OPINION: Give F1's Sprint Qualifying experiment a chance

Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

OPINION: Give F1's Sprint Qualifying experiment a chance

Insights & Analysis

OPINION: Give F1's Sprint Qualifying experiment a chance


I can only assume that some people aren’t over the knockout qualifying debacle of 2016, given the response to the Sprint Qualifying trial that was approved yesterday.

And I completely understand that. It was an absolute shocker, and was fortunately dropped instantly. Formula 1 at least recognized an error and rectified it, but it was a bad error nonetheless.

So if the backlash to Sprint Qualifying is based on that history, you can see why people might be skeptical. But I sit very much in the ‘Let’s give it a go’ camp.

For starters, the time taken to hone this idea – dismissing reverse grids, ironing out regulations and associated costs – show it wasn’t just the result of one quick chat in an F1 Commission meeting. And the word ‘trial’ really should be taken seriously, because the likes of Ross Brawn have regularly said there will be lessons learned and analysis done to work out if it has a future or not.

I’ve seen a few arguments against that warrant a deeper explanation because they’re based on valid questions, but most of them have answers. So, thanks to fan comments on social media, I’ve tried to address the main ones below:

How will the grid for the Sprint Qualifying be sorted?

Via a normal qualifying session on Friday. There are slight restrictions on tire usage – five sets of softs will be reserved for that session – but other than that it’s exactly the same as normal, with parc ferme kicking in at the start of Friday qualifying.

So that must mean FP2 on Saturday is useless…

Not quite. Full parc ferme regulations won’t be in force, which ensures there is enough work that can be done on Saturday morning to make it a relevant practice session. Once the Sprint Qualifying race starts, that’s when full parc ferme begins and teams can only change the weight distribution, while power unit and gearbox cooling changes will also be permitted if there has been a swing in temperature of more than 10 celsius.

Won’t drivers be careful knowing the main race is on Sunday?

Potentially, but then you don’t see them being careful over one flat-out lap in a normal qualifying situation. We still get that spectacle on Friday, but then Saturday’s sprint allows those who are out of position to try and recover if they had a bad Friday session. Conversely, those who overachieved are still in a good position to try and hold on over a shorter distance, or even benefit further if there are issues for others.

Even if nobody is out of position based on qualifying pace, any driver is going to want to secure a better starting spot for the grand prix if the chance arises, so they’re not going to simply cruise around if they can move up a place or two.

The grid for Sprint Qualifying will be set by a normal qualifying session on Friday, but will have some tire usage restrictions. Tee/Motorsport Images

Isn’t it just a red flag 25% through a longer race?

This is an argument I’ve seen brought up a few times. At 100km, the Sprint Qualifying is a third of a normal race distance, and the finishing order will set the grid for the main event. In many ways, that is similar to a red-flagged race with a 24-hour delay, but there is more to it than that.

For starters, nobody usually scores points when a race is red-flagged, whereas the Sprint Qualifying race will provide the top three with points. Not huge rewards in order to stop it having a massive championship impact while it’s being trialed, but three points for the winner, two for second place and one for third.

Unlike a race that gets stopped due to a red flag, everyone knows the finishing point they are racing to, and if anybody does retire from Sprint Qualifying then they will be allowed to start the grand prix from wherever they are classified. Retired cars don’t get to restart a race after a red flag.

How will this save money for the teams?

It won’t, and was never intended to. There’s minimal additional cost involved because the 100km race – 17 laps of Silverstone – replaces a one-hour practice session that would quite easily have resulted in even more mileage. It’s effectively FP2 on a Friday that disappears – replaced by a normal qualifying session – with FP3 on Saturday morning simply renamed FP2. But teams are faced with similar mileage over a weekend.

The financial sticking point was in relation to the additional cost that the teams would face if they picked up damage in the Sprint Qualifying race, so concessions have been made with regards to the cost cap. But the whole idea is to bring in more viewers across a race weekend, in turn driving up revenue even further that then gets back to the teams. It’s not meant to save them money, but it is intended to help them make more.

I’m not saying there aren’t downsides. There is a chance that a stunning qualifying lap on Friday goes somewhat unrewarded on the Sunday grid because a driver has slipped back on race pace in Spring Qualifying. There’s also the obvious outcome where the fastest teams are rewarded with even more points than usual if they qualify at the front and finish there on Saturday.

Another problem is for the purists and statisticians, who are left trying to work out whether the Friday qualifying session or Saturday Sprint Qualifying result should provide the pole position winner for the record books.

The Sprint Qualifying format will allow a driver the chance to rebound from a poor showing on Friday’s normal round of qualifying. Andre/Motorsport Images

Plus, when it comes to Friday qualifying, depending on where you are in the world this could be a good or bad thing. For the U.S., it’s likely to mean a morning session – before the working day has begun on the West Coast – but for most it will be during a time when work or school is in session. Personally, I think this will be the aspect that is most likely to change if the system is adopted full-time in future, but it does also provide better value for money for ticket holders who will get a competitive session to watch on the Friday of a race weekend.

And after all the details have been sorted out, that’s basically what it boils down to. Instead of an F1 weekend featuring five sessions made up of three practice sessions, one qualifying and one grand prix, we now have a trial of two practice sessions, one qualifying, one sprint race and one grand prix.

If Sprint Qualifying adds nothing, then all that has been lost is an hour-long practice session in place of a competitive fight. Surely that’s still a gain, even if it’s a small one?

Having watched IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula E run double-header weekends or different formats recently, I think F1 has to follow suit. Not because fans demand it, but because it would be arrogant to think its race weekend couldn’t be improved. By taking this approach of a trial that will provide three examples to see how it will work – on different types of track, too, in Silverstone, Monza and likely Interlagos – the sport is being cautious in order to protect the value and importance of the grand prix itself.

None of the above means it will lead to a better product, but all of the above means it has the best chance of doing so, with the least long-term risk. And I am certain more people will tune in for the Qualifying Sprint on Saturday at Silverstone than would have for the same session if qualifying was unchanged. For those reasons, it’s worth a look.