Why Ross Brawn is backing sprint qualifying: 'No strategy, no pitstops, just 30min of flat-out action'


Sprint qualifying is F1's latest attempt to engage a new audience – but, F1 managing director Ross Brawn stresses, it's no gimmick

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE - JUNE 20: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain into the first corner at the start of the F1 Grand Prix of France at Circuit Paul Ricard on June 20, 2021 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Brawn: "Who wouldn't want to see Max and Lewis going head to head in a 100kms race? No one on the pit wall is going to mess it up, it's just the two of them"

Clive Rose/Getty Images

The recent news that a full crowd will be allowed at the British GP came as a boost to both Silverstone and F1, not least because it will be the location for one of the boldest experiments since the first World Championship race was held at the same venue 71 years ago.

The sport’s first-ever sprint qualifying weekend is sure to stir controversy, with many purists and long-established fans understandably sceptical.

As noted this an experiment, with further sprint weekends coming at Monza and a yet-to-be-determined flyaway venue outside Europe later in the year. F1, the FIA and the teams will assess these three samples and a call will be made on the future – whether we get sprints at all race weekends, at just some of them, or the idea is abandoned.

“We want to explore if having a shorter format is more engaging for new fans”

The key thing is that there is no reverse grid or handicapping, with such concepts dropped long ago. We will have a normal qualifying on Friday afternoon, followed by a 17-lap sprint on Saturday. The finishing order determines the grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix, with the sprint winner officially credited with pole.

You can think of it as a single extended-length race with a red flag after 17 laps, followed by refuelling, some overnight fettling within the parc fermé rules, and a second, longer part of the same race with the field setting off from the grid.

It’s important to know too that while the push for change came from Liberty Media, one of the biggest supporters of the format is F1’s managing director Ross Brawn, a man who has been steeped in the sport for over four decades.

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 leads Lando Norris of Great Britain driving the (4) McLaren F1 Team MCL35M Mercedes during the F1 Grand Prix of Styria at Red Bull Ring on June 27, 2021 in Spielberg, Austria. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Will sprint qualifying bring the increase in action F1 craves?

Clive Rose/Getty Images

“A sprint qualifying weekend is a much more complete weekend in terms of a competition,” he says. “An intense competition happening on Friday and Saturday and Sunday, all three days. And so we expand the intensity of the weekend. And it still has integrity, and still has a meritocracy to the whole weekend.

“We want to explore if having a shorter format is more engaging for new fans. The objective here is to maintain the engagement of our avid fans, our established fans. We certainly do not want to alienate our established F1 fans, so this event has integrity and has meritocracy. It’s not a gimmick.

“The best guys will win the sprint, what they win will have an influence over the weekend, and will have an impact over the weekend.

“So we want to explore engagement of new fans, and a consolidation and strengthening of the engagement of all of our existing fans. And I think F1 has done a great move in allowing this to proceed at three races during the season, because we can assess those races and decide if this is something we want to take forward, which I’m confident we will.”

“This event has integrity and has meritocracy – it’s not a gimmick”

Brawn stresses that it’s a work-in-progress and that the format could be tweaked for 2022, assuming it is carried over at all.

“Of course, we can tune it for next season, we can learn lessons from this year. But I think it’s so much better than F1 changing things over the winter and starting the season and then being committed to a format, which might need some tuning, might need some modifications.

“So this three-race opportunity to try this different format is, I think, a great move for F1. And something we should consider in the future. And already, I think there’s some ideas from some of the stakeholders and teams and so on, to maybe try things, in terms of how we use the tyres or the format of a weekend, to try it at few races and see what happens. So I think it sparks some new thoughts on how we move F1 forward.

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“It’s a high tech sport. And it’s always evolved and always changed. And I don’t think we should be afraid of change. And if we do it in a properly constructed way, then we can have reasonable confidence that we’re going forward in a structured way, and not taking too much risk.”

Brawn points out that adding some excitement to what is now a dull Friday is one of the key aims of a sprint weekend.

“We looked at some of the historic things which had been tried, where you had two qualifyings, a qualifying on the Friday and the Saturday. We remember those days, and it was either the fastest time over the weekend, or your qualifying position on the Friday was added to your qualifying on a Saturday. And all sorts of stuff was tried to try and give action for the whole three days.

“And it was never terribly successful, because the fans found it frustrating that maybe they watched the fastest car on a Saturday afternoon go fastest, but it wasn’t on pole position. So part of this was to increase the action over the three days, and that helps promoters, helps the fans, helps teams. We just get more coverage for the weekend.

“I don’t believe we dilute anything. It gives the media a clearer focus on things happening. I’m sure on a Friday, you guys can talk about various aspects of what’s happened on a Friday, but it’s hard work, isn’t it? Whereas this is going to be clear content you can talk about.”

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 27: Pierre Gasly of France and Scuderia AlphaTauri, Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Aston Martin F1 Team, Sergio Perez of Mexico and Red Bull Racing, Carlos Sainz of Spain and Ferrari, Yuki Tsunoda of Japan and Scuderia AlphaTauri, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP, Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and McLaren F1 and Lando Norris of Great Britain and McLaren F1 stand for the national anthem on the grid ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Styria at Red Bull Ring on June 27, 2021 in Spielberg, Austria. (Photo by Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Brawn points to the unexpected reaction to the F1 Netflix series, and says sprint qualifying could engage audiences in unprecedented ways too

Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

It took a lot of work to finalise the format, which is why the first event is in July. The FIA sporting regulations have been substantially adjusted, and the team managers have played a big role in stress testing them and addressing anomalies. The final details were only agreed in a meeting on Thursday in Austria.

