F1 Sprint Qualifying: lights out or away it goes?

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As a younger F1 fan, there are moments I know I’ll never experience in the same way as those who were there first-hand. Lewis Hamilton’s last lap overtake to secure the 2008 Championship by a single point, Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari years, Nigel Mansell achieving his World Championship with five races to go.

Now, though, however small it is, I have my own piece of F1 history. I was able to witness the first ever F1 Sprint race.

It’s fair to say that the concept of an F1 sprint had divided opinion in and out of the paddock. F1 President Stefano Domencali is in favour whilst FIA president Jean Todt has his doubts. Drivers such as Charles Leclerc have said there is a majority of support amongst the competitors, while Bernie Ecclestone (never one to miss out on an opportunity to give his opinion) has branded the races ‘complete nonsense’.

While all their perspectives are certainly interesting, it’s worth remembering who the change in format is meant to directly appeal to – the fans. Specifically, those who are lucky enough to attend circuits in person.

Part of the reasoning for the change to the F1 weekend this year is that for those in attendance at circuits around the world, Friday and Saturday can feel a little bereft of action. If, like me, you’re a fan of the feeder series, there is still plenty for you to enjoy – but the main attraction to a race weekend is undeniably the F1.

The introduction of a sprint race has so far shifted qualifying to a Friday, where previously there was only FP1 & FP2. It maintains interest in Saturday viewing, whilst Sunday is still the main event.

From a financial perspective, there’s no major incentive for this from Liberty Media: most gate revenue from races goes directly to the venues hosting them. In this sense, it’d be fair to say that the inclusion of a sprint is about increasing the quality rather than the quantity of a race weekend.

In my view, the biggest criticisms of the change – that it’s processional and generally pointless – don’t hold up

Of the two sprint races we’ve seen so far, both have had direct impacts on the race following them. Fernando Alonso’s charge up the field and Sergio Perez’ disastrous spin in the British GP Sprint had major impacts on Sunday’s GP. Alonso held on to a creditable seventh and it’s arguable that the intensity with which Max pushed Lewis on the first lap was partly due to the knowledge that there was no second Red Bull in the strategy battle for a slower, more tactical attempt at the win.

Likewise, in Monza it would have been hard to impossible for a McLaren to pass the Mercedes without Hamilton’s poor start to the sprint and two excellent starts from Daniel Ricciardo.

It would be a lie to say there are no criticisms. Some I agree with – awarding pole to the person who wins the sprint is technically correct but feels awry. Similarly, the confusion over the name (Qualifying? Sprint Race? Sprint Qualifying?) has not helped solidify impressions that this could be a long-lasting and solid change.

Other people are concerned that the inclusion of a sprint race cracks open the traditional format of a race weekend like an eggshell and that future ‘innovations’, such as reverse grids or mandatory varied tyre choice for different teams, might slip in easier in future. To be honest, it’s a concern I share too, and I retain the right to switch from defence to attack if it proves to be the case.

For now, though, I don’t think we need to worry. In my view, the biggest criticisms of the change – that it’s processional and generally pointless – don’t hold up. The sprint races are about as competitive as the full races, minus pit strategy, which puts the focus on the drivers to drag everything they can out of their machines rather than the behind-the-scenes efforts.

We’ve seen plenty to get hearts soaring – and we haven’t even yet reached the new era of car design that these races are intended for. With two down and one to go at Interlagos, some people’s opinions are likely already forged and unchangeable, whether in favour or against.

If yours isn’t, or you’re wavering against the idea of a sprint race, then hopefully this article has given you a little insight into my view. To sum it up simply; it’s pretty hard for a fan like me to say no to more F1!

Image: Kroiz via Creative Commons

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