F1 drivers too competitive to take it steady in sprint race, says Brawn


The British Grand Prix sprint qualifying race cuts set-up time for teams, offers a free tyre choice and gives drivers an extra chance to prove themselves wheel-to-wheel. It's a formula for intense racing, says Ross Brawn

Start of the 2020 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone

Silverstone hosts the first sprint qualifying race this weekend

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How will Formula 1’s first sprint qualifying weekend unfold at Silverstone? It’s perhaps not insignificant that drivers such as Lewis Hamilton have suggested that the short Saturday event will be a procession, so some observers fear that it could be a damp squib.

However F1 managing director Ross Brawn, one of the men who has backed the concept from the start, remains convinced that we will get an entertaining contest. Will he be proved right?

It’s not just about the 17-lap, no pit stops sprint. The whole rhythm of Friday and Saturday will be very different, and the programmes that teams routinely run through in FP1, FP2 and FP3 as they prepare for normal qualifying and for the Grand Prix have had to be set aside, and a whole new schedule concocted.

The limited time now available to sort your car on Friday morning creates an opportunity to get it right or wrong, and that could have an impact that feeds all the way into the main event.

“On Friday we start with a one-hour practice session,” says Brawn. “And then on Friday afternoon, we go into a qualifying session. So first of all we’ve got a Friday where the teams only have one hour to get ready. And so there isn’t the endless circulating round the track, getting everything perfected. So we believe there’ll be a degree more jeopardy in the whole weekend.

“And the other significant thing is parc fermé starts with qualifying. So if you cock up your set-up on a Friday morning, there’s less scope during the rest of the weekend to get it sorted. So you will need to make sure you’re on the ball on a Friday morning, and focus on the right things. And it’ll be a key session.”

Red Bull in garage with cover

There will be limited set-up time as cars are in parc fermé from the start of qualifying

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The obvious difference from the norm is that in that single hour teams have to be straight into getting the most out of the car on a single lap. This weekend they also have to adjust to the new Pirelli rear tyre – they ran it briefly in Austria, with most reporting that it appeared to make little difference, but no one can be sure how much of an impact it will have at Silverstone, where the loads are so much higher and the hardest compounds are in play.

“The fans are going to see a qualifying session on a Friday afternoon, or early evening,” says Brawn. “We’ve pushed both these events to quite late in the day, so that we can give more opportunity for the fans to see and engage both that at the track, and through our broadcasts. And the order for that qualifying session will determine the starting grid for the Saturday afternoon sprint qualifying.”

Qualifying runs as normal, split into the usual three sessions, but with one major difference – it’s soft tyres all the way through, with no strategic use of mediums in the middle Q2 session by the quick guys.

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“Each team has 12 sets of tyres instead of the 13,” says Brawn. “And they’ve got a pre-determined allocation. So the six soft, four medium or two hard. So that’s 12 sets of dry tyres, and they have the normal sets of wet tyres.

“They can use what they like in the first practice. But the Friday qualifying is four sets of soft tyres, there’s no messing about with ‘I want to use a tyre that I take into the race, so I’m going to use a medium in Q2.’ So it’s very clean, very simple.

“Whoever’s fastest, is the fastest, and they’ll have three goes at it. And the allocation of those tyres, they must leave a new set for Q3. So we can ensure that in Q3, everybody’s is going to have an opportunity on a new set of tyres.”

The second free practice session on Saturday morning will be very different what we see in what would normally be FP3. Qualifying will be out of the way, so it will be all about preparing for the 17-lap sprint in the afternoon, and for Sunday’s main race.

However the catch is that as the cars are already in parc fermé there will be very little that can be done to hone the set-up. If you’re far off, you are in trouble for the rest of the weekend.

Smoke comes off the spinning soft F1 tyre of an Alfa Romeo

Teams must save a set of soft tyres for the final Q3 session

Florent Gooden / DPPI

“Saturday morning, drivers go out and they have an hour to get the car sorted out further. There’s a very strong limit to what they can do. The cars are still in parc fermé at that stage. And it’s more simple things, maybe a bit of a change on tyre pressure, or diff settings, or things they can do within the constraints of parc fermé.”

