Formula 1 is set to shake up its normal race weekends with the introduction of a new Sprint Qualifying format, starting with the British Grand Prix taking place this 17th of July.
Let’s take a look at what we can expect from Formula 1’s new concept which is aimed at enriching the experience of a full-race weekend for the fans in the vicinity of the track and those all around the world, from the gripping and unpredictable qualifying on a Friday afternoon to the tense and nerve-wracking chequered flag on Sunday.
Normal race weekends
After the debacle of the 2016 season where the controversial “Elimination Qualifying” format was introduced, in which every 90 seconds the slowest car got eliminated, was scrapped after two rounds following backlash from teams, drivers, and fans. The FIA then turned to its tried-and-tested method – the normal 3-stage qualifying format which has been successful since its introduction in 2006.
On a normal race weekend, Friday is reserved for two practice sessions, one during the morning and the other during the afternoon. On Saturdays, the teams and drivers get one more final practice session to hone their cars and make final adjustments before the parc fermé rules set in.
The drivers battle it out, with the five slowest cars getting eliminated at the end of both Qualifying 1 and Qualifying 2 sessions, leaving ten cars to contest for pole position. With the parc fermé rules in place, teams can only make minor adjustments like changing the brake bias, camber, tyre pressure, front wing adjustments, etc.
The drivers then race for a distance of about 305km or 80-120 mins while also mandated to pit at least once during a race. A driver must run at least two different compounds of tyres, and anyone failing to do so before the end of the penultimate lap gets disqualified by the FIA Race Director.
Sprint qualifying weekends
The sprint qualifying weekends are completely different to the normal race weekends. Fridays have the same one-hour long free practice 1 session, but the afternoon practice session gets replaced by the “traditional” 3-stage qualifying format, meaning that the parc fermé rules set in right after the first practice session.
Though the third practice session of a normal race weekend has been retained as the second practice session for the sprint qualifying weekend, it leaves the teams with a small window to make some minor adjustments to their setup.
The sprint qualifying race in the afternoon session will be run over 100km (one-third of the actual race) and will take around 25-40 minutes depending on the layout of each track, while the final classification of Friday’s qualifying session will be the starting grid for Saturday’s sprint qualifying.
Although pit stops are optional for sprint races, teams can either opt to run with the medium or hard tyre compounds which are expected to last over a distance of 100km, or gamble on an aggressive one-stop softs-softs strategy to take advantage of their superior race pace.
The 2017 Bahrain F2 sprint race is a perfect example of this. Charles Leclerc, now of Ferrari, opted to pit during the sprint race, pitting being optional and a rarely used tactic in sprint races. The young Monégasque rejoined the track in 14th place with only eight laps remaining. The next eight laps were nothing short of a miracle as Leclerc charged up the field overtaking cars left, right, and centre, and went on to win the race creating one of the most memorable sprint races in recent history.
The final classification of the sprint race will be the starting grid for Sunday’s race. If someone fails to complete the sprint race or crashes out, his final standing in the classification list will be his starting grid for Sunday.
Will the drivers get any points?
Yes, points will be awarded for the sprint race qualifying, but only to the top three finishers. The driver finishing first will get three points, the second-placed driver scoring two points, and the third-place driver scoring a solitary point. Unlike Sunday, there will be no podium celebrations and champagne. There will be interviews and a trophy for the race winner in parc fermé, just like the pole sitter getting a miniature Pirelli tyre during a traditional qualifying session.
Normal race weekend
During any normal race weekend, teams are given 13 dry sets of tyres for each driver. The tyre allocation is broken down into seven soft compound tyres, four medium compound tyres, and two hard compound tyres, which is Pirelli-mandated due to the COVID-19 pandemic as an irregular demand would create a logistical headache for the Italian tyre manufacturer.
At a normal race weekend, teams are given strict guidelines by the FIA. For each practice session, teams have to hand back any two sets of tyres. While one set of soft compound tyres is reserved for Q3 (top 10 shootout), two more sets – one of medium compound tyres and another of hard compound tyres – are reserved for Sunday’s main race.
This allows the teams to have four fresh sets of tyres to maximize their strategies for the qualifying session and also for the main race on Sunday. Even if a driver uses the entire set along with the reserved soft compound tyres for Q3 he is allowed to use those five sets of tyres during the main race along with the two reserved sets of fresh tyres, while the top 10 drivers who make it through to Q3 must start their race with the set of tyres they set their fastest lap times in during the Q2 session.
Sprint qualifying weekend
The sprint qualifying tyre allocation is similar but totally different from the normal race weekends. Here, the teams are allocated 12 dry sets of tyres for each driver, with the split-up being quite similar except for one less set of medium compound tyres. Each driver is given seven sets of soft compound tyres, three sets of medium compound tyres, and two sets of hard compound tyres.
Unlike normal weekends, five sets of soft compound tyres are set to be reserved for the qualifying session on Fridays, including one set strictly reserved for the Q3 session. This time, however, drivers don’t have to start on the same set of tyres they’d have used to set their fastest lap times during the Q2 session, neither for the sprint race nor the main race on Sunday.
