F1 Purist Makes the Case for Change to Sprint Qualifying

·6 min read
Photo credit: Clive Mason - Formula 1 - Getty Images
Photo credit: Clive Mason - Formula 1 - Getty Images
  • Formula 1 is changing up its traditional qualifying format at three to-be-determined races in 2021.

  • Instead of session qualifying, the Sunday starting grid will be determined by finishing order in a 100-km Sprint Qualifying race on Suturday.

  • The Format will reward the top three qualifiers with championship points (3-2-1).

What’s wrong with Sprint Qualifying?

To be honest, not much.

I am a purist in Formula 1 terms. I've attended nearly 600 Grands Prix. I hate reversed grids, weight penalties, performance-balancing and cautions that are not required. They all take away from the purity of racing. It’s a philosophical thing.

I don’t care a jot about sports car racing because those series try to balance the performance of the cars. The fact is that in such series, as in single-make racing, the big teams with the most money will still win. That is never going to change.

Photo credit: Courtesy Joe Saward
Photo credit: Courtesy Joe Saward

I don’t mind some of the thing they do in NASCAR—fake yellows and such things—because there is no real pretense that NASCAR is anything other than show business. The drivers and teams accept that and they race hard. They know that they can be robbed of victories some weekends but can gain unlikely wins on other occasions. It’s a tubthumping, money-generating business.

But F1 is not like that. F1 is like top gun. It’s about being the best of the best. It’s not artificial.

Some might argue that the drag reduction system is just such a gimmick, but I disagree. DRS simply reduces aerodynamic drag in much the same way as slip-streaming used to do, helping the driver behind to reduce his drag, increase his speed and thus overtake the man in front. Slip-streaming wasn’t a gimmick, it was science, and DRS is a very clever way of reproducing the same effect.

But show me a reversed grid and I will show you people who are unworthy to sit on the front row.

Sprint Qualifying is not a bad idea, as far as I am concerned. If you look back in history you will see some strange formats over the years, including having heats added up to decide a winner. I’m not a huge fan of this stuff, but it means that F1 does not have to be rigid.

The world changes, and it is good to change with it. And in this respect it is all about getting people interested because F1 has a lot more competition for the public's attention than used to be the case when there were limited TV channels. Today, you can watch pretty much what you want to watch in terms of sport, but also other cultural activities, and the TV is not the only way to consume entertainment. There are computer games, social media, a whole virtual world that was unthinkable a few years ago.

And we are still only beginning to scratch the surface of what can be done. People in F1 tend to embrace change, rather than fight it. Change brings opportunities, and F1 folk are always looking for new angles.

I’m fascinated to see what F1 will be able to do one day with augmented reality, with real world objects and people interacting with computer-generated environments. There are some people who think that the fastest and easiest way to save the world is not trying to reduce carbon emissions by building more efficient machinery, which is a slow and expensive process. They argue that the fastest way to reduce emissions is to convince people that they don’t need to travel and help them see the world in a virtual hassle-free way. To the older generations this might seem crazy but to the younger generations the travel experience may not hold the same excitement. Their virtual existence is just as important as their real world activities.

Virtual experiences are endless because not only do they redefine space and distance, they can achieve the impossible and can even be operated with time as one of the dimensions. So if one day you want to watch a race with Juan Manuel Fangio in it, you will probably be able to do it. You might even be able to fly around in the virtual sky above the 1950 F1 field as they charge into the first corner at a race.

It may not be real, but does it matter? If you can deep-sea dive without being able to swim, why not?

This may not impact the racing itself, but it can certainly make the sport more compelling—and more profitable. If the consumers of tomorrow want fake reality, why should we not give it to them?

So, in a world where so much is possible and so much more will become possible, does it really matter if F1 twiddles with the way it establishes a grid?

The Sprint Qualifying format is designed to increase the on-track action and engage fans in new and innovative way. It rewards drivers and teams on merit while also giving others the chance to fight to increase their chances in the race on Sunday.

Another element to Sprint Qualifying is that it reduces the amount of practice, which means that teams will be less prepared. More mistakes will be made, and so the racing will be less predictable.

There will still be qualifying in its current format and a race as normal but there will be the added thrill of a race to determine the grid. This will mean that if there are incidents, fast drivers will have to start from the back.

The key point is that no-one must ever be allowed to claim that because they won a qualifying race it is the same as winning a Grand Prix. It clearly isn’t, and that is why the name Sprint Qualifying has been chosen. It is to make sure that no-one can make false claims about being a race winner. A Grand Prix is still a Grand Prix. I am not sure that having point for the Sprint Qualifying is important, but the numbers involved are pretty small. You will get three points for a win on Saturday rather than 25 on Sunday. That’s reasonable. Tire choice will be free but there will be only two sets of tires, which can spice things up.

In any case, the idea is just going to used on a three-race trial basis. If it works. then all the better. If it doesn’t, it can disappear.