I say ‘similar format qualifying hour’ because the only real difference involved tyres. Drivers had four sets of soft-compound Pirellis for use in Q1/Q2, with those progressing to Q3 receiving an extra set. No longer would the race-start tyres of the top 10 in Q3 need to be those on which they set their quickest lap in Q2. Tyre choice for both a 17-lap ‘sprint qualifying’ race on Saturday and Sunday’s full-length main event, would be free across the entire grid. The winner of ‘sprint qualifying’ would receive three world championship points, with two and one on offer for second and third places respectively.
Opinion was polarised. Those behind it thought it would spice up the entire weekend; giving a proper meaning to an F1 Friday plus added interest on Saturday, while maintaining a traditional Sunday.
The naysayers pointed out that Saturday’s sprint qualifying race was unlikely to provide no-holds-barred scrapping. Would Friday qualifying’s top two, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, really get stuck into each other over a short sprint race? They were likely to finish first and second anyway, so would they really go for it to gain one extra point when the downside of any move going terminally wrong was starting at the back in the main race and severely compromising their chances of scoring the big points? And, if you were outside the top three, with nothing on offer at all, well, you just wouldn’t bother.
“You will go for it still, but maybe leaving a bigger margin when in sprint qualifying than in the main race,” opined Fernando Alonso. Christian Horner, meanwhile, was not convinced that his man would be able to help himself anytime he spotted an opportunity anywhere. Mention restraint to Max Verstappen and you’d probably need give him a dictionary at the same time.
Another concern was that with freedom of tyre choice for everyone in both races, the strategic element would go out of the window and you stood a much bigger chance of witnessing a procession. Which sounded valid. You did have to factor in, however, that a 100km (17-lap) race was achievable on the soft compound Pirelli. The medium compound would be the quickest way to cover the race if you could run in free air. But, would some opt for the soft, enjoy greater traction off the line and a grippier opening couple of laps to pick up positions, then block as if their life depended on it? Silverstone has never been the easiest track on which to pass, DRS or not…
First off, a big thumbs-up for Friday qualifying. It unquestionably enlivened the day and was superbly fought between the big two. Mercedes had brought a significant aero upgrade package, although Hamilton played it down. The W12 was formidable in the first two sectors where, with its trimmed out rear wing, it was setting the pace. In a 2021 role reversal, Christian Horner reckoned that Red Bull was losing about six-tenths to Mercedes in those two sectors, with Hamilton’s car set-up likely to make him a nuisance on Hangar Straight if he was anywhere near the Red Bull. Verstappen, by contrast, hauled back time in sector three.
“It sounds a bit funny to hear ‘You’ve scored pole position’
To the delight of the home fans, Hamilton was quickest on Friday by 0.075sec, the time done on his first Q3 run with the benefit of a tow from team mate Valtteri Bottas. And here’s a major problem for me. That should have been ‘pole position’ , a Michael Schumacher-equalling record eight poles at the same circuit. But it wasn’t. Because in Saturday’s sprint qualifying 17-lapper, Verstappen made a better start and won the ‘race’, so taking ‘pole’ for Sunday.
Even Max himself found that odd. “It sounds a bit funny to hear ‘You’ve scored pole position’ (his fourth in a row), but we’ll take it,” he said.
For the purists, this need to be addressed. The magic of being the fastest man out there in a car with light fuel and fresh tyres, in its ultimate condition, really means something, and always has. As far as stats are concerned, the 2021 British GP pole should belong to Lewis Hamilton, not Max Verstappen. And if you are going to award three world championship points for a 17-lap sprint race, let’s have four points for the real pole position on Friday, that has taken a day to prepare for and achieve. Would it matter that the ‘pole man’ may not start the main race P1? No.
Toto Wolff agrees: “Pole should be for qualifying, not the sprint race.”
Which is not to say that Verstappen is an undeserving pole man. He’d topped Friday’s 2.30pm free practice session comfortably but, by the time we got around to Q3 on Friday it was almost 7pm, temperatures had dropped and the Red Bull did not work its softs as well in sector three as it had earlier in the day. The new format put the cars into parc fermé conditions after FP1 and so there was precious little Red Bull could do about it.