3 teams who have a race victory to their name, given the current form of the all-conquering Mercedes team (as Martin Brundle has alluded to in commentary, thank goodness for Max Verstappen!).
The strategy is also a very different story. A staple of the races in 2012 was the amount of pit-stop activity due to the very high degradation tyres; two, three or even four-stop strategies were seen throughout the season! Now however, one-stop strategies are the norm, making it harder for the brilliant minds up on the pit-wall to take a gamble and work with their driver to win the race.
The biggest difference however, is that the brilliant ‘Formula 1.5’ battle, is stuck fighting for ‘best of the rest’. Drivers like Gasly, Sainz, Norris, Ricciardo and Perez could drive a better race than Lewis Hamilton, yet they could only (realistically) hope for 4th or 5th. By contrast, 2012 saw Perez score three podiums for Sauber, Hulkenberg fight for a win in Brazil and Maldonado take victory in Spain for Williams. Midfield teams were consistently fighting the top teams for podiums and victories, and unlike 2020 the drivers were truly being rewarded for their efforts.
This is why I believe that the format for the weekend should remain unaltered. Pierre Gasly has been one of the drivers of the season and shouldn’t have to rely on a reverse-grid lottery to be fighting at the front. Instead, Formula 1 should be focusing on making the grid more competitive so that his heroics in other Grand Prix’s can be rewarded, even in an Alpha Tauri. This would truly create the David vs Goliath situation that we all want to see!
This is not to say that the weekend format is perfect, but if it were my choice, I would only make small alterations to shake up the order. Hopefully at some point in the near future, we will be allowed to attend a Grand Prix in person again, and when it happens I think that the F1 paddock should open to the general public (Friday only) and ticket prices should be slashed…watch how quickly the fans pour in! I also think that the two 90 minute practice sessions should be reduced to an hour respectively, forcing the teams to get running in and making the show better for the fans.
On Saturday I would change the one hour practice session to a 45 minute shakedown, but the qualifying hour has worked perfectly since 2006 and doesn’t need changing. Finally I would make it mandatory to run all 3 tyre compounds during the race. This would force the teams into a 2-stop strategy and make the preferable choice on tyres less obvious.
When asked about reverse-grids at the Tuscan Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel was quoted as saying “If you are pushing in that direction [it’s] a testimony that you failed to come up with regulations and tools that bring the field more together and make racing better on track”. Thankfully, with the budget cap coming into effect over the next few years, along with another reset in aerodynamic regulations, Formula 1 is seemingly heading in the right direction.
Reverse-grids were worth the discussion, but while a lottery gives anyone a chance at victory, a more competitive grid will truly showcase the world's very best drivers.