Five months since RaceFans broke news of plans for F1’s new Sprint Qualifying, we’re about to discover whether the new format will be a success.
RaceFans readers have expressed strong views about the change and inundated the comments section and our social media accounts with questions about the change. Here are answers to 15 of your most pressing questions, from how it will work to whether it’s here to stay.
What’s it called?
There’s two answers to that question. Speaking at the Austrian Grand Prix FIA Formula 1 race director Michael Masi explained: “It’s not a sprint race, it’s ‘Sprint Qualifying’.”
However, he also added: “The official public brand name is ‘Sprint’.”
But isn’t it actually a race?
Officially, no. During a recent interview Formula 1 presenter Tom Clarkson advised George Russell: “can you not use the word ‘race’, please, we’ve been told not to use the word ‘race’.”
Russell is far from the only driver to utter the forbidden phrase ‘Sprint Qualifying race’ and it’s not hard to see why the name causes confusion. F1 seems to have a clearer idea what it isn’t than what it is. As Masi indicated, F1 is referred to as ‘Sprint Qualifying’ in the rule book and the literature for this weekend’s British Grand Prix, but on social media, official Formula 1 accounts have taken to calling it the ‘#F1Sprint’.
The rule book makes the similarities between Sprint Qualifying and the grand prix obvious. In the updated sporting regulations, 109 references to “the race” have been changed to include “Sprint Qualifying” as well. Essentially, the Sprint Qualifying rules are a copy-and-paste job of the race rules, with a few tweaks.
But whether a race stops being a race just because you call it a qualifying session is a debatable point, in much the same way F1’s euphemistically-titled ‘sliding scale of aerodynamic testing restrictions’ is, in reality, a performance handicap.
Why not call it a ‘race’?
This is partly to allow for easier distinction between Sprint Qualifying and the grand prix in the regulations. But Formula 1 is also anxious to ensure the new races do not detract from the importance of Sunday’s grand prix, a point its managing director Ross Brawn has described as “critical”.
To this end, F1 has stated categorically it will treat the outcomes of this weekend’s qualifying and Sprint Qualifying sessions differently. The fastest driver in qualifying will not be named the official pole-winner – a major break with tradition – the Sprint Qualifying winner will not be considered to have won a race and the top three will not be counted as having reached the podium.
How will it work?
On Friday drivers will have an hour of practice followed by a regular qualifying session, as is ordinarily held on Saturdays. This will set the starting grid for the Sprint Qualifying race.
The new race will be run to the minimum number of laps needed to cover 100 kilometres. In the case of this weekend’s British Grand Prix, that’s 17 laps. The maximum duration of the race is set at one hour, but if it runs without interruption it should easily take less than half an hour to complete. If the race is suspended, the one-hour limit will be increased to 90 minutes.
The results of the new Saturday race will set the starting grid for the grand prix. Drivers who are not classified (covering less than 90% of the distance) will start at the back of the grid based on how many laps they completed. Any who fail to start will be arranged based on their Friday qualifying positions – a system which is also likely to apply to two drivers who retire on the same lap.
The top three finishers will score points – three for first, two for second and one for third. As with the grand prix, if less than 75% of the race distance is completed, half-points will be awarded. However in the event two drivers end the season tied on points, and race results are used to determine a winner, their Sprint Qualifying placings will not be factored into the calculations.
What does this mean for F1’s points system?
F1 now has its 10th different points system since the world championship began at Silverstone 71 years ago. It’s the second change in three years.
While other rounds only award 26 points, a maximum of 29 will be available for a driver this weekend – one less than inaugural champion Giuseppe Farina’s score across the entire season. Teams can score a maximum of 49 instead of 44.
Will Sprint Qualifying penalties work the same as regular ones?
Penalties for racing incidents will be handled as they are in grands prix. “Grid penalties, time penalties for driving infringements and so forth, those penalties will be applied,” Masi confirmed.
However if a driver exceeds the minimum number of power unit parts during the weekend or changes their gearbox before it has completed six consecutive events, that penalty will be applied to the grid for the grand prix, not Sprint Qualifying.
If a driver collects three reprimands and triggers an automatic 10-place grid penalty, that will also be applied to Sunday’s race instead of Saturday’s.
How will the tyre rules work for the Sprint Qualifying race?
There are a few important differences, chiefly that drivers will not be required to start either the Sprint Qualifying race or the grand prix on the tyres they used in Q2. Furthermore, drivers may only use the Q3 tyres in all stages of qualifying.
There is no requirement to use more than one type of tyre in the Sprint Qualifying race – i.e., there is no mandatory pit stop – but that requirement remains in place for the grand prix.
Each driver will have one fewer set of tyres this weekend – 12 instead of the usual 13. They will have two fewer sets of softs (six), one more set of mediums (four) and two sets of hards as usual.
The tyre rules will otherwise work much as they do on regular race weekends. Drivers will still have to retain two mandatory sets for the race of a compound specified by Pirelli for the grand prix.
How else will it differ from a grand prix?
Aside from the changes outlined above, there will be a few other differences.
The session timings are generally later in the day, with Friday’s qualifying session set for a 6pm start in the hope of catching the evening television audience. The timings on teams’ personnel curfews have been revised accordingly.
Drivers’ ‘race’ gearboxes will have be fitted after first practice instead of second practice. There are also changes to the rules on what parts teams may and may not change for Sprint Qualifying and during any suspensions in those races. Significantly, teams may fit replacements parts of a different specification for Sprint Qualifying races provided they have been used in a qualifying or race previously – a dispensation which only applies to Sprint Qualifying weekends.
