At Thursday’s F1 Committee meeting it was decided that Saturday sprint races will be trialed at three different venues during the 2021 season. All 10 teams were in favor of the proposal, and although no official confirmation has arrived yet, it is believed that Monza, Montréal and Sao Paolo will host one sprint race each.
Written by Oskar Yigen, Edited by Esmée K and Joe Kirk
F1 as a sport is always trying to evolve on all fronts, including sustainability, relevance, diversity and safety – and over the last few years, there have been a vast number of improvements to these aspects of the sport. However, despite F1 having seen so much change in recent times, many fans have been left complaining of a lack of excitement in the sport – that the entertainment side of an F1 race has been largely ignored. This has seemingly left the FIA, Formula 1, and the teams themselves, largely in agreement; that something needs to be done – and these sprint races are an example of how we’re starting to see some ideas come through.
The concept of sprint races isn’t a new one. Inspired by Formula 2 and 3, fans have been talking about the prospect of a short, fast-paced race either before or after the main Grand Prix for a long time. It would work as a way to mix up the grid, either as a qualifying race before the Grand Prix, or as an extra chance of scoring points afterwards, but for many, reverse grids are an essential part of this.
When sprint races featuring reverse grids were proposed back in mid-2020 by F1, there was a consensus among the majority of teams that it was a good idea, a way to make the races more unpredictable. However, since Mercedes, and therefore also all its customer teams opposed (including McLaren, even though they will only be using Mercedes engines from this year onwards), the proposal was blocked.
All this has led to the current situation – a trial run of three events during this season, where the race weekend will be set up as following: On Friday, Practice 1 will be hosted first, followed by qualifying for the sprint race. Then, on Saturday, the sprint race will take place (with a distance of 100 kilometers), setting the grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix. Interestingly, points will only be awarded on Sunday.
How could this affect F1 races?
Well, whilst the lack of practice might shake up the order itself, in my opinion, having sprint races without reverse grids will have very little effect. Since there’s a regular qualifying session beforehand, the fastest cars will start at the front, the slowest cars at the back, and when the field has settled down after a couple of laps, chances are, nothing more will happen. Sure, there’s more time for something to go wrong at Mercedes or Red Bull, but equally there’s more time for them to catch back up again if a first-lap incident takes place.
The whole concept of sprint races originates from a need to create more excitement, and to expose the drivers to adversity, but an extra race in itself is not enough to create that excitement – there needs to be a factor which sparks it. As mentioned, F2 and F3 (and many other lower formulas) has, with the help of reverse grids, succeeded in making the sprint races action-packed and dramatic, and in doing so giving drivers from both midfield and backmarker teams a chance for podiums and wins.
So how would this look in Formula 1? Let’s imagine two different scenarios; one where the sprint races don’t feature reverse grids, one where they do.
In our first scenario, without reverse grids, the top 10 qualifying order would likely be very predictable, the Mercedes more often than not taking the front row, only ever challenged by RedBull, with a midfield fight happening behind them. At the start, the top 4 pull away from the midfield pack where there may be some close battles. However, keep in mind that most of the amazing midfield battles that we saw last season were a consequence of differing strategies, something which won’t play out in a sprint race, since there are no mandatory stops – therefore, the race finishes in largely the same order as it started.
Come Sunday, and the cars start in more or less the exact same positions as they did on Saturday – or in other words, as they would without a sprint race. The Grand Prix likely plays out like most have done over recent years – complete domination from the top teams, but some interesting duels in the midfield.
Consider the second scenario however, the sprint race replaces qualifying, and the starting grid is set by reversing the championship order. This means drivers like Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen, Perez, Vettel and Ricciardo start from the back – and drivers considered backmarkers like Russell, Giovinazzi, Schumacher and Latifi start from the front. Obviously, come the end of the sprint race, and the top drivers will be back at the front – just not necessarily in the order they started. They’ll be exposed to different challenges; who can overtake backmarkers while losing the least time? Who can avoid getting into trouble at the start? Who is most decisive in working their way through the field as quickly as possible? This will undoubtedly lead to exciting racing, drivers going wheel-to-wheel, making overtakes when it counts, and ultimately entertaining the crowds.
A reverse grid on Saturday, may also lead to a much more unpredictable grid for Sunday. As all the faster cars jump off the line it would be wheel to wheel down into turn 1, the faster cars desperately trying to charge to the front. Perhaps a midfield driver like Tsunoda just about manages to hold on to pole and ends up challenging for a podium? The 2020 Italian grand prix at Monza showed us that the midfield teams fighting for the top spot can be thrilling. Another big argument for reverse grids is that it could also lead to varying results at the end of the Grand Prix, spicing up an otherwise normally 2-3 horse race for the title.
So why has there been such resistance to reverse grids by F1? Well as many more cautious fans of the sport have pointed out, it may cause starting grids to become too gimmicky and artificial – especially in a 2021 season where a lack of regulation changes has led many to believe the gap between teams will close up significantly. Would a reverse grid system lead to a closer title fight between teams that work their way through the pack? Or unnecessarily mixing up the grid so often that there isn’t really a title fight, but a brawl.
With that in mind, in my opinion the way forward is clear: if sprint races are introduced, then it should be featuring reverse grids. Otherwise, why bother? If it doesn’t create any extra excitement, all it does is take away from the hype of Sunday, which will now ‘’only’’ be the second race. As it stands, the only way the sprint races are making racing closer is by reducing practice, which will probably affect smaller teams more.
As mentioned in the beginning of the article, F1 is constantly evolving, which it should. However, this time I believe that a mistake has been made, changes in F1 should always be beneficial for some reason, and I simply don’t see what that ‘’something’’ is in this case. Is it ‘evolution’ for a better sport, or just ‘evolution’ for the sake of ‘evolution’?