Should F1 stick or twist with sprint qualifying in 2022?

Jake Nichol November 16, 2021
Should F1 stick or twist with sprint qualifying in 2022?
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The trials are now over, and the results in, but should F1 keep sprint qualifying for 2022? Should it become a permanent fixture or stay as an occasional way to spice things up?

For the first time since 2006, the weekend format of a Formula One weekend changed in 2021.

For the record, The Focus is only counting permanent changes and not the horror show that was elimination qualifying in the first two races of 2016.

In came three sprint races to determine the starting grid for Sunday’s main grands prix – and not, to the relief of some, reversed grid races to fulfill this function instead.

The sprints were held at Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos – three tracks with different characteristics and demands placed on car and driver.

But were they a success? F1 has talked about every race being interested in holding a sprint event, but are they actually a good idea?

The three sprints we had in 2021 each provided their own narrative about the format.

But should F1 keep sprint races, and expand on them in 2022 and the future, or simply stick with what it’s already got for qualifying?

Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images

F1 Silverstone sprint delivers shock and awe

The first sprint race at Silverstone was intoxicating simply because it was new, a breath of air in the sometimes stale atmosphere of F1.

Like taking a brand-new tennis ball out of the tube, it was fresh and nobody quite knew how it was going to play.

The unknown is always an exciting thing, especially in live sport. It is one reason why people keep coming back to ostensibly the same thing: to be wowed, to be entertained.

And while the F1 sprint at Silverstone was a rather dull affair, it did provide one dusting of ‘Wow, how’s that happened!?’

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After the madness of the first few corners had died down as the cars thundered down the Hanger Straight, looking at the timing tower on the screen, you’d have been presented with: ‘5 – Alonso.’

Somehow Fernando Alonso made use of his fresh soft tyres to vault up the order and run fifth.

While Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton checked out in front, Alonso’s battle to keep faster cars behind on worn softer rubber was entertaining.

Then again, the veteran Spaniard always pops up when you don’t expect him to.

In normal qualifying conditions, Alonso was a marginal Q3 car at best – he started the sprint 11th.

But by making the best of the start, he was able to improve his chances for Sunday.

He put it all on the line in the sprint, going around the outside in the first few corners.

Risk versus reward, to stick or twist; Alonso twisted and got his reward.

Photo by Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Such moments are one reason why F1 should keep sprint races going into 2022.

The bravest should be well-rewarded. Those who want to trundle around and just take a P9 start for example, not so much.

The Monza sprint problem

Unless you are Pierre Gasly who went off of the first lap and ruined his weekend, the Monza sprint was devoid of excitement.

Indeed, Hamilton being stuck behind Lando Norris was actually all that happened.

The sprint resembled the first stint of a grand prix where cars quickly settle into a rhythm and look after their tyres.

Photo by Andrea Diodato/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Monza sprint showed the danger of keeping sprint races in F1 for 2022 and beyond.

It was meant to be exciting but was rather dull.

Would F1 want six dull sprints where its obvious what’s going to happen and who will ‘win,’? Unlikely.

The best sprint of the lot?

Now, it was only due to luck that the conditions were so, but the Sao Paulo sprint was arguably the best of all three.

That was because there was actually something meaningful on the line.

In a normal sprint, why would driver A want to go for a lunge on driver B at Turn 8 for example and potentially wreck his car?

It goes back to risk verses reward.

Does a driver really want to risk ruining his entire Sunday – where more points are handed out, just to start one or two places higher up the grid?

But on Saturday afternoon in Sao Paulo, the reward merited the risk for Hamilton.

Being flung out of qualifying for the rear-wing infringement, and knowing he was carrying a five-place grid drop, Hamilton was on a mission.

Photo by -/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

To carve through 15 cars in 24 laps was a remarkable drive. It beautifully set up his win on Sunday.

Because something tangible was on the line – the world title, no less – Hamilton threw the risk out and went for the reward.

It was actually the only true sprint race of the three F1 held in 2022, and provided the best example of why they should be kept going forward.

Should F1 stick or twist with sprint qualifying in 2022?

The idea for F1 sprint races is a fundamentally good one.

Watching a race, with the drama and unpredictability of it is a far better proposition than enduring the third practice on a Saturday.

It gives drivers the opportunity to show off what they can do more often, and gives an idea as to how a grand prix might go.

But the rewards at the moment are not high enough to counter the risks.

Photo by -/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

If F1 wants to keep sprints, it should add more incentives to them, making it worth taking a risk.

A standalone so-called sprint championship would face the same problem – would driver or team really care about winning it?

Sure, it’d be a nice box on the CV, but drivers don’t enter F1 to win a ‘sprint race championship.’

They enter it to win the world championship.

So, why not simply use the best of what we’ve seen so far?

  • The sprints are about the right length, where a driver can nurse a set of softs but it’s right on the edge.
  • Offer points on a 10-1 scale for the top 10, and set the grid by championship order.
  • Reversed grids would be a better way to go, but there’s about as much chance of that happening as Toto Wolff and Christian Horner being BFFs.

All the ingredients are there for F1 to keep sprint races in 2022 and make a real success of them.

The first steps were good, but it time to expand. A half-hearted, half-in, half-out approach won’t work.

Actually make the sprint races mean something and F1 would be mad not to keep sprint qualifying for what 2022 and the future has in store.

Photo by ANTONIN VINCENT/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

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Jake can usually be found writing about or watching anything to do with motorsport – from Formula 1 to NASCAR to British Truck Racing. His work as a motorsport journalist has been published by the likes of Autosport, Motorsport.com and Motorsport News – all highly respected names. Away from racing he is a keen amateur astronomer, podcast listener and enjoys long walks in the park with his three dogs.