Sebastian Vettel immediately recognised one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of Formula 1’s sprint qualifying format when it was introduced last year.“That’s wrong,” stated Vettel.
“Pole is the fastest lap time achieved or the fastest lap time in qualifying,” he continued. “So it gets all a bit confusing.”
Aside from the occasional, necessary evil of grid penalties, this largely holds true. It should have come to no surprise to anyone in F1, when they dreamt up the sprint qualifying format last year, that changing the definition of pole position was going to be a hard sell to fans.
In the first ever sprint qualifying event, held at Silverstone, Lewis Hamilton lined up first but was passed off the line by Max Verstappen. With that, for the first time, pole position had been won not with a flying lap but a flying start.
Afterwards I mentioned to F1’s motorsport director Ross Brawn – the architect of the sprint format – that a link to over a thousand grands’ prix worth of history had been severed.
“Maybe that’s something we need to think about, if there’s some change in the nomenclature of what we’re doing,” Brawn replied. “Should Friday be the pole position? There’s things, like that, that we will talk about and discuss with the FIA and the teams.
“But I think we can’t be held back by history. We need to respect history but we must never be held back by history.”
Brawn’s response left me in no doubt that he saw this as purely a problem of ‘optics’. What was announced today bore out that view.
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It was striking that the FIA’s statement announcing the new sprint race rules noted only that the format changes would include “awarding pole position to the fastest driver in qualifying on Friday”. That seemed encouraging. But F1’s explanation of its new rules confirmed the only change is a cosmetic one.
“The driver who tops Friday qualifying on a sprint weekend will be awarded pole position for statistical purposes,” it noted (emphasis added). “Sunday’s grand prix grid will still be determined by the results of the Saturday sprint.”
This fails to solve, or even to acknowledge, the problem F1 faces with its sprint race pole position nomenclature. Across the motorsport globe, ‘pole position’ means first place on the grid for a race.
At F1’s sprint events, two races are held: One on Saturday, the other on Sunday. There are, therefore, two pole positions.
So, come the first sprint of 2022 at Imola, if Hamilton is quickest in Friday qualifying and takes pole position for the sprint race, but Verstappen beats him off the line and comes home first, the Red Bull driver will win pole position for the grand prix. F1 can issue all the social media posts it likes about Hamilton being the pole winner ‘for statistical purposes’, but the answer to the question ‘who is on pole position for the grand prix?’ would still be ‘Max Verstappen’.
Pretending otherwise would only make those in charge look ignorant of basic racing terminology, or so arrogant they believe they have a monopoly on the language of motorsport.
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One of the most tedious aspects of sprint qualifying last year was enduring the endless chatter around who had taken the ‘real’ pole position and what the definition pole position was. This change isn’t going to fix that, it’s going to make it worse.
Unfortunately F1 seems to have persuaded itself that semantics hold the solution to all its problems. In much the same way it previously thought by referring to its new events as ‘sprint qualifying’ people might not notice they were, in fact, races. Proving how flawed that idea was, it has now dropped ‘qualifying’ from the name, even though they continue to serve the purpose of being grid-setting sessions for the grand prix.
F1 did much the same by announcing the first three-day pre-season test of the year in Spain is, in fact, merely a ‘shakedown’ and will not be televised live. That honour instead goes to Bahrain, whose second three day open session is billed as the first true ‘test’ of the year. Yet as things stand, there is no difference between the two events as far as the rule book is concerned.
Therefore F1 has missed its chance to fix one of the most unsatisfactory aspects of its sprint format. Given that, the best news in today’s announcement is the confirmation the planned increase from three sprint events to six will not go ahead. At least that will lessen the scope for confusion.
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