F1 sprint qualifying makes its case, as Silverstone sun favours Verstappen


The first trial of the sprint qualifying race format, ahead of the 2021 British Grand Prix showed promise — as the hot weather played into Max Verstappen's hands, writes Tony Dodgins

Max Verstappen in 2021 British Grand Prix sprint race

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

Silverstone felt ground-breaking for myriad reasons. After nigh on 18 months of lockdowns, social distancing and meeting in groups of six, we had a capacity crowd at a Grand Prix. And how!

Don’t ask me whether it’s a reflection of F1’s rude health right now or simply freedom, liberation and a place to go, but Silverstone was rammed to the rafters – on Friday.

The new race format may have piqued interest too: after 1044 races of starting the quickest man in qualifying at the front, F1 ‘qualifying’ looked a bit different.

In 2021 F1 has already moved from 3hrs of free practice on the opening day to 2hrs. And as an experiment with a view to future adoption, those two hours would now be just one, starting at 2.30pm Friday, with a similar format qualifying hour to what we’re used to kicking off at 6pm. Great for European viewers, who had time to get home after the week’s work and settle down with a beer and F1 qualifying. Not so good for any ambition to get out of a packed Silverstone anywhere south of midnight. But hey, who cared about that?

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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.

Start of the qualifying sprint race for the 2021 British Grand Prix

No restraint at the start of the sprint qualifying race for Max Verstappen

Xavi Bonilla / DPPI

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…

Friday qualifying

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.

verstappen wreath after Silverstone sprint qualifying

A nod to F1’s past with a wreath for sprint race winner Verstappen

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

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.

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“It’s understeering to the moon!” a frustrated Max complained as he saw his sector three margin pretty much wiped out. Had Hamilton not had a big moment there on his second Q3 run, his pole margin would have been more like three-tenths.

It had been Hamilton’s turn to decide whether to run first or second in qualifying (the Merc drivers take it in turns), so Valtteri Bottas was not in fact the perennial sacrificial lamb as some claimed, it was simply circumstance. It did appear that way though when, having qualified third, Bottas was sent to the grid on the softs while those around him were on the mediums. Bottas, just 0.12sec down on Verstappen, had actually done a very strong job in qualifying. The word in the paddock, however, is that George Russell will be in his seat in 2022.

You can’t deny that such elevation will be entirely justified. ‘Mr Saturday’ as George is dubbed, might have to wait until next year to become ‘Mr Sunday’ but meanwhile became ‘Mr Friday’ as well at Silverstone. You would assume that a Hamilton ‘pole’ produced the biggest Friday cheer, but you’d be wrong. That was reserved for George who, stunningly, was seventh quickest in Q2! He was through to Q3 for the second successive race, where he was eighth and just 0.15sec down on Charles Leclerc’s fourth-placed Ferrari! Just imagine if he’d picked up a tow…

Fifth, a couple of hundredths behind Leclerc, was a disappointing outcome for Sergio Perez, who had Lando Norris just 0.05sec behind. Team mate Daniel Ricciardo was more like his old self around Silverstone, 10 years on from his F1 debut here with HRT, the Aussie just two-thousandths behind Lando.

After Russell, Carlos Sainz and Sebastian Vettel completed the Friday top 10.

George Russell in 2021 British Grand PRix qualifying

Russell was cheered around Silverstone as he set the laptime that saw him start eighth in the sprint race

Michael Regan/Getty Images

2021 British Grand Prix Sprint Qualifying

When the tyre covers came off for today’s sprint 17-lapper, Bottas apart, the red-walled softs were mounted to the 11th and 13th-placed Alpines of Fernando Alonso, predictably, and Esteban Ocon, plus Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo.

Offer Fernando the chance of a battle and, like Verstappen, he won’t ever pass it up. After a totally spellbinding opening lap where he used his additional grip to go around no fewer than six cars, he crossed the line fifth. When the flag came down after 100kms, he was still seventh, with only the two McLarens able to demote him.

Max Verstappen after winning the first Formula 1 Sprint Qualifying race

No podium in sprint qualifying: a parade truck lap gave all spectators the chance to see the top three

Bryn Lennon/ F1 via Getty Images

“It was 45-50sec of maximum intensity and then a very long race for me…” Alonso said. Fernando had more weaving going on than Blackburn, and drove a very wide Alpine, but got away with a single warning and starts tomorrow four places further up, so his soft tyre gamble was successful. Poor compatriot Carlos Sainz, meanwhile, had opening lap contact with Russell, dropped to 18th and then fought for all he was worth to recover to 11th.

alonso norris during the 2021 British Grand Prix sprint qualifying

Alonso and Norris thrilled with wheel-to-wheel action

Getty Images

The red-walled softs weren’t a potent enough force on Bottas’s car to allow the Finn to get in among Verstappen/Hamilton. Max’s start and ability to jump Hamilton gave him the extra point and prime position – I hesitate to call it pole – for tomorrow. Today’s sprint race started almost 2.5hrs earlier than yesterday’s Q3 finished, so track temperature was significantly higher and the Red Bull had the legs of the Mercedes. And this was Silverstone, where Mercedes has had nine consecutive poles. Significant.

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“I gave it everything but he was pulling away,” Hamilton admitted. “They’ve made a great job with their engine and their starts are really strong too.”

But that’s not to say Verstappen will have things all his own way tomorrow. Even if he gets off the line first, he’s going to have to keep Hamilton behind him as far as Stowe Corner, and that might not be easy. If Lewis goes by, re-passing him is no foregone conclusion.

Should the new format be adopted going forward? Yes, probably. Audience figures are important to F1 and Friday’s numbers were significantly up on both paid and terrestrial UK TV channels and almost triple across over-the-top (internet) platforms. Anyone involved will have to forget all about a Friday night beer, but will have to wear that. The ‘pole’ situation could do with sorting before any new rules are enshrined. And FP2 on Saturday morning felt redundant. We could do with something fresh for midday Saturday. Inter-team penalty shoot-outs, anyone?