Ahead of the 2021 Formula One season, there was great anticipation surrounding what was supposed to be a record-breaking 23-race schedule – as it was a sign that the sport was returning to normality in this pandemic affected world.
The jury is out on Formula One’s latest attempt to shake up its qualifying format, the introduction of a Saturday sprint race, but the reception has been overwhelmingly negative.
Unanimously approved by the Formula One Commission, three events in 2021 will feature sprint qualifying in a bid to increase on-track action across a race weekend – giving viewers more racing to digest. Also without the exuberant costs associated with more racing and the threat of Sunday’s grand prix being devalued.
A single, 60-minute practice session will be held on Friday, before the existing qualifying format will set the grid for Saturday’s 100km sprint race. Cars will be placed into Parc Fermé from the start of Friday’s qualifying to prevent teams from going overboard with qualifying specific cars.
Another hour-long practice will commence proceedings on Saturday before the sprint race with no pit-stops and allowing drivers to choose from two sets of tyres to determine the grid for grand prix, as well as awarding 3, 2 and 1 points for the top three.
It’s hardly surprising the reception has been negative, given the staunchest supporters of the sport have long defended the incumbent three-phase knockout qualifying format – which Formula One has successfully used since 2006.
Only in 2016 was there a change to format, which saw former Formula One management haphazardly introduce an elimination-based system – met with widespread confusion and disgust – before reverting to the traditional format after two race meetings.
On this occasion, Formula One has wisely opted to trial staging the sprints only across three select events. Silverstone, Monza and a non-European event will play host, ultimately providing the drivers plenty of opportunities for overtaking.
This leaves sufficient space for comparisons between the two formats before the next designated event, if required – or even ditch the concept altogether. However, the intention is to roll out sprint qualifying across select weekends in the future.
The age-old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ can easily be applied, though some will have to admit their dissatisfaction with the current qualifying format, which ultimately has attributed to the belief a change was needed.
Echoing previous discussions over possible changes to qualifying, Formula One should’ve explored the concept of a top-ten shootout or superpole in place of the incumbent Q3. This would liven up the battle for pole position and also place emphasis on each driver, as they piece together their one and only fastest lap.
Now that sprint qualifying is inevitable, there is no point deriding it further without seeing an outcome. Whether it’ll enhance the championship is unlikely, though there is the potential of it impacting the endgame of what’s shaping to be a titanic title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
Formula One will be held accountable if this indeed fails. But for now, it must be allowed to breathe and the ticket-holding fans who’ll be trackside on a Saturday are allowed to enjoy the additional racing.