A shake-up of the weekend format, designed to enliven the grand prix weekend and present more competitive action for fans, will be trialled at the historic English track, but scepticism of the need to tweak the formula remain remains strong.
The substantive change is the introduction of a 100-kilometre, 30-minute race tomorrow (July 17) to set the grid for Sunday’s grand prix, replacing the traditional one-hour knockout qualifying session, which will move to Friday evening after first practice.
The familiar qualifying format will be used to set the grid for ‘sprint qualifying’, as the Saturday session will be known, the winner of which will score three points and be declared the pole-getter for Sunday’s main event. The drivers finishing in second and third place on Saturday will also score two and one points respectively.
No pit stops will be required, and without strategy, in theory it will be a pure racing spectacle.
Sprint races have been long mooted but have struggled for traction, in particular because they’ve often taken the form of gimmicky reverse-grid or reverse-championship races to induce artificial action. Such concepts are anathema to purists and were unsurprisingly howled down by the teams most likely to have been most disadvantaged.
But with the sport now helmed by former Ferrari boss and Audi chairman Stefano Domenicali, an undoubted racer to his core, the teams have been corralled into accepting the least offensive model to trial at three races this year: Britain, Italy and provisionally Brazil.
However, not everyone is convinced the format will be conducive to action. For one, modern F1 tyres and aerodynamics make it difficult to race at close quarters for 30 minutes, a potential issue to the idea of a full 100 kilometre of no-holds-barred action.
“It will just be a train probably,” Lewis Hamilton forecast. “Hopefully there will be some overtaking, but most likely it won’t be too exciting.”
McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl suggested weekend management could play a key role in subduing performance.
We never go for unreasonable risk,” Seidl said, “You want to stay in the race… to make sure that you are in a decent position on Sunday to start the race.
“I’m not sure if it actually changes so much.”
But F1 managing director Ross Brawn thinks it’s at least worth a shot, especially given a successful trial could see more practice sessions replaced by racing.
“We put a huge amount of work into it, the teams themselves have put a huge amount of work into it, so I think it’s got the greatest opportunity of success,” he said. “I think the thing that we want to stress is it’s expanding the weekend.”
Whether the format change affects relative performance remains to be seen. Silverstone is expected to suit Mercedes well - the German marque has won all but two races here since 2013, seven of which have belonged to Hamilton - and is bringing its last upgrade of the year to the track to bolster its flagging form.
It’ll be a much-needed boost for Hamilton, who has been helpless watching Verstappen open a 32-point title lead with two dominant wins in Austria.
But how much of the yawning performance disparity in recent weeks is down to the Red Bull Racing-friendly Austrian circuit or the team’s masses of car updates is unclear. Silverstone, a better-rounded test, will be more illuminating of the championship picture.
Whoever wins F1’s first sprint qualifying race will earn themselves a minor note in the history books, but the winner of the British Grand Prix will take a bigger step towards claiming the 2021 title.