The rule of using two different compounds for the first practice session remains intact, but for Saturday’s morning practice session, teams are allowed to use only one set of tyres, the choice of tyre compound being free for everyone. The teams are then asked to reserve one set of tyres for the sprint qualifying and another two sets for the main race on Sunday, and with one extra fresh set of tyres available to them, some teams are likely to gamble on a one-spot dash to the finish line.
In case of a rain-interrupted weekend, a maximum of nine sets of Intermediates and Wet weather tyres (combined) are to be allocated to each driver. For each driver, Pirelli is to allocate three sets of intermediate compound tyres and four sets of wet compound tyres at the start of the event. If the first practice session or the qualifying session on Friday is wet, teams receive an additional set of intermediate tyres but must return a set of used intermediates before the sprint qualifying session. If the sprint qualifying is wet too, teams must return one set of used wets or intermediates after the session – which will then be replaced with a new set of intermediates or wets.
How many sprint qualifying weekends are we expecting?
Currently, there are three sprint qualifying weekends planned for the 2021 season, the first of which is scheduled to take place during the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. The other two venues haven’t been announced yet, though the understanding is that there will be two sprint races in Europe and one at a flyaway event. With Silverstone confirmed as the first European race, it is thought that the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September is the other European race, while it is rumoured that the Brazilian Grand Prix in November might be the third and final event.
What if a car gets damaged?
With teams working on a tight budget, every single penny counts. This was the concern for most team principals after the FIA announced the three sprint qualifying weekends. To offset the cost of sprint races, a package worth around US$500,000 for the three events has been agreed upon with the teams. In addition to this, there’s also a compensation scheme for teams who will suffer damage during a sprint qualifying race, which should ensure that a driver who wrecks his car on Saturday could still compete on Sunday for the main race.
Apart from the monetary aspect, if a car suffers damage during a sprint race, teams will have to replace the broken parts with like-for-like replacements. This is due to the parc fermé rules set in before Friday’s traditional qualifying session – the point at which major changes can no longer be made.
How does Parc Fermé work here?
The Parc Fermé rules forbid the changing of major components to avoid teams moving to set up their car especially for qualifying while also limiting the number of hours required for preparing the car to a more race-trim setup for Sunday.
For sprint qualifying weekends, the parc fermé rules apply from Friday’s traditional qualifying session, meaning teams only have one session to fine-tune their qualifying and race-trim setups. Although, some wriggle room on car reconfiguration is permitted to make Saturday’s second free practice session more meaningful and competitive.
For safety reasons, teams can change the brake friction material for a new, identical set that would be used earlier during qualifying or sprint qualifying before the main race, while teams are allowed to change brake ducts too.
The teams have been permitted to make adjustments to the cooling systems of the Power Unit (PU) and the gearbox should the ambient temperature change drastically (a change of 10°C or more recorded by the FIA’s appointed weather service provider).
However, should a front wing be damaged in sprint qualifying (for example, if a team run out of the latest-specification front wings), they can run a previously used specification without a penalty. Previously, a change in specification – be it for a new or old component – would have resulted in a grid penalty.
As per Article 10.3 of the Technical Regulations, between the two qualifying sessions, teams are also permitted to change or adjust suspension elements – springs and dampers – or alter camber, and toe or ride height of suspension components.
Why are they doing it?
During the normal race weekends, the teams and drivers get two hours of free practice on Friday and another hour of free running on Saturday morning before the first competitive session starts in the afternoon session with qualifying.
Sprint qualifying weekends, on the other hand, are expected to be more intense. Teams only have one session to prepare their cars for qualifying rather than the three relaxed sessions during normal race weekends. Qualifying won’t be straightforward either, and we can expect most teams to come out and do a four-six lap qualifying run instead of the normal one-shot glory runs.
Those who come up short with their setup would still have another practice session to hone their cars and try to make up ground during the sprint qualifying race.
While the format of sprint qualifying gives the teams and their drivers a chance to bounce back even if they mess up the traditional qualifying session, it brings with itself other new challenges as well.
The normal race weekend is dull for most fans – except for some purists – as the three one-hour long practice sessions give the teams enough time to collect all the data and test their car setup for every possible scenario, resulting in a more predictable race weekend.
With sprint qualifying weekends, teams have less time to run their cars and hone their setup to properly assess all situations and create a perfect balance between the qualifying setup and the race setup. This might be the reason for introducing a new format – to bring jeopardy into play.
The three consecutive free practice sessions also help in rubbering up the track, providing superior grip and letting the drivers get accustomed to the limits of the track. With only 60 minutes of free running, there would be chaos during both free practice 1 and Friday’s qualifying, which might result in track limit violations, lap time deletions, spins, crashes, and unexpected results – just what the F1 community wants.
With this latest concept, F1 is trying to engage more fans for the entirety of the weekend and not just the qualifying and race events. This spicy dish of chaos is served to keep the fans hooked and entertained throughout the race weekend.
If it doesn’t work out, it’ll be binned just like 2016’s “Elimination Qualifying” format, but if it works, the plan is to roll it out at selected weekends in the future, rather than at every Grand Prix.
“I’m not sure this format would be as successful at Monaco,” said F1 Managing Director, Motorsports, Ross Brawn. “We’re considering these weekends being Grand Slam events, spread through the season, so it is something different.
“I don’t think it’ll go to the whole season, I think it’ll be a limited number of races, but that is to be decided.”