The key difference between a sprint and a normal Grand Prix is that tyre choice is absolutely free, and the top 10 do not have to start on the tyres that they used in Q2. The significance is that under the current system the guys at the front often start on the preferred medium tyre, because they had the speed to use it in Q2, and those behind are on the soft, and are thus compromised by earlier pit stops and so on. Now it’s a level playing field, and everyone has a choice of gambling or playing it safer.

“For the sprint, you can use whatever tyre you want. And again, in the Grand Prix, the tyre choice is free. So we’re not encumbered by the tyre that you used in qualifying. So as we know, some of the middle grid teams have to use the soft to get through Q2, and then that’s the tyre they have to use for the race, whereas the fast teams can pick a medium, and get a double advantage.

“So there’s none of that, it’s very clean, very simple. Soft in qualifying, use what you like in the sprint.

“I think the thing that gives a different flavour, a different nuance, a different emphasis, is that it’s a flat out race. There’s no team strategy involved. It’s driver alone, 100kms flat out racing, no team strategy, no pitstops, no fuel saving, nothing.

“Now, a driver may choose to go on a softer tyre on a Saturday, sprint, but he may have to nurse those tyres. Or someone will go on the medium, and they will be able to drive flat out for the whole race.

“They’re going to have 40kgs of fuel in the car, so it’s not going to be so heavy as at the beginning of a normal race. And there’ll be a small number of points awarded on Saturday afternoon [3-2-1 for the top three], which I think is a nice bonus, and something that drivers for sure will be very mindful of.”

Lewis Hamilton stands on his Mercedes after qualifying on pole for the 2021 British Grand Prix

There are three championship points on offer for the winner of the sprint race

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Obviously teams always run as little fuel as they can get away with for weight reasons. Brawn believes that for the sprints they won’t can’t it too fine and put their drivers in a position where they have to focus on saving.

“The teams are always trying to run the minimum amount of fuel they can for the overall weight of the car. Across a full race that can be pretty significant. I think for 100km it’s less significant, so the teams can put whatever fuel they want in the car. We’re optimistic that that will be set at a level that allows the driver to drive flat out for the whole race.”

Brawn remains adamant that whatever advice they get from their teams, drivers really will race hard – simply because they won’t be able to help themselves.

“I think they will battle intensely for position on a Saturday afternoon. People have said won’t they drive conservatively, because they want to preserve their cars and look after things? I guess a driver always drives within a certain limit whenever they’re on the track, because they don’t want to damage the equipment.

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“But you’re sat there in second or third and you’re driving conservatively and everyone’s overtaking you, what are you going to do? You’re going to battle, you’re going to compete. There’s no way these guys are going to cruise round on a Saturday afternoon.

“I mean, the teams can sit you down in the debrief and say, ‘Right, we want a nice conservative drive this afternoon.’ And then your team-mate overtakes you. And you say, ‘Well, he’s not driving as conservatively as I’m driving. So I’m not gonna drive conservatively.’ You can just see it all developing!

“These guys are incredibly competitive. And I believe that the sprint will be a very competitive event. And we’ll have no fears of drivers driving round in a conservative way.”

However despite Brawn’s optimism it remains a voyage into the unknown for everyone – we just have to see how it pans out.

“Well, I think that’s the fascinating thing. We don’t truly know. I’ve made this slightly bizarre comment, I think these guys would race each other with shopping trolleys in the supermarket car park! They’re just so competitive, these guys, they’re almost unique in their competitiveness.

“You can imagine Max and Checo on the front row of the grid. And they both been told to take it easy, and Checo pushes hard into the first corner. Max will have him in the next corner, there’s no way he’s going to cruise around, and not attempt to compete.

“So I think we’ll see these guys properly racing. And they’ll be mindful of the fact that a DNF in the sprint will put them in the back of the grid, but then they know it’s not all lost. They’ve got the Grand Prix the next day to try and recover. I’m pretty optimistic that we’re going to have a very intense race and competition on a Saturday afternoon.”