INSIGHT: Low expectations, high risks for F1 Sprint qualifying

Formula 1 will try a sprint race for the first time this weekend at the British Grand Prix, using it as a way of setting the grid for the main event on Sunday, and drivers have their reservations about how things will pan out.

The starting order for the Sprint — as the 100km race is named — is defined by a normal qualifying session on Friday night, and then there will be 17 laps when drivers can fight to gain places or protect their grid slot on Saturday afternoon, with the finishing order providing the grid for the grand prix at Silverstone.

It’s a new concept for many drivers, especially those who — like Sebastian Vettel — didn’t race in Formula 2 (or its previous guise of GP2) and so have no recent experience of sprint races. But for Vettel, it’s actually the impact it has on the rest of the weekend he’s excited about.

“It’s going to be a bit weird, no?” Vettel said. “We are down to one-hour practice sessions, which in the end I think I quite like because there’s less hanging around in the garage and more action on track, which we prefer.

“Now, there will be one hour and that’s it — straight into qualifying. So we’ll need to be straight on it right from the start and it should be exciting. It’s something new, and that is always exciting. We’ll see how it turns out. Lots of unknowns but we’ll give it a go.”

Like Vettel, Carlos Sainz is driving at Silverstone for the first time with his new team following a winter move, and that puts more pressure on FP1 that leads into qualifying. At least qualifying is slightly simplified — with all drivers needing to use the softest tire compound throughout — but one-lap pace alone won’t be enough to secure a good grid spot, with poor race performance leaving a team vulnerable in the Sprint.

“It’s not going to be easy, for sure,” Sainz says, “There’s a lot of discussions going on with the strategy and approach to the weekend. It has been an intense couple of weeks in Maranello just trying to figure out the system and how it is going to work. It has definitely given us some extra work and thinking to do.

“It’s good, as sometimes across 22, 23 races everything becomes a bit too monotonous. Throwing in this kind of curveball or weekend format at least is refreshing and allows us to play around a bit more with strategy. But from a driving point of view I don’t think it will change massively. Just qualifying with less practice will not help maybe me, as I haven’t been at Silverstone with Ferrari — just one practice to get ready, but flat-out and let’s see how it goes.”

Sainz says flat-out, but there are unknowns regarding how willing teams will be to go the attack, with no mandatory pit stop meaning the quickest way to the end could include pace management, plus wear and tear on the car’s components to think of.

How aggressive will the midfielders want to be in the Sprint with no points likely available to them? Andy Hone/Motorsport Images)

“From a driving point of view and how aggressive we can be, we will understand before the Sprint,” Daniel Ricciardo says. “It is going to be a lot shorter, so it is like, can we go 100% the whole race or do we have to manage tires and things like this? That will dictate the tempo or the aggression towards that Sprint qualifying. These are things that we will discover over the course of the weekend.”

Refreshingly, Max Verstappen takes a similar view. The championship leader could be forgiven for not wanting any curveballs thrown at him after a run of three straight victories — and four in five as Red Bull hits its stride — but instead he’s open to the new format as it offers three extra points for the winner, two for second place and one for third.

“I am not for it or against it at the moment, I will just let it happen and see how it will work out,” Verstappen said. “For the race, you try to win it. It’s three points extra you can get so you definitely try to win it even though you know on a Sunday it’s the most important race. We first need to do a weekend like this, then we can properly judge everything.”

With only the top three finishers scoring, there’s more risk than reward for those further down the field, something Vettel acknowledges is a consideration for the midfield drivers.

“It depends on the gaps,” the four-time world champion says. “If everybody goes to the side, I will go for the gap and try to pass. But ideally I would start from pole… I don’t know, would you call that pole? Friday evening, fastest lap…

“Ideally you take the opportunity on lap one to make up some positions and sometimes it works your way, sometimes it doesn’t. I think the key is that you finish the race, otherwise you finish last for Sunday.”

With regard to Vettel’s final comment, the suggestion from sources in the paddock is that the teams further back in the field are actually less likely to risk anything. That’s because with smaller budgets they can’t afford excessive damage in a race that offers no points, and a better starting position could well be negated quickly by the lack of strategic variation, with all drivers free to choose their starting tires.

Parking up to save mileage is a possibility but unlikely in case of incidents ahead that provide a free gain, but as Vettel points out the penalty for Sunday’s grid is high if something goes wrong. If nothing else, that’s going to add a level of jeopardy that you wouldn’t see in a practice session.

“Honestly, knowing F1 drivers and the way we act, I don’t think for those first 6-7 corners we are going to think much about Sunday,” says Carlos Sainz. Steven Tee/Motorsport Images

But the predicted saving grace for the Sprint is the fact it will also feature a standing start, when a lot of positions can be made up early on.

“You try to have a consistent approach, but it does sometimes matter with where you are on the grid,” Ricciardo admits. “If you start at the pointy end you might be a little bit… I do not want to say cautious, but not take as many unnecessary risks, but if you are a bit further back you see it as an opportunity to try and gain a handful of positions at the start.

“The first laps this year have been pretty good, and the starts have been pretty good as well, so I am embracing that we will have a chance to have…two race starts this weekend and go from there. I’m excited. It is good that we are experimenting and trying to improve the sport. Whether it is great now, it does not mean it can’t be greater.”

And Sainz warns that predictions often prove wrong when the visor is closed, because race drivers will still act on instinct when fighting a car for position.

“Honestly, knowing F1 drivers and the way we act, in starts and lap ones, I don’t think for those first 6-7 corners we are going to think much about Sunday,” Sainz said. “At least me. I think I’m going to just go for it. But once the race settles down maybe yes, we start thinking about Sunday.

“Just my personal point of view, I don’t think approaching Turn 3 I’ll be thinking, ‘Oh, the race is tomorrow,’ because I’m racing. That’s the way I see it.”

Let’s hope it’s the racers that shine through on Saturday, because the more action we get in the Sprint, the more likely we’ll get a mixed-up grid and further drama the following day.