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Sprint Racing – F1’s New Idea for Old Qualifying Tradition!

Whether sprint racing should be used as a qualifier or not, and how will this bring in the element of change and attraction that the sport desires? What implications such a format will bring? At the moment, all such sorts of questions are the hottest topic in Formula One.

Since the first official Formula One race at Silverstone in 1950, starting order for every 1,027 races has been ruled by a qualifying session. It is simple. The one who sets the fastest lap gets to stand ahead in the grid. 

Qualifying sessions have a thrill of their own. The contest of setting up the fastest lap by individuals gave the world a chance to witness the great Ayrton Senna achieving extraordinary feats. But the decision-makers are thinking something else. They believe that sprint racing will make Formula One 2021 even more lively. They want to achieve this ambition by experimenting with another intense competition, which will keep the crowd alive on Saturday as well. While Sunday will still have the main event.

If such a proposal gets the desired support. And every process fits in for success. Qualifying would then take place on Friday. The finishing order of the one-third distant sprint race will be taken into consideration for Sunday’s Grand Prix starting grid. There is also talk about awarding championship points to the top eight finishers for this Saturday race.

Recently, officials of the International Automobile Federation (FIA) held a virtual meeting to discuss several things for Formula One 2021. One of them was about sprint racing. The short race experiment could be experienced in three weekends this season. On the circuits of Monza, Canada, and Brazil. They have been chosen because they are congenial to overtaking and quite functional to the success of an hour-long race. And eventually, if this turns out to be a success, more races will have this format of qualifying in the future.

Still, the proposal requires a supermajority of 28 votes out of 30 across F1(10), the FIA(10), and the 10(1 each) teams to go ahead with the plan this year.

It’s tricky to say that Sprint Racing will bring value to the weekend of the race.

With new rules regarding the cost cap coming into play this year, Formula One teams will have to be more unique with managing the inventory of their spares. Manufacturing has a cost attached to it, and unavoidably the wear and tear on parts are more prominent in racing conditions than it is in practice. Even minor collision during the sprint race will add to repair cost. Subsequently, one reason teams are likely to object is the addition of spares for just three sprint races. 

One factor to benefit the show might be the eventual reduction of the time available to the teams for free practice. 2020 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix created some excitement in the pitch when it had only one practice session instead of three. With fewer data available, the choice of assets and strategies becomes more vague, opening the side to errors. Even the top-tier team like Mercedes were struggling to work out flawlessly.

It will be puzzling, though. Formula One has always identified itself as the pinnacle of technological sophistication. Reducing the time teams take to work on the development of the car over the race weekend seems an unsettling contradiction. Especially in a context where private tests with the machine are prohibited. 

It’s not an easy idea and with empty stands, seems senseless.

A man looks down from the stands with cardboard cutouts of visitors. With the Italian national flag at the Autodromo Nazionale circuit in Monza on September 3, 2020. Just a few days ahead of the Italian Formula One Grand Prix. (Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP) (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)

For the Formula One Commission, it will not be a straightforward task to decide upon the idea. For sprint racing, the entire race weekend schedule will see a change. Starting with a single one-hour free practice session instead of two on Friday morning. Then moving for an afternoon qualifying session divided into three segments [Q-1/2/3].

Saturday morning will again host second free practice. Finally, a 100 km Sprint Racing in the afternoon without any pit stop to decide the grid for Sunday.

It is all brought in an element of thrill and twist. But the major factor, the spectators and fans, might not be there in stands due to restrictions imposed by the government due to the current pandemic situation. It then becomes hard to see this experiment coming through.

The Fridays of the weekend races will play an important part as well. Drivers contesting for Sprint Race grid with qualifying in a normal fashion. It becomes easier for the promoter to market and sell tickets. As this day (Friday) before the short race gains more value but the advantage would go to void if the three experimental events will not have the audience in stands.

However, a substantial impact on the whole championship standing can pull the attention. For or against the Saturday race, that depends on how the events turn out to be. 

Let’s look at what the top eight drivers at the end of the sprint will get: 

12 points go to the winner and then 10 – 8 – 6 – 4 – 3 – 2 and down to 1 who finishes eighth. Also, no points for the fastest lap. It will remain exclusive to Sunday’s race. That is nearly 48% the value of a Grand Prix victory. If winning two sprint races is worth close to that of a single Grand Prix victory, it will eventually carry some significance. This in turn will change the championship dynamics.

Another important aspect that teams cannot neglect is the tires of the cockpit. According to the regulation “unless otherwise determined by the FIA and with the agreement of Pirelli”, each team gets two sets of hard tires, three sets of mediums, and eight sets of the soft ones, per race weekend. 

Pirelli tyres are seen following qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Will this set of thirteen Pirellies be sufficient for such an experimental Grand Prix? Maybe, Officials can bring in few new regulations for these sprint races. Pirelli may sit down with FIA and F1 officials to introduce a new choice of compounds. For example, running a 100km race without a pit stop on a track like that of Canada, that too on a super-soft compound will be hard. 

In short, it will be interesting to find the implications because this idea has left many perplexed.

Making sense of it all.

Recently, the plans of introducing a reverse-grid qualifying race at a limited number of rounds for the 2021 F1 season were also on the table. But due to a lack of support from teams, it ended up facing rejection. Particularly, Mercedes and the Racing Points were adamant to even consider it. Formula One usually resists changes. Important reason being the way these experiments are carried out. The past outcome of such initiatives has always left the viewers more or less perplexed. In the 2016 season, for example, when FIA gave approval to a new elimination-style qualifying format. It was introduced by Bernie Ecclestone to promote closer racing. Since it was controversial, we never saw that system ever again.

Considering all things- Yes, splitting the fight for pole into three tranches only adds to the suspenseBut again, it is a form of assumption and the reality of the sprint race will be something else. It’s better than the Formula One commission wants to put this effort to a test. What is the worst that can happen? If it attracts more viewers, why not stick with the experiment?

For Formula 1 to survive, they need to be courageous while they evolve. Also, staying stuck with its ten-year convictions just on papers is not sustainable. Whether the sprint race route is the most relevant way to explore new areas is still a mystery. And perhaps toying with practice sessions, sacrificing a few race weekends, is the only way to find out. 

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