Formula One's Sprint Qualifying: Explained

Meet F1's latest attempt at spicing up its racing.

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Photo: Clive Rose (Getty Images)

Next weekend, Formula One is introducing something a little different to the table. Instead of the traditional qualifying session, the series has introduced something called sprint qualifying. We’ll run you through everything you need to know about the new form of racing so you’ll be able to follow along.

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(Welcome to Motorsport Explained, the series where we break down racing rules and concepts in easily digestible ways for all the beginners out there. If there’s something you’ve always wondered about or something that has never made sense, leave your topic in the comments or email me at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)

How Does It Work?

Sprint qualifying is pretty much what the name implies: it’s a short sprint race to determine the starting grid for Sunday’s race, and it replaces the traditional three-session qualifying format that F1 currently uses.

Sprint qualifying will be a race run over 100 kilometers, or just over 62 miles. It’ll last around 25 to 40 minutes as opposed to the more traditional hour-long qualifying session. Teams will have the opportunity to choose between two different sets of tires, and there are no pit stops expected.

To set the sprint race grid, though, requires a qualifying session of its own. That session will take place on Friday after the first practice session. That’s the time slot traditionally reserved for Free Practice 2. Instead, FP2 will be moved to early Saturday morning.

The sprint race qualifying session will be organized like F1's current qualifying format, with two rounds of elimination-style qualifying followed by a third session that sets the top 10. The finishing order of the sprint race, in turn, sets the starting grid for Sunday’s race. The top three finishers will also be awarded points (three points for first place, two for second, one for third), so there’s extra incentive for drivers to actually perform.

If you need a visual of how the format works, I don’t blame you. You can check one out below:

If you’re an avid F1 fan, you’ll likely know about something called parc fermé, where cars are essentially stopped from toying with their cars ahead of certain sessions. Traditionally, parc fermé takes place before Saturday’s qualifying session, which means that the car you take to quali is the car you take to the race.

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Now, there are two different parc fermé times: one before Friday’s qualifying session and one before the sprint qualifying session. There are some rule changes here in the sense that some teams will need to replace broken or worn parts, but you still can’t revamp the entire car between sessions to cater your car to every possible situation. That not only takes up a lot of time, but it takes up a lot of money, and F1 is trying to cut costs right now.

Why Change Things Up?

The addition of sprint qualifying is basically F1's way of trying to make a race weekend more interesting. There’s been some debate as to whether or not qualifying is exactly something that needs to be ‘fixed,’ since it’s generally one of the more interesting parts of the weekend. But it’s something new, and trying it out for a handful of events before making any final decisions is probably for the best.

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“We are excited by this new opportunity that will bring our fans an even more engaging race weekend in 2021. Seeing the drivers battling it out over three days will be an amazing experience,” F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said. “I am sure the drivers will relish the fight. I am delighted that all the teams supported this plan, and it is a testament to our united efforts to continue to engage our fans in new ways while ensuring we remain committed to the heritage and meritocracy of our sport.”

Teams voted on the idea and chose to bring it into the fold, so it’s happening.

The biggest possibility here is that a sprint race will add some extra chaos and create a more unpredictable starting grid for the main race. Detractors have argued that the race result will probably stay the same whether it’s a sprint race or a full-distance race — but how it plays out on the track remains to be seen.

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It could also provide drivers with a second chance. Let’s say you totally mess up Friday’s qualifying session. You have a chance to make up places on Saturday’s race, which will put you in a better starting position for Sunday and therefore give you a shot at a great finishing position and more points.

It also cuts down on the amount of time spent practicing, which made for some excellent racing in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. And if you’ve ever been to an F1 race weekend, you know how tedious those three hours of practice can be; there’s not really an incentive for cars to be on track all the time, and no one needs to push themselves. With sprint qualifying weekend, you’ll have one hour of practice before each qualifying session, which creates a greater incentive to get out on track and sort out the car. And it makes for a lot of fun for a fan in the grandstand.

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On the other hand, adding important race sessions during a Friday, when people have work or school, is not ideal for busy people.

When Will We See Sprint Qualifying?

F1 is experimenting with sprint qualifying for a handful of races this season to see how it fares and whether or not fans enjoy the format. Next weekend’s British Grand Prix will be the first of three events.

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The other two events are currently undecided, but it’s understood that one will be another European race and the final will be a flyaway event. Right now, the expectation is that Italy and Brazil will host the two other events, but nothing has been confirmed.

DISCUSSION

By
Canut

Karting has been doing forever. At least since I started in the 80's.

It is a lot more fun for the drivers and the fans. There is nothing complicated about it. No revere grids for some and not others. Just more racing. If a fast driver has a bad race on Saturday, he has one more chance on Sunday.

It is a win win situation.