Formula 1 sprint qualifying is certainly one of the many things that happened last year. It was meant to be happening a lot more this year, then looked like it might not happen at all. Now, though, it’s been confirmed it will be happening exactly the same amount but slightly renamed and with a new points system that actually makes it worthwhile for most teams to bother with.
The news was confirmed by the FIA on Monday: Sprint qualifying is back! Hooray? Except it’s just called Sprint now and there’s a lot more up for grabs, in terms of points on the table. The top eight drivers will be awarded points, with the winner getting eight, second place getting seven, et cetera. So although there’ll only be three events with it again, the potential effect on the championship is much greater.
There’ll be sprint rounds at the Emilia-Romagna, Austrian, and Sao Paulo Grands Prix. That's a reasonable enough spread across the calendar that everyone will get the chance to forget how the whole thing works before it comes up again every time. Another big change is that pole position officially goes to the person who qualifies fastest during the "normal" qualifying session, starting first for the sprint.
Last year there were three sprint qualifying events at Imola, Silverstone, and Interlagos. Of the three, we got told slightly pre-emptively that the Emilia-Romagna and British Grand Prix rounds had been massive successes, based on a survey of F1 fans that totally exist but you wouldn’t know because they go to a different school, in Canada. The Sao Paulo Grand Prix sprint qualifying was actually by far the best, with Lewis Hamilton storming up the order and massively improving the otherwise fairly pedestrian spectacle.
Thing is, it’s really just qualifying, isn’t it? Which, actually, is still one of the most exciting bits of an F1 weekend—the jeopardy of elimination in Q1 and Q2 before the sudden incredible tension of the fastest drivers exchanging best times for pole in the final moments of Q3. It’s what the incredibly fast modern cars are made for, more than they were racing during the past seven years or so.
So relegating that session to the Friday, giving teams and drivers just a single hour of practice before it, then making them drive a re-qualifying race event that didn’t really matter at all to most cars was a bit, well, flat a lot of the time. Unless a fast car had ended up erroneously at the back, like when Hamilton was excluded from the original Brazilian qualifying and started last, there just wasn’t a lot going on in the short races. Teams didn’t want to risk damaging their cars for the Sunday race when points were (mostly) awarded and drivers were typically incentivized to hold their place.
Part of the problem was that with only the top three finishers getting points—and barely any, at that—there wasn’t really any point to risking anything for most of the cars. Unless you were in a Mercedes or Red Bull last year, the chance of getting anything from it wasn’t very high and even if you won the darned thing that was worth a massive three points. We had the closest F1 title battle for more than 40 years and sprint qualifying points were so low they didn’t decide anything, even so.
Now, with a lot more cars getting points and a big increase for the winner and second-placed drivers, there’s a real point to fighting in the sprint races. Drawing out an eight-point lead (or managing to reel it in) was the sort of swing we saw last year and could potentially make a winning weekend—plus fastest lap—worth 34 points.
It’s not just the frontrunners, though. In the close midfield fights, Ferrari and McLaren could have gotten much closer with sprint points last year. So if we’ve got to do this, and it seems that F1 is determined that we will, then this is a good way to make sure it’s actually exciting.
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