What exactly is a Sprint Qualifying Race meant to achieve, how will it be run and what effect does it have on the classic F1 race weekend programme? We’ll get onto that in a moment, but first a history lesson. In prehistoric times, grid positions were even decided by lottery, but since the world championship began in 1950, timed sessions have been used, with the fastest driver earning the right to start from pole position. The format has changed over the years: two sessions with one best time counting; two sessions with an aggregate time deciding grid place; a one lap per driver session, and most recently, a three part session, with a number of drivers eliminated until we are left with a top ten shoot out.
But for 2021, the sport’s promoters have decided to trial something radically different at a trio of races, in the shape of what is effectively a mini-race on Saturday, the result of which decides the grid for the usual main event on Sunday. Why? The main aim, as with much of what Liberty has done since taking over the reins of F1, is to give the fans a better experience. To start with, Friday will finally have a competitive edge to it, because qualifying for the Sprint Race will take place that day, after a free practice session.
Then on Saturday, another free practice hour will precede the Sprint Race, so that fans get all the excitement of a Formula 1 race start, followed by a 100 km race that should last around half an hour. Being run over a shorter distance, drivers will be flat out from start to finish, with no pit stops needed.
It’s a fascinating spectacle, as drivers want to secure the best possible grid position for Sunday’s main race, but will want to make sure they don’t mess up their chances with a spin or a crash. If you’re a purist, who believes nothing should change, then don’t worry, because Sunday is still very much the highlight of the weekend. There’s no “show” or national anthem leading up to the Sprint Qualifying Race, a few points are handed out – 3 for a win, 2 for second, 1 for third – but there’s no podium ceremony or champagne spraying, just a small trophy handed to the winner in parc ferme, along the same lines as the miniature Pirelli tyre currently given to the pole sitter.
So there are the bare bones of what this exciting new initiative should look like, while every aspect of how it will be managed, from tyre allocation to parc ferme rules has been well thought out. Formula 1 has adopted a much more flexible attitude to its sporting regulations in recent times and even in this instance, the bosses have made it clear that the Sprint Qualifying Race is, for the moment, just a trial. If it works, it might be seen more often, but equally, if it does not, then it can put aside as an interesting experiment.