One big issue that was discussed at a higher pay grade was the cost of accident damage. Given the tight restrictions imposed by the budget cap the top teams were concerned that an extra start and first lap would create more risk. An allowance has been made, and teams have also been given a suitable financial incentive to do the three extra sprints.

“There’s been a lot of work done by the teams, team managers, the FIA,” says Brawn. “We’ve been contributing to get all the little nuances sorted out for this event, because once you get into the rule book, you realise you’re at a completely new event into the rulebook.

“There’s been awful lot of work, and I have to compliment the teams, because they’ve been extremely constructive in evolving the new regulations.

“This has been tough, getting this across the line, and everyone at F1 has worked very hard. The FIA have been very supportive. I mean, the FIA recognise that it’s for the commercial rights holders to try and explore these opportunities.

“The teams have all their other considerations to make this as a first year of budget cap, and they’re naturally concerned about the possible impact that having an accident would have. So there’s an allowance for these races. All of that took quite a lot of negotiation. But that’s all behind us now.”

Brawn is well aware that purists are sceptical, but he hopes that they will be won over.

“First and foremost it’s about the fans. We want greater engagement. We want action for three days. Friday now is kind of interesting, but it’s not definitive.

“Now we’re going to have a real competition on a Friday, a new competition on a Saturday, and all of that should enhance the Grand Prix on the Sunday. So I don’t believe we cannibalise the Grand Prix in any way.

“This is all additive, and will contribute towards the whole weekend. I think the fans will gain. The media gain with more content. And of course, the fans at home. The promoters gain, they’ve got something to sell on a Friday, strengthen ticket sales. So, it’s a plus, plus, plus.

AVUS 1959 German GP Tony Brooks Ferrari

F1 tried heat races at AVUS in 1959, as well as conducting qualifying over both multiple sessions and one-lap formats

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“I guess to meet the criticism head-on, some people like the traditional approach and think we’re messing with something that doesn’t need messing with, and I understand that.

“But I think the way we’re exploring this opportunity is not going to damage F1 at all. And it will become clear, after the second or third of the events, how well this is succeeding, and how well the fans are engaging with it.

“I think in terms of next year, we would love to continue with this. It depends on convincing the teams on the merits of going forward. Obviously, we’ve supported the teams this year, financially, to get this over the line.

“We’ll need to find solutions for that next year. So there’s certainly no commitment to next season yet. That’s something we will talk about, with the benefits of these three events, when we can really understand what impact it’s had, and therefore the value for all the stakeholders involved.”

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Inevitably critics of the idea will suggest that F1 is perhaps trying too hard to appeal to a younger market – the short attention span theory.

“We’ve built our social media platform in the last three or four years from virtually nothing,” says Brawn. “And there’s no doubt that a lot of fans who are engaged through those mediums like short, sharp bites of action. That little two-lap sprint we had a couple of races ago [in Baku] was one of the highlights of the season for our fans. It was amazing.

“This is not quite so intense, but still captures that flavour of flat out, guys on the pit wall can’t do anything, there’s no strategy, there’s no pitstops, it’s just over half an hour of flat out action. Of course a driver could choose a soft tyre and have to manage it, but if he chooses a medium at Silverstone, he’ll be driving flat out the whole race.

“There’s all these nuances, but nobody knows, when you introduce something like this, nobody can say for sure. When we introduced the fastest lap point, I didn’t imagine for a moment it would have the engagement it’s ended up having. When we started Netflix lots of people thought, ‘Who is going to be interested in that?’

“And it’s one of the most successful documentaries, and it’s huge. You can’t always predict these things. So I think it’s just great that F1 is trialling it to see what response we get. And if it doesn’t work, we can step back and learn from it, and think about the next thing.”

SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 27: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) Race winner Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing relaxes with his trophy and sparkling wine after the F1 Grand Prix of Styria at Red Bull Ring on June 27, 2021 in Spielberg, Austria. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Brawn maintains that “The best guys will still win”

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

So is there a concern that younger people are no longer interested in traditional sports, and that changes were needed?

“We’re always mindful of it,” Brawn admits. “There’s no doubt that we want to be forward-thinking. But we have huge, huge respect and commitment to our existing fans. So we don’t want to alienate anyone. And I think the great thing about this is it’s additive. I don’t see it being subtractive in any way.

“It’s so difficult to compare with other sports, because of their nature. But short format cricket increased the interest in test cricket. Test cricket was becoming very much a sort of specialist, for avid fans. But they’ve seen a stronger interest in test cricket as a result of the interest in short-format cricket. So maybe that isn’t something you can compare, but we don’t know yet. But it certainly does I think appeal to the fan who wants some short bite action.

“I think F1 can learn so much about this exercise, this initiative, in many ways”

“As I say, I think F1 can learn so much about this exercise, this initiative, in many ways. And in terms of the role of the commercial rights holder, the commitment of the teams to initiatives that we want to put forward, if we can make a success of this, and we can see what the next opportunities are.

“But again, the very clear message is this is for the fans. And then the benefits come once you engage the fans, and you increase engagement of fans with the type of content you give, and the amount of content you give.

“It’s a great sport. We’ve seen a fantastic year this year. And who wouldn’t want to see Max and Lewis going head to head in a 100kms race, with no other considerations? No one on the pit wall is going to mess it up, it’s just the two of them…”