An Evaluation of Sprint Qualifying
The 2021 Italian Grand Prix saw the second installation of Formula 1’s new sprint qualifying, where the drivers qualify on Friday, and then do a sprint race on Saturday to determine starting order for Sunday’s race. The first sprint qualifying session was held earlier this season at Silverstone. But while the short race at Silverstone may have initially seemed like a success, the Saturday session in Italy highlighted several problems with F1’s newest format.
Written by Morgan Holiday, edited by Janvi Unni
In Silverstone’s sprint qualifying, Max Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton at the start, and maintained his position to acquire pole position. The real excitement, however, was when Alpine’s Fernando Alonso made up four positions, going from 11th to 7th, and providing a great deal of entertainment in the meantime. But besides that, as well as Sergio Perez spinning as he lost control coming out of the Chapel Curve on lap 5, there wasn’t a great deal to say about it. It hadn’t been a failure, but was it a success? Certainly the brief drama between the title contenders as well as Alonso’s antics proved the race to be interesting, but that may have been all there was to say about it.
Fast forward to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, and sprint qualifying was decidedly less exciting. Valterri Bottas, who was fastest in qualifying, started from pole and ended on pole, although he took an engine change penalty and went to the back of the grid, granting pole to Max Verstappen. Verstappen’s title rival Hamilton had a poor start, and ended the sprint session in 5th, three places lower than he qualified. The only real action happened on lap 1, when Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri went off into the gravel after a tangle with Daniel Ricciardo in the McLaren. Due to the tiny bit of contact, Gasly was forced to start Sunday’s race from the back, despite qualifying 6th on Friday. After lap 1 there was no real action, as the truth is that the consequences are too high for anyone to try anything risky or exciting. It’s much safer to start Sunday’s race a little lower on the grid than to risk starting it from the back, or worse, not starting it at all.
After the Belgian Grand Prix, where drivers spent two laps under the safety car and the FIA called it a race, it seems odd that 18 laps of wheel to wheel racing can’t be classified as a race. Even stranger than the race not technically being a race is the fact that the pole position award goes to the winner of the sprint qualifying, not the driver who set the fastest lap time in the qualifying session. The problem with this strange choice is that, should sprint qualifying become a regular event in the F1 calendar, it will change the way statistics will be viewed. In Silverstone, Lewis Hamilton set the fastest lap in qualifying, but Max Verstappen was given the pole position award, as he won sprint qualifying. In the future, this will only serve to confuse people looking for statistics.
Former F1 World Champion Nico Rosberg said on Twitter, “This is not the right decision. Pole 100% has to go to the fastest guy in qualifying. The sprint race winner should not be awarded pole position. That will totally cannibalise the historic F1 statistics.”
There’s also the argument that points should not be awarded for sprint qualifying. First place (pole position technically), second place, and third place get three, two, and one point(s) respectively. If sprint qualifying becomes a regular part of the F1 schedule, there exists the possibility that the championship could be decided on a Saturday, not during the main race, or even a classified race at all, since sprint qualifying doesn’t count as a race. Even though the FIA’s motivation with sprint qualifying is to make the weekend more exciting, the championship being decided on a Saturday would certainly not help that issue, as everyone wants to see a full race decide the championship.
The truth is, it seems, that sprint qualifying doesn’t just do damage to classic F1 statistics, it also messes with the fundamental purpose of qualifying itself. The purpose of the Saturday session is to determine who is the fastest, and where the drivers will start the main race. While sprint races are an exciting idea, and can switch up the pack to provide for more entertaining races (like the McLaren 1-2 finish at the Italian Grand Prix), using them as a format to set the grid for Sunday doesn’t seem like a logical option. And if the FIA decides to go forward with the idea of sprint qualifying in the future, some major changes will have to be made to ensure it maintains the spirit of the sport.