There’s no two ways about it, as weird and unique as the 2020 season is going to be in Formula 1, the sport has missed a huge opportunity this year.
It can get away with almost anything from a sporting perspective. The calendar still isn’t finalized even though we’re three rounds in (So how many engine components should you be using? How many points are you racing for?) and there are new venues being added all the time. Cars that were designed for Monaco, Azerbaijan and Mexico are instead going to be racing at Imola, Portimao and Mugello.
And that’s fine, because everyone understands how flexible they need to be in order to complete a season, keep their collective heads above water and get eyeballs on the sport to give them the income required to survive.
But that doesn’t seem to have translated to a number of other areas where things could have been done so much differently and either be written off as part of 2020’s unique situation, or ideally proven to be the catalyst for enhancements to the sport.
We’re about to start what is the second tripleheader of the season, and the second one that features back-to-back races at the same venue. As Austria showed, you can still have two very different races even if you don’t change anything, but the first race was more exciting than the second.
So there will be a difference between these two rounds at Silverstone to try and spice things up. It was announced a while ago but in case you missed it, there will be … wait for it … slightly softer tire compounds for race two.
I know, I bet you can hardly contain your excitement.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s better than nothing and it could provide an interesting strategic difference between the two races if the weather is similar throughout. But it’s as we approach these two races that I really start to wish F1 had pushed through its plan for a reverse grid qualifying race, or pretty much any other significant change for that matter.
Let’s be honest, how many hardcore F1 fans do you really think are going to be bursting with excitement at the prospect of two races at the same venue with marginally different tire compounds? It barely registers with the existing fan base, let alone has any impact on a potential new one.
Contrast that with the anticipation there would be if the second race weekend featured a reverse grid qualifying race, where reverse championship order set the grid for a Saturday sprint featuring no mandatory pit stops, and then the finishing order was the grid for the grand prix itself.
Before going any further, let me repeat myself to clarify a common misconception. The reverse grid race would be on Saturday instead of qualifying. The ‘reverse grid’ part relates to using the championship positions that already exist, and reversing them (so the championship leader starts last, and P20 in the championship starts first) to get the starting positions for that Saturday race.
The final results of that Saturday race would be the starting order for Sunday’s main race. So there’s nothing to be gained from getting a bad result in the Saturday event. If you finish 20th in the reverse grid race, you start the grand prix from 20th place.
(I’m sorry if that was a condescending couple of paragraphs, but even Lewis Hamilton gave off the impression that he thought the results of a Saturday sprint race would be reversed to set the grid for a Sunday, so would mean he should try and finish last in the qualifying race in order to start on pole).
The purists might not like it, but they’d certainly watch it. Maybe they’d be convinced that it’s an exciting change — the way qualifying has worked has been changed numerous times in F1’s history, after all — or maybe they’d have an even stronger opposition to it afterwards, but at least then it would be based on fact and not hypothesis.
And nobody would be robbed of the amazing spectacle that is an F1 car at its absolute fastest on a qualifying lap around Silverstone, because we’d still have the usual weekend format for the first race weekend.
These comments don’t come with the hindsight of the competitive order this season, either. I’m not more frustrated that such an experiment was blocked because Mercedes is so dominant at the moment. In fact, it would be even better if the whole field was closer, because then you would be far less likely to see Mercedes breezing through the field in a qualifying race than we currently are.
Playing around with the qualifying format so much would have opened up interesting questions like should it count as a pole position if it’s based on a race result and not your fastest lap time? But I’d argue it should, because we used to have aggregate qualifying results, or ones where your fuel load for the first stint had to be carried for your qualifying lap, meaning a driver running in a slower car but on fumes could start on pole after a scruffy lap when the fastest driver by far was actually half a second off the pace with a stunning effort due to qualifying with a full tank.
Regardless of whether you agree with the reverse grid qualifying race idea or not, the fact remains that there was a massive opportunity to try something new. It could have been removing Friday practice for the second races at each venue when more than one race is taking place, or holding two grands prix over the same weekend instead of a week apart, like we recently saw IndyCar do at Road America.
The second idea would let F1 fit more races into the season at a lower cost, and reduce the relentless pressure on the teams to deliver nine races in 11 weeks. It would also have opened up more gaps in the calendar to allow the sport to deal with the complexities of racing with COVID — you know, adapting to the situation rather than plowing ahead with the same old schedule because “it’s the DNA of F1.”
I’m not sure the global pandemic cares so much about F1’s DNA. But even so, at a base level it’s about the excellence of man and machine, driving a car to the finish line as quickly as it can possibly get there. All of the drivers and teams race under the same rules, you just end up testing a wider skillset by trying different formats. If that doesn’t make for deserving winners and champions come the end of the year, I don’t know what does.
Any of the above — and plenty more interesting ideas I’m sure you could come up with right now — would give everyone something new and exciting to talk about. Something that might cross over into the news feeds of other sports fans, and just catch their interest to have a look at how it all works out.
If it goes well you end up with a more exciting offering, new fans, happier existing ones, and greater income as a result. If it doesn’t, you haven’t lost anything. Now, more than ever, is the time to try such things.
C2, C3 and C4 instead of C1, C2 and C3? Yeah, that’s not it.