When Lewis Hamilton complained about the format at the Monaco Grand Prix last month, it gained some support but largely split opinion. Then the race happened and a few more fans seemed to side with the seven-time world champion’s view.
Formula 1’s managing director of motorsports Ross Brawn told RACER he was open to changes if they’re done carefully, and has a ready-made example to suggest he’s serious. Sprint Qualifying will take place at three events this year and we’re getting ever-closer to its debut at Silverstone, where Brawn is excited to see what unfolds.
It shows that F1 is not afraid to try new things right now, but there are always risks with change, so Brawn sat down with RACER to explain just why he is so confident that the change in qualifying format — initially to be trialed at Silverstone, Monza and likely Interlagos — will work.
“I think the best-case scenario is first of all we have a very exciting Friday,” Brawn said. “Friday (under the regular format) can be OK but in the end is two sessions where the fans don’t really know how much fuel the cars have got in them; they don’t know how high the engines are turned up; everyone has a different strategy on a Friday. It’s interesting to see the cars going round, but suddenly Friday has a purpose because Friday is the first step where you have to demonstrate your performance on a Friday afternoon.
“So we’ve now got qualifying on a Friday afternoon and that’s the first big bonus, because fans turning up on Friday have got a real reason to be there. And we’re going to try and run that qualifying as late as possible during the day so that we can capture our fans at home who want to watch it live on TV.
“Now, a nuance of that is you’ve only got one timed session before you go into qualifying, so there’s no three sessions of getting everything perfect — you’ve got to get your act together for qualifying. So first of all you’re now putting a lot more pressure on the teams, a lot more pressure on the drivers, and you’ll have more jeopardy.
“Then Saturday morning they’ve got some free running to get the cars prepped for the race. Do they prep it on the fuel on Saturday afternoon or do they prep it on the fuel they’re going to have on a Sunday? Because on a Saturday they’re going to have 30-40kg of fuel, Sunday they’re going to have 100kg, so there’s things that the teams have got to work out what they do on a Saturday morning.
“And then Saturday afternoon we go into Sprint Qualifying — 100km race, starting in the order they qualified in on a Friday — and I guess teams and drivers have got to work out how much risk they’re going to take for position on a Saturday to lead to a Sunday. There’s some very important points to be earned — 3, 2, 1, so that’s not insignificant — but also we want to see how much they take up in terms of competing on a Saturday and how much value that is for their starting order on a Sunday.”
That latter part might be the sticking point, where doubters are expecting a processional race. For starters, the cars have been lined up in raw pace order — as they do for a normal grand prix — only now there’s no strategy involved due to no mandatory pit stop and Sunday’s race still to prioritize. But Brawn doesn’t expect anyone to hold back.
“Personally, I believe these guys will race each other with shopping carts in a supermarket — they just don’t want to lose! We’ve seen it with the fastest lap point, we’ve seen it during races — they may be in 11th or 12th in a race and they’re not going to score a point but they don’t want to lose, they want to show they’re better. And I think we’ll get that on a Saturday.
“So when you say what would be a failure, a failure would be on a Saturday if they all go round in a processional order and say, ‘Well, there’s no point in racing here because we’ve got tomorrow.’ I don’t think they’ll do that, and that’s why we need to test this format, to see how it works. I think from the test and evaluation, we can then determine whether we need to add a few more points perhaps to Sprint Qualifying or whether we need to give more reward to Sprint Qualifying reference the race.
“We don’t want to cannibalize the race, but maybe Sprint Qualifying we feel could have more benefits and more rewards in terms of where you finish, and therefore make it more interesting.”
Not only will F1 learn from how the Sprint Qualifying pans out, Brawn also says there are areas it will impact Sunday’s grand prix — such as from a strategic standpoint — that will also provide lessons.
More importantly from F1’s point of view, Brawn says even just the experiment has been met with enthusiasm from promoters, with those who pay significant race hosting fees keen to have more action across a weekend while the sport still protects its main event.
“The Sprint Qualifying will be run as late as we can on a Saturday, so again we try and capture the early evening audience and then we’re into the full-blown grand prix on the Sunday. And that will have some differences because on a Sunday they’ll have free choice of tires — they won’t be tied in by what they’ve run in qualifying.
“So you can see all of the aspects of this; we really need to make sure that we don’t confuse the fans, that we explain it well and they have a view of the overall picture. It’s true to say that even some of the people close to Formula 1, we’ve not explained the overall connotations of this well enough yet and that’s what we’re doing. Now it’s gone live, it’s happening, we’re helping broadcasters, we’re helping promoters.
“We’ve had a huge response from promoters because what they can see is that suddenly they’ve got a Friday to sell. So even if they’re sold out on Sunday they’ve now potentially got a bigger event on a Saturday and they’ve got a great event on a Friday. We get much more media engagement because of what happens on a Friday, and we get much more promoter engagement.
“So I’m delighted we’re doing this experiment, and then we can assess it afterwards and decide if it’s a success, needs tuning, or what’s the next stage? But I just think it’s great that Formula 1 has embraced the idea of trying something different while still recognizing the core values that we have in Formula 1 of the race on a Sunday. That’s the grand prix — that’s the one you want to win, that’s the trophy you want to take away.”