Sprint Qualifying shows F1 has more to offer

F1

A new shake-up in qualifying led to an intriguing race and F1 might have something brilliant in the works

A new sprint race format has promise and a few tweaks could light up F1 weekends

@redbullracing

It has been 19 years since Michael Schumacher and Ferrari dominated the 2002 Formula 1 season to win the drivers’ championship at the two-thirds mark at Magny-Cours.

His victory sealed the title at race number 11 of 17, leaving a record six races to go. Unsurprisingly viewing figures for those races plummeted.

With awkward conversations with sponsors and TV companies looming for F1’s then-showman Bernie Ecclestone, changes to the format were made

Bernie, being Bernie, suggested weighing down the dominant Ferraris but the result was a new points system, which gave more points to the runners-up, making a win less valuable.

Also modified was Formula 1’s session when more excitement and unpredictability is demanded: qualifying.

In 2002, drivers had up to 12 laps in an hour-long session to set the pole time which, unsurprisingly led to long periods of cars waiting in their garages for the latest possible run when the track was in best condition.

One-lap qualifying was brought in for 2003, promising constant track action, drivers under pressure and drama throughout the race weekend. Sound familiar?

It didn’t quite work that way. Drivers had a single flying lap on a clear track on Friday, which would set the running order for the following day, with the slowest starting first. That Saturday lap would be your qualifying time.

Of course, the track generally got faster as the session went on, which usually meant that the quickest drivers from Friday just extended the gap over the rest.

The major exception was when it rained for part of the session; a scenario that proved too unpredictable for even F1’s tastes, particularly when Jos Verstappen ended up topping the tables on Friday in France.

The following year, Michael Schumacher deliberately (and ingeniously) spun during Friday qualifying at Silverstone, in an effort to run early on Saturday to avoid the forecast rain. The writing was on the wall for the format. And so began the qualification changes that continue to this day.

If you’ve endured aggregate qualifying and the sheer misery of the short-lived elimination qualifying then there was every reason to be sceptical about sprint qualifying.

But now the first race has taken place, we can say that it has at least cleared the low bar set by the elimination format, which saw cars removed from the session by the clock, one by one, and which even the series’ brainbox race engineers struggled to get their head around.

The title protagonists go wheel-to-wheel in an eventually explosive duel

DPPI

But the potential is there for sprint qualifying to be much more; not just to improve on what we already have, but to make F1 closer and more competitive.

One reason is that the change is fully thought through and considered, with F1 running thousands of simulations before introducing it to Silverstone.

Unlike the 2017 plans to make the cars faster for… well, there wasn’t really a logical reason, F1 has become much better at thinking through changes before they are made. Limiting wind tunnel R&D time; the budget cap; and this year’s aero restrictions are already helping to prevent one team running away with the title as Ferrari did, followed by Red Bull and then Mercedes.

The new 2022 regulations should take that a step further.

Now with sprint qualifying offering greater jeopardy, things are starting to click in the way they hadn’t in 2003 and 2004 when Ferrari still took both titles. With more refinement and some further tweaking, F1 might have a genuinely positive addition on its hands.

The new format allowed other drivers to shine. Fernando Alonso put on a clinical display at the start to rise from 11th to fifth on the opening lap while Charles Leclerc previewed his strong race pace as he never let Valtteri Bottas out of his sights.

There was no stopping Schumacher in 2002...

Grand Prix Photo

...or 2003

Grand Prix Photo

It also allowed Max Verstappen to get the jump on Hamilton, who’d lined up in first as the so-called ‘Speed King’ after Friday qualifying.

Despite his best efforts, Hamilton then spent the next 16 laps cooped up behind the Red Bull unable to break through the bubble of dirty air – a problem pinpointed with the design of the 2022 cars which are aimed at solving.

His struggle demonstrated the importance of track position in the grand prix and dictated the action and drama that occurred the following day.

So, the following afternoon when the duo went into combat once again for the lead of the race. Cue the explosive collision at Copse and the title battle was ignited something fierce heading into the final race before the summer break.

Formula 1 has spent a great deal of time and effort to implement a shake-up to the weekend format. Extensive research, AI learning and simulation has been used to develop possible alternatives to the standard format as well as the designing of cars that are aiming to enhance wheel-to-wheel racing.

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With only one of the two practice sessions taking place prior to qualifying, teams are locked into parc fermé conditions from Friday meaning there is 60 minutes to refine the cars before they’re stuck with that for the remainder of the weekend.

Sergio Perez was the exception to that but it came at a great cost. His spin put him out of the top 10 and eventually his team opted to start him from the pitlane, but he’d only made it into 10th position by the closing stages of Sunday afternoon anyway.

Set the car up for ultimate one-lap pace and you could be sitting pretty on the grid but come race day, tyre life is at a premium and an aggressive setup could prove costly.

Go conservative and there could be some more overtaking required on Sunday but the moves should be easier with a more compliant car setup to cope with following another car in dirty air.

The added pressure of knowing a mistake could put you at the back of the grid for the points-paying race on Sunday only adds to the spectacle.

Then there’s the additional element of providing a teaser of what to expect for the main event and that is a positive not only for the fans, but the teams and drivers as well.

Mistakes are even more costly as Sergio Perez proved

Bryn Lennon - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Hamilton’s do-or-die move into Copse is the clear example but the level of analysis from the sprint qualifying event can also give a second chance to teams strategy-wise.

Mercedes spotted Red Bull was harvesting energy through Woodcote on Saturday so heading into the race, the team pointed it out as a weak spot and point of attack for Sunday.

Likewise, a free choice of compound for both sprint and GP offers greater options for different strategies.

Not to mention those live in attendance at Silverstone were treated to two race starts as part of their weekend ticket — as well as an additional sparring session courtesy of the red flag resulting from the Hamilton/Verstappen clash.

Value for money has long been a point of emphasis for the owners of F1 as they look to maximise the offering for fans on a race weekend.

The Silverstone afterparty, classic F1 car demo runs and various driver parades and interviews across the weekend is a peek at a model that might be appearing at more than the three races with Sprints this season.

After the 2002 dominance of Schumacher and his clinching of the world championship just over the halfway point in the season, any change that could dethroned him would’ve been welcomed by fans and all but one team with open arms.

With sprint qualifying, F1 might just have stumbled onto the winning formula for the future.