It was always going to be difficult for Formula 1’s first sprint qualifying race to live up to the hype that had been building around it for weeks.
Hopes of 100km of flat out racing, with drivers banging wheels in their battle for the top positions now that they were unleashed from worrying about tyre degradation and fuel, were unlikely to ever materialise.
But Silverstone’s first sprint can certainly be viewed as a creditable first trial, even if it has offered a few warning signs of potential trouble on the horizon if it does become a regular feature.
On the positive side, there was some good track action, and it was a race where drivers weren’t just sitting there waiting for a pitstop to offer them a chance to overtake.
At the front, sure, it turned into what Carlos Sainz had predicted it would be ahead of the weekend: brilliant fun for seven corners and then settling down into a procession.
Max Verstappen’s aggressive weaving on the opening lap and Lewis Hamilton’s bold attempt to try to go around the outside of his Red Bull rival at Copse, were brilliant to see – and likely something that would not be expected in a regular two-hour GP.
The spectacle was certainly saved by Fernando Alonso’s brilliance in switching his softs on at the start and surging his way from 11th on the grid to run as high as fifth after the opening lap.
Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, and Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
With the fight for the top four positions pretty much stabilised from then on anyway, all the attention was on Alonso as he valiantly tried to hold back the medium runners behind him.
It was the kind of difference in strategy that is rarely seen in regular F1, because stints are normally much longer than the 17 laps that was sprint was contested over. Alonso would never have taken the soft gamble on a normal Sunday because he would have stopped early and wrecked his race chances.
What will be especially fascinating to see is whether the very close crossover point between the soft and the medium for the Silverstone sprint is matched at other venues.
For had the soft not been an option (and remember Valtteri Bottas was not able to benefit much from it), then the sprint event would certainly have been much less exciting.
The arrival of the sprint was not just about hoping to deliver a brilliant 30-minute spectacle on a Saturday afternoon.
As F1 chief Ross Brawn repeatedly kept saying in recent weeks, the format change was about improving the entire race weekend – with a focal point on each day. That means a Friday qualifying, a Saturday sprint and a Sunday main race.
The British GP Friday undoubtedly showed that the move had spiced up the opening day of practice.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, waves to fans
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
The delight of the crowds in seeing Hamilton take a pole (that wasn’t a pole) was clear to see. In terms of engagement, the eyeballs on the sport were certainly bigger on a Friday than they are when teams are focused on their long run data.
But what needs to be taken into account is that the Silverstone weekend has had the benefit of the novelty factor. Hamilton’s pole, and George Russell’s Q3 effort, were a highlight because they were something new at a race where a capacity home crowd was behind the home heroes.
What we can’t tell yet is whether the intensity and value of Friday qualifying could decrease massively in the future if teams realise that the grid positions for the sprint race don’t matter that much.
If the main competitive difference between teams is now making good getaways and strong first laps, then drivers could quickly switch off from caring too much about what happens on a Friday.
And as soon as drivers say: “I don’t care I qualified fourth, I know that the sprint race changes everything”, then fans will quickly carry that message and turn off the Friday action themselves.
One certain benefit of the Friday change for the fans however is that the lack of practice time means there is a bigger chance for teams to get it wrong with set-up.
Parc ferme rules mean that drivers are locked into their set-up from Friday afternoon, meaning there is just a single session to decide on their approach for the weekend.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
In Red Bull’s case, its dominant form in opening practice on Friday convinced it to lock into a high downforce setting. With rival Mercedes opting to take wing off and go for straightline speed instead, it now means Verstappen is stuck with something he knows is not ideal. Such jeopardy can be good for delivering entertainment.
The parc ferme rules have, as Verstappen feared, triggered the consequence of making Saturday’s morning final free practice session a bit redundant. It can’t be used as a session to make set-up changes to the car, so it is in effect simply an opportunity to check on tyre life.
At Silverstone, the fine margins between the soft and the medium tyre meant that there was value in teams getting their cars out there and checking to see what was the best way forward, with Williams head of vehicle performance Dave Robson admitting he was “quite impressed by how much running the teams did in FP2”. But at tracks where the softest tyre can easily last the full sprint race, what will there be to gain by putting extra mileage on engines and the race car?
What we don’t fully know yet is what impact the spectacle of today’s sprint race will have on the main grand prix.
With parc ferme rules in place, and drivers all looking set to start on the same medium tyres, there is little reason to believe that in pace terms anything will be different.
Fans already know that the Red Bull looks too quick in the corners for Hamilton to be able to follow close enough, so the only hope of a turnaround on Sunday is for strategy to come into play. Does that make things more or less exciting than if we had gone into the full race today?
A glance down the finishing order of the sprint race shows that there wasn’t that much of a shake up, with only Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen gaining big from the afternoon.
|Friday quali position||Driver||F1 Sprint position||Difference|
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
The biggest loser was Sergio Perez, whose spin put him to the back of the field. He now looks set to start from the pitlane on Sunday with Red Bull able to make set-up changes to the car to help him move forward.
But it’s hard to judge the value of sprint races based on drivers being huge losers and dropping to the back. Is F1 really better off if, for example, it were Verstappen or Hamilton starting at the back on Sunday and with little hope of challenging their rival at the front?
One of the big social media debates over the weekend has been about messaging and naming. F1 has been especially eager to not call the sprint race a ‘race.’ In the FIA’s rule book, it is known as sprint qualifying. F1’s owners Liberty Media have been tagging it as the ‘F1 Sprint.’ But for fans, it’s the sort of marketing speak nonsense that simply agitates them.
As F1’s post-race media interviewer Jenson Button said quite rightly to Verstappen, as he kept tripping over himself not to say the R-word: “I don’t want to call it a race, but it was a race…”
Then, the arguments about whether pole position from the 2021 British Grand Prix should be credited to Verstappen or Hamilton will rage forever.
In FIA terms, it is the Dutchman who starts from pole after winning sprint qualifying and duly starting from pole position for the race on Sunday. For many fans (including Verstappen himself, and Sebastian Vettel), it should be Hamilton given the credit for what he did on Friday in qualifying…
“Pole position should be deserved over one fast lap, that for me is a proper pole position,” said Verstappen.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, and Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 3rd position, tour the circuit in the victory lap truck after Sprint Qualifying
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
After all, you can argue that the sprint race is effectively just the first stint of the proper grand prix, but with an automatic red flag after 17 races and a restart the following day.
Whether or not sprint races are F1’s future is still uncertain, but what is clear is that the sport has done the right thing in at least experimenting and trying something new. It’s given fans and media plenty to talk about; and that can only be a win for F1.
As McLaren CEO Zak Brown said on Saturday morning: “I think what’s worked well is it’s got people talking about the weekend and the format.
“Ultimately that drives interest, and whether those people are pro what they’re seeing or not, it’s given people a reason to maybe tune in on Friday that maybe they would not have done before, and I think everyone’s going to watch the sprint race.
“You’re never going to get a unanimous view of what the right answer is there. But so far I like what I’ve seen, because it’s created conversation.”
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2nd position, congratulate each after Sprint Qualifying
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images