In its transitional phase where it is toying with numerous ideas to improve ‘the show’, Formula 1 has explored the idea of reversed grid qualifying races in an attempt to give the smaller teams a chance to shine and to promote overtaking.
It’s an idea that will surely upset the purists and those who sit in awe of watching an F1 car at the absolute limit for up to two minutes, as well as the top teams it will inevitably disadvantage. Scenes such as Ayrton Senna’s famous qualifying lap in Monaco, or the last-second fights for pole between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton could become far less common.
This is hardly an innovative proposition – numerous series have experimented with (partial or fully) reversed grids for years, and some have run with them since their inception. Many of those are within the junior ranks of motorsport. There are, like with most things, benefits and drawbacks to such a format. But the merits are what makes it attractive to F1, which feels it needs to overhaul the weekend format to keep the money coming in, even at the expense of some of the sporting purity.
Whether F1 actually goes ahead with these 30-minute races – which will have theirs grid formed by putting the drivers in reverse order of their championship position – on the second visits to circuits this year is still unknown as Mercedes-Benz stands against the idea. The results of the shorter race would form the grid for the grand prix races, which so far will be the new Styrian GP at the Red Bull Ring and the F1 70th Anniversary GP at Silverstone.
W Series used a similar format last year for its non-championship race at Assen, as it reversed its championship standings to decide its grid. It was a thrilling contest won by polesitter Megan Gilkes by the narrowest of margins from a charging Alice Powell – who had to start towards the back. Having run just one race under this format, it’s a very small sample size to use to determine how good that format exactly is.
There are also big differences between W Series and F1 cars. F1 cars have overtaking aids such as the Drag Reduction System, and there are major performance discrepancies across the grid of cars. W Series’ discrepancies was down to driver standard.
What could well happen is that, because overtaking is much easier in F1 with DRS, the ‘natural’ order occurs at the end of the qualifying race anyway following the highway-style overtaking we’ve become accustomed to over the past nine seasons, and then we already have an idea of who is quick in the race because one has already occurred.
Another series that runs with a fully reversed grid is BRDC British Formula 3. The results of the first race of a weekend are flipped in to form the grid for the second, and each position gained in the latter encounter earns drivers additional points. It is a format that has been run for a handful of seasons now but does not get the sort of coverage that other formats get.
There have been two series on F1’s support bill that have run with partially reversed grids for a number of years. Formula 2 and FIA Formula 3 Championship – and their predecessors GP2 and GP3 – both reverse the top eight from the feature race for the shorter sprint race. It’s a long-used format and has produced some surprising race-winners and trends over the years. The late Anthoine Hubert took two spectacular F2 sprint wins last year, and Giuliano Alesi netted four GP3 sprint race wins as a result of not being fast enough to challenge in the feature race. Only once in three years did he finish a feature race higher than sixth.
However, sprint race wins do feel much hollower than feature race wins, especially as fewer points are awarded for them. It may have been the exciting sprint races that prompted F1 to try out this format, but it shouldn’t be ignored that over the years that both series have had stellar feature races as well.
Such a format does put extra significance on a driver being able to win both races in a weekend. It’s not about qualifying on pole and shooting off at the front in each race, because there has to be overtaking performed in the sprint. It is this condensed race where the faster drivers can’t rely on strategy to make their way through the field that F1 seems to be aiming for.
Qualifying races have also been a feature of the Macau Grand Prix for many years. While the grid for the qualification race is set by the time trial format we normally refer to as qualifying, it is that shorter race that sets the grid for the main event. While it could then be expected that the driver who wins the qualifying race also shoots off into the distance in the grand prix itself, it is Macau. The famous last-corner clash in 2017 made Dan Ticktum the winner from eighth on the grid, and Dani Juncadella won in 2011 by going from 11th to sixth in the qualification race, and then sixth to first in the grand prix.
While there is nothing wrong in exploring the idea of shaking up a grand prix weekend format a bit, whether this is the way F1 should go about it or by exploring other avenues is up for debate. This unusual season may be the opportune time for experimentation – especially with some circuits hosting double-header events that need unique selling points for wider TV audiences. There is also an argument that now, more than ever, the teams and drivers could do with as much consistency as possible. Ideally, these gimmicks should be trialled in non-championship races, rather than done so while titles are on the line.
Given the chasm that exists between the fastest and the slowest in F1 – something that doesn’t exist in spec formula, or series with performance balancing – there’s scepticism as to whether the racing turns out to be as desired or not. It’s down to an individual opinion as to whether that is a price to pay for the one time in a weekend that a grand prix car and driver properly goes flat-out. This is by no means a silver bullet, and why not trial this out in conjunction with some other ideas – such as heavily restricting practice times, having a mandatory number of pitstops, or running without DRS?
Grand prix racing has had many ways of forming grids over the years – from ballots to by order of entrant to two long qualifying sessions to needing to have a brutal pre-qualifying session. Some were better than others, and plenty of formats have been explored since the mid-1990s, with the format used currently arguably among the best. This proposal is certainly an opinion-splitter. F1 should be careful with rash decisions, however, as the ban on in-race tyre changes in 2005 and bizarre elimination qualifying in 2016 proved. Nobody wants that amount of backfiring again.