A shake-up to F1's weekend structure happens at this weekend's British Grand Prix

Formula One has long tinkered – and agonised over tinkering – about various formats and regulations for the last decade, all designed to make the show more interesting and unpredictable. Now, one of the biggest changes to Grand Prix racing as we know it comes into effect this season. Its first outing will be run at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

What is a ‘sprint’ race?

Sprint races are used in a variety of racing categories, including in Formula 2, F1’s feeder category and support series. In F2 they are in contrast to the ‘feature’ races, are naturally shorter – how much shorter varies from series to series, but are generally at most two-thirds to 70 per cent distance but also sometimes below half-distance. 

Points are usually awarded to drivers and teams and they count towards the championship, though – due to the smaller distance – the number of points and number of points-paying positions is cut. They often take place on a different day to the feature races – which in F1 would be a grand prix – and can also be used to decide grid order in subsequent rounds. 

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How will it work in F1?

F1 was always unlikely to follow F2’s exact format for a variety of reasons. A qualifying session on the Friday after the first hour of free practice will determine the grid for Saturday’s sprint qualifying race.

The shorter ‘sprint qualifying’ race will run to about one-third of the distance of a grand prix, which has a maximum length of just over 305km (190 miles). At Silverstone this means it will be 17 laps or 100.147 kilometres. 

The top three finishers in sprint qualifying will receive points. The first place will receive three points, second place two points and third place one point. The finishing order of Saturday’s sprint qualifying will determine the starting grid for Sunday’s grand prix.

It will be the first time in history that the grand prix is not the only race on an F1 world championship weekend.

Parc ferme – the point when teams are no longer able to make major changes to their cars – will be introduced from the start of the Friday qualifying session. The reason for this is to prevent teams building cars specifically for qualifying, which would increase costs. There will also be differences to tyre use compared to a normal grand prix race weekend, designed to increase risk for teams. 

In first practice, teams can use only two of the three types of tyre – hard, medium and soft. Qualifying will be run only on the soft compound, with each team getting five sets. Teams will, then, be free to start Sunday’s race on whatever compound they wish, as opposed to the top 10 being locked into using the tyre they used in Q2 to set their fastest lap time. 

Teams had expressed some reservations about extra costs involved, with the bigger ones already grappling with a $145 million budget cap.

In the end agreement was reached, with $150,000 per ‘sprint’ race being added – plus compensation if teams damage expensive parts in accidents during he shorter races.

Will this help liven up race weekends?

Clearly, replacing one no-stakes practice session with a qualifying (or a pre-qualifying if you want to call it that) session and then replacing the old qualifying with an actual race will make things livelier and with more at stake.  

You have more racing, the added jeopardy of two race starts and potential chaos – what if Lewis Hamilton was taken out by Valtteri Bottas on lap one? It is worth remembering that – unlike the reverse grid qualifying idea which was floated and then blocked – this is unlikely to shake up the competitive order, especially as it will be limited to just three races. But this, at least, adds another element of unpredictability into a weekend. 

It is also worth remembering that there is every chance they are trialled in just three races in 2021 and then ditched to become just a footnote. Still, F1 and the FIA are doing the right thing in experimenting like this.  If they are not a disaster, help increase viewing figures (the entire weekend would become more interesting) and unpredictability then become a more regular fixture – perhaps at, say, a third or half of the races – it could be a new reality. Who knows, it could even become the new normal. 

2021 F1 season