OPINION: Formula 1 kicked off its experimental sprint qualifying race at the British Grand Prix on Saturday with a mixed reception from fans and drivers alike. Ultimately, it’s hard to draw any conclusions after just one outing, but there will be some bright spots and lessons to be learned moving forward.
It was always going to be difficult for Formula 1’s first sprint qualifying race to live up to the hype that had been building around it for weeks.
Hopes of a 100km race to the max, with riders beating their wheels in their battle for the top positions now worried about tire and fuel degradation, were unlikely to come to fruition.
But Silverstone’s first sprint can certainly be seen as an honorable first try, although it offered some warning signs of potential problems on the horizon if it became a regular feature.
On the positive side, there was some good action on the track, and it was a race where the drivers weren’t just sitting there waiting for a pit stop to give them a chance to pass.
Up front, of course, it turned into what Carlos Sainz predicted it would be before the weekend: brilliant fun through seven corners, then settling into a procession.
Max Verstappen’s aggressive weaving in the first round and Lewis Hamilton’s daring attempt to sidestep the exterior of rival Red Bull at Copse were brilliant to see – and probably something you wouldn’t expect in a regular two hour GP.
The show was certainly saved by the brilliance of Fernando Alonso by switching on his soft drinks at the start and moving from 11th place on the grid to fifth place after the first lap.
Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M and Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo By: Charles Coates / Motorsport images
With the fight for the top four positions pretty much stabilized from there anyway, all the attention was on Alonso as he valiantly tried to hold the middle runners behind him.
It was the kind of strategy difference you rarely see in F1, as the stints are normally much longer than the 17 laps the sprint was raced on. Alonso would never have taken the soft bet on a normal Sunday as it would have stopped early and ruined his racing chances.
What will be particularly fascinating to see is if Silverstone’s very narrow crossover point between soft and medium for sprinting is matched at other venues.
Because if the soft had not been an option (and remember that Valtteri Bottas could not benefit much from it), then the sprint event would certainly have been much less exciting.
The finish of the sprint wasn’t just the hope of delivering a brilliant 30 minute show on a Saturday afternoon.
As F1 chief Ross Brawn has said over and over again in recent weeks, the format change was aimed at improving the entire race weekend – with a focal point every day. This means a qualifying on Friday, a sprint on Saturday and a main race on Sunday.
The British GP on Friday undoubtedly showed that the movement had spiced up the opening day of practice.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, greets fans
Photo By: Steven Tee / Motorsport images
The thrill of the crowds to see Hamilton pick up a pole (it wasn’t a pole) was clear to see. In terms of engagement, the eyes on the sport were certainly bigger on a Friday than they are when teams focus on their long-term data.
But what needs to be taken into account is that the Silverstone weekend benefited from the novelty factor. Hamilton’s pole and George Russell’s Q3 effort was a highlight as they were something new in a race where a large home crowd was behind the home heroes.
What we cannot say yet is whether the intensity and value of Friday’s qualifying could drop massively in the future if the teams realize that the grid positions for the sprint race have not. not that much importance.
If the main competitive difference between teams now is having good escapades and good first laps, then drivers could quickly stop worrying too much about what happens on a Friday.
And as soon as the drivers say, “I don’t care, I qualified fourth, I know the sprint race changes everything,” then the fans will quickly carry that message and turn off the Friday action themselves.
A definite benefit of Friday’s change for fans, however, is that the lack of practice time means there is a greater chance for teams to get the settings wrong.
Parc Fermé rules mean that pilots are stuck in their settings from Friday afternoon, meaning there is only one session to decide their approach to the weekend.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo By: Charles Coates / Motorsport images
In Red Bull’s case, his dominant form in Friday’s opening practice convinced him to lock in to a high downforce setting. With rival Mercedes choosing to take off and go for straight-line speed, it now means Verstappen is stuck with something he knows isn’t ideal. Such danger can be good for providing entertainment.
The parc fermé rules have, as Verstappen feared, triggered the consequence of making the final free practice session on Saturday morning a bit redundant. It cannot be used as a session to make changes to the car’s settings, so this is just an opportunity to check tire life.
At Silverstone, the thin margins between the soft tire and the medium tire meant it was interesting for teams to get their cars out and check out what was the best course to go, Williams Vehicle Performance Manager Dave Robson, admitting he was “quite impressed with how much racing the teams did in FP2”. But on tracks where the softer tire can easily last the entire sprint race, what will there be to gain by increasing engine and race car mileage?
What we don’t fully know yet is the impact that today’s sprint race spectacle will have on the main grand prix.
With the parc fermé rules in place and the riders all looking set to start on the same medium tires, there is little reason to believe that in terms of pace, everything will be different.
Fans already know Red Bull seem too quick in the corners for Hamilton to follow close enough, so the only hope for a turnaround on Sunday is for strategy to kick in. Does that make it more or less exciting if we had entered the full race today?
A glance at the finish order of the sprint race shows that there was no upheaval, only Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen won big from the afternoon.
|Friday qualifying position||Driver||F1 sprint position||Difference|
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo By: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport images
The biggest loser was Sergio Perez, whose rotation put him at the back of the pack. He now looks set to set off from the pit lane on Sunday with Red Bull able to make changes to the car’s settings to help him move forward.
But it’s hard to judge the value of sprint races based on the fact that drivers are huge losers and fall behind. Is F1 really better off if, for example, it was Verstappen or Hamilton who started at the back on Sunday and with little hope of challenging their rival up front?
One of the big social media debates over the weekend was about messaging and naming. F1 has been particularly keen not to call the sprint race a “race”. In the FIA rulebook this is known as sprint qualifying. F1 owners Liberty Media have called it “F1 Sprint”. But for fans, it’s the kind of marketing talk that just gets them excited.
As F1 post-race media interviewer Jenson Button aptly told Verstappen, as he kept tripping over himself to keep from saying the R-word: “I don’t want to call it a race, but it was a race … “
Then the arguments over whether pole position at the 2021 British Grand Prix is to be awarded to Verstappen or Hamilton will rage forever.
In FIA terms, it is the Dutchman who starts from pole after winning the sprint qualifying and duly starting from pole position for Sunday’s race. For many fans (including Verstappen himself, and Sebastian Vettel) it should be Hamilton who deserves the credit for what he did in qualifying on Friday …
“Pole position should be earned on a quick lap, for me it is a real pole position,” said Verstappen.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st, and Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 3rd, go around the circuit in the victory truck after Sprint qualifying
Photo By: Charles Coates / Motorsport images
After all, you can safely say that the sprint race is actually just the first stint in the proper grand prix, but with an automatic red flag after 17 races and a restart the next day.
Whether or not sprint racing is the future of F1 is still uncertain, but what is clear is that the sport has done the right thing by experimenting and trying something new. It gave fans and the media a lot to say; and that can only be a victory for F1.
As McLaren CEO Zak Brown said on Saturday morning: “I think what has worked well is that people are talking about the weekend and the format.
“Ultimately it sparks interest, and whether these people are pros at what they see or not, it gave people a reason to log on Friday that they might not have done. before, and I think everyone is going to watch the sprint race.
“You’ll never get a unanimous opinion on the correct answer. But so far, I like what I’ve seen, because it created a conversation.”
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st, and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2nd, each congratulate each other after Sprint qualifying
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport images