Formula 1 trialled a revised weekend format at Silverstone, with qualifying shifted to Friday, and a 17-lap Sprint instead setting the grid for the grand prix. MotorsportWeek.com reflects on some of the takeaways from the trial.
1. Friday has a focal point
At grand prix weekends Friday can often be a relatively soporific affair. There are two hours of practice (which, prior to 2021, was three hours) and it often passes with little intrigue. Nor is it really meant to. No other sport in the world obsesses so much in terms of practice – does anyone care about football warm-ups or tennis build-up? – but the restructured format gave increased value to Friday’s 60-minute session. Teams were far busier as they tried to rattle through a condensed programme, and then had only 150 minutes to analyse the data in order to choose a set-up prior to Q1. The lack of running didn’t lead to wild errors during qualifying – though stable conditions helped – and the order was similar to what everyone would expect, but it gave Friday a focal point for punters. The glorious weather, as well as the atmosphere, certainly helped. For a promoter it also gives Friday increased financial value – and the same goes for broadcasters too.
2. Pole position recognition needs preserving
One drawback was the decision to award pole position not for the fastest qualifying lap but for the victor of Sprint. Technically, pole position is only officially issued once the final grid is supplied by the FIA, meaning drivers have previously topped qualifying only to receive a penalty – with the second-fastest qualifier then awarded pole position. That happened most recently in Mexico in 2019.
But there was widespread belief that handing pole to the Sprint winner was wrong. Lewis Hamilton set the fastest one-lap time but was given the Pirelli Speed King Award, with Sprint winner Max Verstappen officially getting pole position.
“For me personally qualifying is where you should get pole position, and of course Lewis was ahead,” said Verstappen on Saturday.
“I think that’s wrong, and should change that,” said Sebastian Vettel on Verstappen receiving pole. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s a new discipline so award a new stat or whatever.”
The spectacle of the Sprint top three being paraded around in a sponsor-laden truck, which from some angles resembled a bin lorry, could also do with some refinement.
3. Formula 1 was happy with it
Formula 1 was always going to heavily promote the format and borderline gaslight observers into thinking it was utterly sensational. It wasn’t, but nor was it terrible – it was merely a decent watch. But for a first trial the sport’s senior figures were largely encouraged.
“We’re already getting massive feedback, positive, from the fans, on social media, they love it,” said Ross Brawn. “But there will be fans who make some comments, what they didn’t understand or appreciate and we’ll take that into account as well. We need to view the weekend overall, as I don’t see anything we’ve done which takes away from the weekend, I think it’s all additive, but let’s see the whole weekend, let’s see the race.”
4. It (probably) facilitated F1’s biggest talking point of 2021
Sprint gave drivers a second crack at the whip – and perhaps led to Formula 1’s biggest talking point of the campaign when Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen collided. Verstappen jumped Hamilton off the line in Sprint and the Briton’s attempts at wrestling back the lead failed, with the Red Bull driver maintaining his position. When asked whether he felt it unfair that Hamilton had topped qualifying but not been recognised with pole, Brawn offered a different perspective.
“If that had been the proper race today, he [Hamilton] wouldn’t have won it,” said Brawn after Sprint. “So therefore, he has another opportunity tomorrow to think about the start, think about the tyres, think about how he approached it.”
Hamilton did think about it. He knew getting ahead of his rival was critical to his race prospects – and learned from his Saturday setback.
“I went down the left-hand side [into Copse in Sprint] and I really regretted not going for the gap that was down the right-hand side, and so [in the grand prix] I dummied him, moved to the left and then moved to the right for that gap.”
Perhaps without Sprint the battle they had on Saturday would have been the Sunday scrap – with Verstappen staying ahead and sailing off to victory.
5. No Q2 tyre rule led to stagnant strategy
There was some strategic variance in Sprint, with four drivers taking Softs, and 16 on Mediums – with Fernando Alonso providing most of the entertainment after his inspired start on the red-walled rubber.
But in race trim all 19 drivers on the grid started on the Medium tyres – the only outlier being Sergio Perez, who started from the pit lane on Hards. That was because under the regulations for a weekend with Sprint all drivers had to use Soft tyres throughout qualifying, and therefore had free choice of starting tyre for the race.
Those 19 all came in for their mandatory pit stop between laps 18 and 30 and all then ran a one-stop strategy by fitting the Hard tyres. The only outlier among that group was Pierre Gasly, who sustained a puncture on lap 47, and had to pit for repairs. Perez ran a deeply unconventional three-stop strategy but provided little in the way of entertainment.
Given the level of drama up front, and the intrigue of Hamilton’s recovery, the similar strategies somewhat flew under the radar. At another event that approach will lead to a complete procession.
6. Drivers enjoyed pushing flat out
One aspect drivers enjoyed with Sprint was the ability to effectively push flat out for a shorter distance on lighter fuel loads, given there were limited concerns over tyre wear, with the main event still to come. There was no need to conserve rubber in case it made strategic sense to prolong a stint by five or 10 laps.
“17 laps pushing flat out is something we’re normally not used to,” explained Charles Leclerc. “It feels good to be pushing for 17 laps.”
Williams’ George Russell concurred, adding: “[It was fun] just going hell for leather really and really, really pushing the cars to the limit which is not what we often get to do. It was only in the final lap or two when the tyres started to degrade and that’s obviously when the real action would have ordinarily happened in a normal-length race.”
7. Second practice was a less exciting affair
Calling practice ‘less exciting’ is a slight misnomer because, as already outlined, practice is not designed to be a showpiece event. But with no reason to gun for low-fuel laps, and with parc ferme conditions applied, Saturday afternoon’s practice was not a thriller. The fastest time, set by Verstappen, was nine-tenths off the slowest Q1 effort posted by Haas’ Nikita Mazepin.
“Practice two, the way it is, I think that is something that drivers and teams tend to see as a bit useless because it is not like you can prepare for anything at that point,” Perez. “You cannot prepare for the Sprint and you cannot prepare much for the race. Everyone is saving mileage so I think that is something that can be improved.”
Fernando Alonso, though, felt little had changed; “It was very useful for us,” he said. “I don’t know from the outside [how it is] because you see cars running in high fuel with different compounds. I don’t know if it’s a good show or not but it was the same in FP2 in the previous format.”
8. It’s still too soon to draw conclusions – and shouldn’t be used everywhere
The trial has only taken place once and therefore drawing concrete conclusions would be hasty – it was one circuit, in one type of conditions, and with certain tyre compounds. Formula 1 knows this, and will only undertake a proper assessment after the next two trials, which will be in Italy and a yet-to-be-determined third location.
But even if it stays for 2022 it is clear that it should not be used in place of the regular format.
“I think it is entertaining, a start is always interesting, and good content,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, summing up the general mood. “Overall it is a good add-on but I don’t see that every race. I think there is too much randomness. If the next few ones go [like] this one I think it has a place in the calendar in a limited form.”