“It goes against the DNA of the sport”, “If we were meant to have it, we’d have it by now”. These are often the responses you would receive should you suggest any changes to the structure of Formula 1 to an individual so pedantic they probably watch paint dry, just to make sure it’s even.
Originally, cars didn’t have seatbelts, engines were in front of the driver, tracks were lined with hay bales and only the top five scored points. Frequent changes are inevitable to a sport that, from a technical standpoint, has arguably changed the most of any sport since its inception.
Despite last year having quite a few interesting races, with the midfield possibly being the closest in years, Formula 1 has had an ingrained issue for quite some time: it’s just so darn boring (and that’s coming from a fan!).
The problem, to briefly summarise, is that the cars are so aerodynamically complex that they leave a wake of turbulent air behind them (think similar to what a boat leaves behind, but with air rather than water). Ideally, they need still air to run at full downforce. Should they be following another car, the wake disrupts their aero and thus results in lower downforce and slower cornering speeds; as a result, it’s very hard to overtake.
A potential way to get past this issue is the less aerodynamically complex cars they’re bringing in for the 2022 rule changes. However, whilst overtaking may be easier, if the fastest cars all start at the front and the slowest at the back, that still greatly limits overtaking possibilities, which in turn reduces the engagement of onlooking fans. In a sport that depends, as almost all do, on viewership, it’s an important issue.
This brings us to the changes being trialled this year. At three races across the season, qualifying will be moved to the Friday of a race weekend, followed by a sprint race on the Saturday. The sprint race will be contested across a third of the Grand Prix distance – with the same proportion of points on offer – the result of which will determine the grid order for Sunday’s Grand Prix.
So, is this a good idea?
Well, more content means more money – in theory at least – so from that perspective it’s a good idea, but let us focus on the spectacle itself.
A sprint race/‘feature’ race format works tremendously well in Formula 2, albeit the other way around, but it cannot be denied that the sprint race does slightly detract from the uniqueness of the ‘feature race’. I bear no grudges about this, the format works very well, but I can see why some people might have concerns over the sprint race similarly taking away some of the grandeur of a Grand Prix.
In any case, Formula 1 is implementing its sprint race slightly differently, with the lack of a podium ceremony for the top 3 placed drivers designed to deflect attention back to the Grand Prix. This move is in vain I fear; the very nature of having a 2nd race on the weekend detracts from the Grand Prix, though I am not opposed to the idea of a sprint race on this ground.
Instead, my objection to a sprint race is that it will not solve Formula 1’s big issue that is the inherent lack of overtaking that occurs. Formula 2 works because the order of the top eight at the end of the feature race is reversed for the start of the sprint race – hence the overtaking. It is my belief that the lack of reverse grids in the proposal to reform Formula 1 will therefore make overtaking even more scarce in the actual Grand Prix. Once any potential shocks in qualifying have evened themselves out in the sprint race, the supposed big finale of the race weekend, in the form of the Grand Prix, will effectively be a mere procession to the chequered flag.
I feel it is not a coincidence that Formula E, the most technologically forward-looking of the ‘Formula’ series, has the most functional qualifying format to make for interesting racing. In Formula E qualifying you have four groups. Group one consists of the first to fifth finishers from the previous race; group two is sixth to tenth, and so on. Group one goes out first and has six minutes to set their best lap time, group two follows, and this continues until all twenty drivers have set a time.
Crucially, this gives everyone ample opportunity to start on pole if they have earned it (as opposed to a reverse grid penalising the most successful drivers), maintaining the sport’s meritocracy. The warming up of the track and having a target lap time to aim for means that those lower down the order have ever so slight of an advantage, but this only serves to level the playing field if anything, much akin to the spending caps on development.
Over the course of a season, it means that the best drivers will still win but should a top driver be unfocused, or likewise should a driver in a poor car be on great form, the ever so slight discrepancies that come with the qualifying groups means that this can be reflected in their grid position for the race. As a result of this, you will have lots of overtaking; should the FIA manage to find the solution to providing the ever-elusive similar performance, the championship would be a rollercoaster from start to finish.
Sometimes you don’t have to look outside the box for your solutions, they can be just under your nose.