Look past the drawn-out nature of the day, and the queasy ‘Speed King Award’ given to Lewis Hamilton, and a different kind of Formula 1 qualifying had its charm.
The new weekend format F1 is trialling at the British Grand Prix weekend, incorporating a sprint qualifying race on Saturday and holding regular qualifying on Friday, has created all sorts of quirks. There are already clear pros and cons to the new schedule.
With qualifying still being held to set the grid for Saturday’s race, the one-hour session needed to find a home somewhere – 6pm local time seems to be the resulting compromise, viewed as the best chance of holding it at a time when people following along in Europe can finish work on a Friday and tune in.
After all, this entire format has been devised to sell more tickets and get more eyeballs on television, by placing something important on each day of the event. That backfires if you hold Friday’s premium session at a time some people can’t even watch it…
The late session had its flaws. Qualifying felt disconnected on television. It felt a little flat at times. Normally even following drivers’ onboards during the session, or watching without commentary or the graphics on the world feed, you still get a sense of the occasion.
It felt like that was missing slightly here. Like we had waited an age for it to start yet simultaneously the session was suddenly just ‘happening’ without any real build-up.
“It’s a bit of a weird feeling to be honest,” admitted championship leader Max Verstappen. “You do qualifying, you go flat out and actually it doesn’t mean anything in terms of a pole position feeling.”
Hopefully, that wasn’t the case for fans watching trackside or on television. I’m sure it wasn’t for fans in America, where F1 is trying to grow its footprint and this schedule placed qualifying at a much friendlier time. And while there were flaws to a Friday evening qualifying session, there were benefits too.
The uncertainty of the teams having such limited data going into a competitive session is a tremendous boost every time it happens, whether by design or because of the intervention of the weather.
And there’s a knock-on effect of limited running that means track evolution is still high going into qualifying – especially at a cooler part of the day. That probably helped make the conclusions to Q1 and Q2 particularly fast-paced.
The session itself was a worthy climax to a day of anticipation for the fans waiting patiently trackside, and a tasty carrot for those who toiled through a working day while counting down the hours to qualifying.
By the time qualifying finished, the most offensive lingering element was the ‘reward’ for the – shudders – ‘Speed King’. It remains a great shame of this format that Hamilton’s excellent effort to beat Verstappen in qualifying will receive no formal acknowledgement.
F1 and the FIA want the pole position statistic to reflect who starts the grand prix from pole. So now qualifying just tees up the sprint race and while it gives Hamilton the best chance of winning that, getting the ‘real’ pole, and a few championship points as well, the replacement pole position award feels like a token gesture.
It inherently devalues what we waited all day to witness on Friday by telling us this version of qualifying wasn’t as important as the real version. And that’s one of the big flaws of this format. Because how can you expect everyone to wait all day for a lesser session? And try telling Hamilton that this shouldn’t be counted as a ‘real’ pole.
“Honestly, so overwhelming,” he said afterwards.
“We’ve been working so hard. We’ve been putting so much effort and time into the car, here at the track, back at the factory, in the simulator, in training, everything, trying to stay centred and squeeze everything we can out of this car.
“It’s been such a difficult time for everyone and we finally got all the fans at the British GP. And the desire to want to deliver for everyone is beyond belief.
“I was hoping I could do my part in bringing us something positive. Definitely the first step. Wow, what a way to end the day.”
But despite the flaws, there was as much to admire, to enjoy, to celebrate in this Friday evening experiment as there was a qualifying session held on a Saturday.
Let’s just agree that the pole position statistic situation is daft.
I’ll happily accept more of this format if we can give Hamilton the official pole position, and take on Sebastian Vettel’s suggestion to create a new column in the history books to record the sprint race winner.
We can have more Friday evening qualifying sessions. But please, let’s never speak of the Speed King Award again.