Image Credit: Morio
The 2021 Formula 1 season has been one of the most thrilling in recent memory. We’ve seen a close title fight, unexpected results, off-track quarrels, and – for the first time ever – sprint qualifying. ‘F1 Sprint’ was trialled at Silverstone, Monza, and Sao Paolo this year, with F1 managing director Ross Brawn hoping the new format would be “more engaging for new fans.” This change involved pushing traditional qualifying back from Saturday afternoon to Friday evening. This one-hour Friday session would then set the grid order for the sprint race, which would in turn set the grid order for the main race on Sunday. Sprint races would be a third of the length of normal races, and therefore done and dusted within half an hour.
So, has the new format been a success, and could it be introduced at more race weekends in the future? Well, it has certainly divided opinion amongst fans, with some keen for the format to stay and others pleading for it to disappear off the F1 calendar. On the one hand, sprint races have provided fans with an extra dose of action. As a spectator myself at this year’s British Grand Prix, I felt that I got greater value for money, and that it was worth going to the track on the Friday, which normally sees fewer fans coming through the gates as its reserved only for practise sessions.
The Silverstone sprint was not the most entertaining race ever, but there were still some memorable moments, such as Verstappen overtaking Hamilton at the start, Alonso charging through the field, and Sergio Perez spinning out. In the sprint at Italy, we saw Hamilton fall back at the start, which set up an intriguing main event the following day, and in Brazil, the Brit delighted fans with a drive from the back of the field to fifth place in just 24 short laps. To summarise then, sprint qualifying equals more action, more overtaking, and more thrills. This begs the question: what’s not to like?
Some fans argue that sprint races are more boring as the drivers are less likely to take risks. Given that only three points are up for grabs, a relatively insignificant number compared to the 25 awarded to the winner on a Sunday, it perhaps doesn’t make sense to attempt a risky overtake or to push the car to the limit. However, I think that this overlooks the fact that racing drivers are natural risk takers. In Brazil, Hamilton didn’t shy away from lunging up the inside of his compatriot Lando Norris, nor did Alonso show restraint at the start in Silverstone when he passed six cars.
Another criticism that has been made of sprint qualifying is that it removes the jeopardy of the traditional one-hour shootout. Certainly, this session becomes less important. In fact, in none of the three trial races did the driver who was fastest on Friday start from the front on Sunday. However, that doesn’t mean that the Friday session cannot still be entertaining. Sitting in the grandstands at Silverstone on the Friday, I heard an immense cheer when Hamilton finished fastest, as I did when Russell put his Williams into the top ten. The grievances that I have discussed are valid, but I don’t think that they outweigh the positives.
Overall then, sprint races certainly have a place in the future of Formula 1. I don’t think that anybody would want to see them at every race weekend, but as an occasional occurrence they add to the spectacle and the drama of the sport. Whether fans like it or not, Formula 1 is changing and adapting, and this is the latest of those changes.