Fears new F1 qualifying format will be a dud

Formula One will put aside 70 years of tradition this weekend, with the introduction of a sprint race to decide the grid for the British Grand Prix.

It’s the first time since the world championship started in 1950 that a race has been used to set the grid.

The change in format will see traditional qualifying move to Friday, with that session to determine the start order for Saturday’s sprint race of 100km. The finishing order in Saturday’s sprint race will set the starting grid for Sunday’s grand prix, which is still over the usual distance of just over 300km.

A small number of championship points are on offer for the sprint race, with three points for the winner, two for second and one for third. That compares with 25 points for winning the race on Sunday.

It’s that differential that has observers worried that Saturday’s race will turn into a procession, with the risk far outweighing the reward. Any spin or issue on Saturday will have huge implications for Sunday’s race, which is where the bulk of the championship points will be available.

“People like change, but I think the drivers are going to be very conservative in the sprint race,” nine-time grand prix winner Mark Webber told Wide World of Sports.

“There’s only three points for the winner of the sprint race, and nothing if you finish fourth or lower, and there’s just so much at stake on Sunday that drivers won’t take the risk on Saturday.

“They’ll be mindful of any drama, because it’s only 100 kilometres, so there’s a little bit of time to recover from a mistake, but not a lot. Teams and drivers will be aware of that in their preparation.”

Sprint qualifying will be used in three events this season as a trial, with the format expected to return at the Italian and Brazilian races.

Despite receiving unanimous support from the 10 teams, outgoing FIA boss Jean Todt revealed recently that he’s not a fan.

The 75-year-old, who was at the helm of Ferrari during Michael Schumacher’s golden era, says he doesn’t believe the sport needs sprint qualifying, but admitted he was curious to see how it played out.

For his part, Webber is not against trialling different formats.

“They’re trying stuff, I’m always up for new things and this is the first attempt. But the Sunday race is like a Test match for us, in terms of concentration and focus, I’d liken sprint qualifying to the Big Bash,” he said.

“F1 is trying to do something different to generate some interest, just like T20 cricket, we’ll see how it goes.

“I don’t know if F1 needs to do it right now, but the idea came off the back of so many years of Mercedes dominance. In 2019 or 2020 people were looking to make it more competitive. But Max (Verstappen) and Lewis (Hamilton) have done that anyway this year.”

The introduction of sprint qualifying came on the back of years of Mercedes dominance, although the wheels were in motion for the format change before the 2021 season started. With Verstappen and Red Bull eclipsing Mercedes this season, the shake-up that fans had longed for happened anyway.

“F1 is still the pinnacle, and as we’ve seen so far, this year is one of the best we’ve had for a long time, without introducing any changes at all,” Webber said.

“With Lewis and Max at their best it’s been extraordinary, the quality has been insane.

“Like at the French race, where Max passed Lewis right at the end, and Bahrain, when they were battling to the finish.”

Verstappen holds a 32 point lead over Hamilton in the championship on the back of three straight race wins, although with the mid-point of the season still a month away, the Mercedes driver remains well in contention for an eighth world title.

“I think the next two races are crucial,” Webber explained.

“Lewis is very strong at Silverstone and Budapest, so if he can get on a roll there the momentum might shift back towards him.

“Lewis will never give up, he’s extraordinary. Red Bull right now have a slightly better car, and Max is making the most of it. As always, the best drivers find themselves in the best cars.

“But the spine of this championship is the next two races.”

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