By Thiemo Albers-Daly
Earlier this year, Formula 1 announced that it would trial Sprint Races at three of the 2021 Grand Prix weekends. Whilst it is yet unconfirmed where they will be held, it is widely believed that they will take place in Silverstone, Monza and Brazil. Despite unanimous agreement from the F1 teams to try this new format, it has divided the wider F1 community. After some thought and seeing the points from both sides, here’s my two cents on the issue.
I’ve been watching Formula 1 for as long as I can remember. The outline of a Grand Prix weekend has been embedded into my sub conscious since I was about three years old. Practice comes first on Friday/Saturday, then qualifying on Saturday to determine the grid and finally, the eagerly anticipated race itself on the Sunday. And to be perfectly honest with you, I’ve never seen anything wrong with this format.
The tension and wonder about what’s going to happen builds up from the opening moments of the first Practise Session on Friday all the way until the red lights go out on Sunday. For me, qualifying is a vital cog in this build up because even though anything can happen in a Formula 1 race, qualifying sets a brand-new challenge for the drivers that racing simply can’t give you.
Qualifying boils everything down to what is ultimately, a single timed lap. It’s all or nothing. Now there’s no such thing as a perfect lap, but that’s never stopped every racing driver in history from trying to achieve one. It gives the drivers a chance to show that they’ve got another string to their bow; that when it comes down to it, across a single lap, the person who sticks it on pole is faster than everyone else on the grid – and probably faster than everyone watching the lap too. We watch Formula 1 for the competition and qualifying adds that extra layer to the overall narrative of who is the best driver on the grid.
It also provides everyone else with the chance to take the mind games for the weekend up a notch. Inter-team battles between teammates are great for qualifying. It gets the competitive juices flowing. The same goes for the midfield team battles as well as for those at the top of the grid. It’s a chance to show what improvements you’ve made and to psych out your opponent. You get to focus on each car and driver individually. This allows everyone to admire all the hard work that has gone into building these cars and what the driver has to put in to get the maximum out of it. As a driver you get to show what you’re capable of when you put all of you knowledge about the car and the track together, along with your experience, your speed and daring behind the wheel.
Qualifying gives the teams something else to smile about. Take Williams for example. They don’t have the best car on the grid at the moment but have improved substantially since last year. This has been most apparent in qualifying where George Russell last year was ecstatic to make it into Q2. This year, he’s on the verge of making it into Q3 and it means the world to him and the rest of the team. It’s a sign of progress and making it back to winning ways.
Then, good result or bad, you know where you’re starting the race from and what kind of challenges you can expect Sunday to bring. For example, if Max Verstappen takes pole position with Lewis Hamilton in second, you’ve got a great race ahead of you. Verstappen will want to prove to Lewis that he can beat him again and stay ahead of him to take the race win. Hamilton meanwhile wants to prove that he’s still the top dog and that whilst Max might have found a chink in his armour, it’s not a fatal flaw. Qualifying also gives other drivers the opportunity to make races more interesting if they really excel. As another example, imagine if Lando Norris’ lap time in Imola had been allowed. He would have started from third on the grid for the race and who knows what he might have been able to achieve. Especially when one considers, he finished in third place in the actual race as it was – a race win would not have been out of the question.
So now we come to Sprint Races. As someone who watches both Formula 2 and Formula 3, I like them. They provide the fans with some great wheel to wheel racing and really puts all of the young drivers through the paces. It gives everyone an opportunity to shine and claim the spotlight. But it’s for that exact reason that I don’t think they should be used in Formula 1. In Formula 1, you watch it for the build-up, for the battle for Pole Position in qualifying and then for the main event of the epic feature length box office Grand Prix. It if were a film, it would be a tale of three acts with the Grand Prix as the epic conclusion.
Whereas for all their entertainment and great racing, F2 & F3 are essentially practise for the main event. It’s where drivers come to show that they’ve got what it takes to make it in Formula 1. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re both excellent racing categories but what suits them, doesn’t necessarily suit Formula 1.
As a small notation to this however, I’d say that if there had to be a change to qualifying, I’d recommend awarding a Championship point for the driver that gets pole. It’s a valuable achievement after all and would give Qualifying some extra umph without unnecessarily revolutionizing the whole affair. Just look at how competitive the drivers get over trying to get the point for the fastest lap of a Grand Prix! It would be great to see the impact an extra point would have on Qualifying.
To put Sprint Races into Formula 1 then would, for me, diminish the overall value of a Grand Prix weekend. It just doesn’t fit with the narrative and isn’t a necessary addition. F1 organizers tried meddling with Qualifying before, most recently in 2016. And what an absolute mess that was. So as fun as Sprint Races are elsewhere, leave them there. Qualifying in Formula 1 isn’t broken, so people should stop trying to fix it.
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