How has the format changed since it was first devised?
In recent years Formula 1 tried repeatedly, without success, to persuade teams to accept starting the Sprint Qualifying race using reverse championship standings. It gave up on the idea after it was repeatedly blocked.
The possibility of allowing drivers to use DRS more freely, for example by extending the detection zone from one second to two, also failed to find favour. The DRS rules for the Sprint Qualifying race remain the same as they are for the grand prix.
An alternative early name for the format – ‘Super Qualifying’ – was also discussed and discarded.
Will there be a podium ceremony after Sprint Qualifying?
No. Drivers will be awarded their trophies in parc ferme.
In order to add some spectacle to the celebration, Formula 1 has announced it will award traditional winners’ wreaths to the drivers. These were last awarded to podium finishers at grands prix in the mid-eighties.
After the Sprint Qualifying race, the top three drivers will also take part in a victory lap of the circuit.
Will Sprint Qualifying produce more action than a typical race?
This point has divided drivers. Lewis Hamilton predicted the new race will be a procession while others are hopeful that the shorter distance will mean they can pus flat-out on their tyres throughout.
The fact drivers have free tyre choice for the race and do not need to make pit stops gives an extra opportunity for intrigue. Drivers who qualify lower than they may be able gamble on running softer tyres than their rivals, depending on how the rubber performs this weekend.
However what each driver does is fundamentally a question of risk versus reward. Only drivers in the top four places stand to gain or protect a point by making or defending a pass. That’s not a high incentive compared to the risk of being involved in an incident, dropping to the back of the field and having to start the grand prix at the back of the grid.
This seems an inevitable outcome of introducing a race which lasts one-third the distance of a grand prix but pays one-twelfth as many points to the winner. Increasing the points reward may well be mooted as a solution to that, but the risk of ‘diminishing’ the main event will inevitably grow if that happens.
How big a break with tradition is Sprint Qualifying?
Huge. This will be the first time in 1,045 races that the starting grid for a grand prix has been set by anything other than a contest to see who can set the fastest lap time.
The drivers’ beloved trope ‘the points are scored on Sunday’ also won’t apply any more. They can now score points on Saturday and Sunday – another first for Formula 1.
This isn’t the only significant break with the past. The days of every round of the world championship awarding the same number of points are over. This was only previously done when it experimented with a double points season finale in 2014, which proved highly unpopular and was dropped immediately after its debut. Not a great omen.
Can I try Sprint Qualifying in the official F1 game?
No, there’s no Sprint Qualifying in F1 2021.
How will F1 decide whether to hold more Sprint Qualifying races?
The Sprint Qualifying rules do not yet form part of the regulations for the 2022 F1 season.
According to Brawn, if it is to be used again in the future, it will not be introduced at every round. “We think it will be a more suitable format for some of the events, some of the races.”
However he indicated promoters are keen to have the format at their rounds and suggested up to half-a-dozen Sprint Qualifying races could take place next year.
The impetus to do so will be strong. Formula 1 clearly views Sprint Qualifying races as an income stream: It was announced in their first quarter earnings call to investors and a new sponsor, Crypto.com, has signed a reputed $100 million deal to brand the events. This year’s races are being called the 2021 Crypto.com F1 Sprint Series.
Charles Leclerc has said Formula 1 must be “objective” about the first trial runs of the format before deciding whether to continue with it. But the reason for the change is clearly more economic than sporting.
What do people think of Sprint Qualifying prior to its introduction?
Formula 1 has set the bar high for the new format. CEO Stefano Domenicali told RaceFans last month he believes the Sprint Qualifying races will “create the atmosphere of special occasions” at the three rounds of the championship where they will feature – Britain, Italy and a third event to be confirmed.
Brawn says the key strength of the format is it offers significant action on all three days of the race weekend. “I’m quite optimistic about it,” he said. “I think if you take the view of the whole weekend it’s got a lot going for it.”
However FIA president Jean Todt is not a fan. “I don’t think Formula 1 needs it,” he said last month. The FIA did not block the format’s introduction, but Todt was adamant the new event must not be described as a ‘race’.
“I have a part of responsibility not calling that a race,” he said. “For me, the race is on Sunday.”
The teams have largely echoed the PR line that it is worth experimenting with the change – at least, since they were given assurances they would receive additional income to cover the costs of any damage.
Several drivers expressed doubts about the format when it was first announced. Sebastian Vettel said the Sprint Qualifying plan “makes no sense” and is sceptical of the reasons given for its introduction. Sergio Perez warned changes to the race weekend format could prove “risky”.
However following a pre-season meeting with Domenicali, the drivers have largely toed the line on the necessity of experimenting with the race format.
“F1 is willing to try the sprint race, try to see if it can make it more entertaining for the people back at home watching on TV or coming to the track,” said Pierre Gasly. “I think it will be interesting. We’ll try it on some occasions and see how it is.”
Some have raised specific concerns. AlphaTauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda pointed out it will drastically reduce the amount of practice time he has before the first competitive session, which will put him at a greater disadvantage on unfamiliar tracks.
At the time of writing, a poll of RaceFans readers found 18% agreed Sprint Qualifying will “improve the 2021 championship”, while 72% disagreed. We won’t have to wait much longer to find out whether it really is the change for the better F1 is convinced it is.
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