'Sprint qualifying success is as crucial to F1's future as shiny 2022 car'

F1

F1 fans should be hoping that Silverstone's sprint qualifying trial is a success because grand prix racing needs more new ideas, says Chris Medland

F1 2022 model car with drivers

New rules will arrive next year; drivers go head to head in sprint this weekend

F1

You’re forgiven if, like me, you’re finding it a bit of a confusing week in the world of Formula 1. I’m not quite sure why, but this afternoon you were asked to feast your eyes on a full-size model of what the 2022 cars are expected to look like.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very cool to see. But I don’t quite understand why the day before some very different track action takes place the focus was on something that is still more than six months away. And even then each team’s cars will look different to the model you’ve just been shown.

This isn’t IndyCar, so all the talk of it being the 2022 car is actually false, because it’s just F1’s interpretation of the rules that have been written. This isn’t the car everyone – or in fact anyone – will be producing. I’m not complaining about the car itself, just about the timing or need for such a launch, because I feel like we should be focused on what happens here and now at Silverstone this weekend.

And what happens is the sprint gets a first outing, and just like the 2022 regulations, I hope it will be a success. And that’s not because I necessarily think it’s a great idea, but it’s because I want a new idea to be one that works.

F1 2022 car 1-1 model front

Glistening F1 car was revealed at Silverstone, where sprint qualifying feature for the first time

F1

I don’t know if it’s because I was part of a younger generation coming in and covering the sport, but over the past decade one of my biggest bugbears about F1 has been its unwillingness to adapt. It took so long for something as obvious as social media to be embraced that the explosion and impressive figures we now see are from a position of next-to-nothing a few years ago.

So I’ll admit to being really pleased to see the sprint – or F1 Sprint as the sport is trying to call it, as if you’d need to know it’s the F1 Race and F1 Qualifying each time – getting its trial runs.

It’s a tightrope that you have to walk whenever making changes like this, because there’s nothing worse than trying to fix something that isn’t broken (elimination qualifying anyone?), but I think the sprint does address an area that can be improved. And that area isn’t Saturday afternoon.

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On a normal race weekend, there are five F1 sessions. Three of them are practice, so as nice as it is for a few people to get some photos of cars on track, it doesn’t provide much in the way of action or excitement. In fact, the more practice there is, the less excitement there’s likely to be in the race itself too as teams get more time to hone their cars and set-ups.

The balance has now shifted to how a sporting event should be. More of the the track time is competitive than not, with just the two hours of practice time, one hour of qualifying and roughly 30 minutes of the Sprint before the grand prix. And there’s still going to be plenty of opportunities to take photos, despite the fact we’re basically down on 30 minutes of running overall.

Now don’t compare the Sprint to qualifying, because they are very different things, even if they both set grids. Qualifying will have set the starting order for a 100km race that is likely to see limited change between the starting and finishing positions, so Friday’s qualifying is still very important for Sunday’s race. But even if the Sprint is processional, you know that a single overtake or an incident actually matters, while there’s always a chance of making up positions off the line.

Styrian Grand Prix Practice

Sprint qualifying will still provide time for on-track photos

Grand Prix Photo

If you were watching FP3 and one car was close behind another, there’s nothing riding on it. Now there is, so it’s a step up from practice.

And because of that I largely side with Ross Brawn when he says there is no doubt the sprint will work, it’s just a matter of degree. He’s perhaps slightly more confident than I am in the sense that a risk-averse procession wouldn’t really count as “working” even with the aforementioned jeopardy, but if it does work then it could prove to be more important for F1 moving forward than just the format itself in isolation.

Why not throw some curveballs into the equation?

A successful trial will build confidence that we can make changes to the race weekend, or to what we thought were perfectly fine aspects of the sport, and improve them. In fact, it could well be that the sprint becomes the area for further experimentation, given the fact it’ll be the new aspect of the weekend.

Brawn believes it would ideally be seen at limited races in future rather than every weekend if it’s a success, so why not throw some curveballs into the equation? No DRS in the sprint perhaps to see how these cars really would race without it? Or go a bit further and use the sprint to provide actual racing action for young drivers? On a weekend where the format is used, you could have a third car for two teams on rotation, who have to use drivers who haven’t started more than two races before and start from the back.

That would give young drivers a chance to show what they can do, potentially add further racing action as they’d have less to lose without the concern of Sunday’s grid position, but also not impact the point-scoring in the grand prix (and almost certainly in the sprint as well).

Jamie Chadwick at Silverstone with Williams F1

Young drivers, like Williams Development driver Jamie Chadwick could benefit from sprint race experience

Williams

The latter idea is of course an expensive one, but then if this is a success from a sporting and entertainment point of view then it should also be commercially viable.

The financial side is a key consideration, because F1 is trialling this not only to provide fans with more competitive action but to make a three-day event more monetisable for promoters. TV companies also won’t complain about the extra racing or primetime qualifying, and title sponsorship of the sprint has also been sold. So we can quite confidently already say that side works.

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But that means it now simply all hinges on what the product is like on track, and if fans enjoy it. I could get even more carried away with my hypothetical ideas for what else the Sprint could offer, but if fans don’t respond, it’s unlikely to stay.

By selecting just three races to run the trial at, and trying to avoid the final few rounds of the season, F1 has done the right thing in ensuring these races are unlikely to have a massive influence on the championship, even if it’s clear they will play a small part.

But if it doesn’t quite deliver on the additional entertainment factor I fear it will lead to a backlash that only reduces the sport’s confidence in terms of trying other new things in future. The new car that we’ve seen earlier today is a vision of F1’s next era, and it’s one that needs to remain as forward-thinking as possible, and brave when it comes to trying to improve.