F1 fans - and their social media posts - will help decide sprint qualifying future


The first sprint qualifying is in the books and F1 believes it can be even better by analysing fans' responses and tweaking the format

F1 Sprint Qualifying 2021

Sprint races brought in a new opportunity for sponsorship

Bryn Lennon/F1 via Getty Images

Did Silverstone’s sprint qualifying make you sweat? No need to answer because Formula 1 already knows.

The success of the new qualifying format will be partly judged by data from skin sensors, worn by a volunteer fan panel. They pick up changes in sweat glands to indicate which bits of the 17-lap race thrilled and which left the audience bored.

Social media response is also providing insights into viewers’ reaction to the race, with initial analysis showing positive reactions during the majority of the Sprint, but “surprisingly negative” comments once the chequered flag had dropped.

The findings illustrate the data-led approach that Formula 1 is taking to the sprint qualifying trial — and future changes to grand prix formats.

“Viewers were positive during the race. The post-race comments were surprisingly negative.”

Fan research will help tweak the approach for the next two sprint qualifying trials, and ultimately to decide on whether it should continue next year.

“We do a lot of analysis,” F1 chief technical officer Pat Symonds told Motor Sport. “I’ve already had a quick look at some of the analysis of Reddit to look at the sentiment.

“We’re very, very used to internet comments being generally more negative and positive. And we’re also used to habit fans being more negative than casual fans so we understand all that.

Related article

“The sentiment was generally positive during the race and then it went quite negative at the end of the race, and the post-race comments were surprisingly negative.”

More detail on viewers’ response was provided by fans wired up to galvanic skin response sensors. These can detect emotional responses from tiny changes in skin conductivity caused by sweat glands.

“Doing the galvanic skin response biometrics is sometimes more interesting, because firstly, you can’t cheat it. But also we have a little bit more of a spread of different types of fans. Yes, they have to be engaged enough to volunteer to do it but aren’t necessarily diehard fans.”

Comments across the internet throughout the weekend ranged from brilliant to borefest but the race and the findings did provide F1 with plenty to think about moving forward.

Symonds says that he isn’t averse to changing the formula for future Sprints but says that further races are needed before F1 makes a decision.

Fan reactions are already being used in other areas. F1 has developed artificial intelligence that combines social media reactions with race and simulation data to come up with more exciting circuit designs.


The sprint qualifying verdict

Despite picking up on post-race disgruntlement, Symonds says that he sees the first race as a success.

We started the project, ranging from trying to provide more entertainment on each of the three days through to having a bit more jeopardy,” he said. “I think that essentially we achieved a lot of the real fundamentals.

“Overall we were pretty happy with it. I look at Lewis’s lap times in the sprint, I fuel correct them. Compared with the Grand Prix he was running about four-tenths quicker in the Sprint, so he was definitely pushing and there was no tyre conserving going on even though you know he wasn’t in a challenging position.

“I think Friday became the most interesting one we’ve had since we started qualifying that day, many years ago. We picked up Friday audience, TV, and social media numbers and Saturday the objective was to make sure we had cars going past spectators lots of times and get them out on the track. That that worked well.”


Changing the sprint qualifying format

Ross Brawn, F1’s managing director, has already said that tweaks to sprint qualifying are planned, with a job list of improvements that will be tested before being implemented.

Related article

But large-scale changes are unlikely for now. The Sprint set up a monumental fight between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton on the opening lap and then largely settled down. The obvious answer might be to shorten the race and condense the action, but this could have the opposite effect rather than the all-out action fans might be hoping for.

“If the Sprint had been a lot shorter for example, would more cars are started on softs?” said Symonds. “The simulations probably showed it was safe to start on the medium so they did. It’s mostly trying to balance things like that.

“I know the teams would like a chance to do some limited changes on Saturday. I’d consider that because it’s almost transparent to what the fans see. That’s the sort of thing we might look at. I would rather we take three Sprint races on three different types of tracks analyse them, replay them on simulators, see what might have been done differently. What we’re really, really happy with is that for the first time in a long while Friday was something worth seeing.”


Sprint qualifying simulations

F1 is investing heavily in simulating changes before they are trialled in a race weekend, and had already run thousands of virtual sprints before Silverstone.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff complained that the format brought “too much randomness” but impressively — or depressingly, depending on your view — Symonds said that the findings closely matched the outcome of the British Grand Prix Sprint.

Formula 1 is set to analyse and predict the future Sprint events scheduled for Monza and Interlagos, Covid permitting, and will be reliant on data received directly from its fans to determine the future of the sprint qualifying format.

Input from your sofa could help define what is changed and what remains from the Silverstone Sprint, but the experiment is set to stay for the time being while it provides fans a great spectacle.

“We’ll try and optimise it better,” said Symoinds. “That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we’re going to change for the next race. I’m an engineer, I don’t like to respond to one sample.

“The whole idea was to do three races this year and see what it takes. So I’d say we’re happy with it. I’m very pleased to say that pretty much everything happened the way we expected it to. We hope to see a little bit more action in the sprint but that will vary from circuit to circuit.

“We use a lot of simulation to try and figure these things out but we haven’t made any decisions yet. We said it’s an experiment, it remains an experiment.”