Formula 1 has twice tried to win support from teams to introduce reverse-grid qualifying race, and twice failed.
Undeterred, the sport is making a third push to approve the plan for 2021. But the response from some team principals during last weekend’s Russian Grand Prix indicated a third defeat is on the cards.
The plan is the same now as it was 12 months ago. At selected races, instead of a qualifying session, a sprint race would be held, beginning with the drivers in reverse championship order. The finishing positions of that would would set the starting order for the grid.
F1 previously tried to introduce such races for 2020. Under the rules of the time, they needed the unanimous support of the teams to do so, but faced opposition from Mercedes and Racing Point. The proposal was therefore rejected last year and again earlier this year, when F1 pushed for reverse grid races at the second round in the ‘double headers’ which were added to the reorganised calendar post-Covid.
However since then the new Concorde Agreement has been signed, which means unanimity is no longer required to agree changes to the sporting rules. Instead for next year, at this late stage in the season, a ‘super majority’ of votes at the F1 Commission is needed. This means at least 28 out of 30 available votes.
As 10 votes are held by F1, 10 by the FIA, and one each by the 10 teams, it seemed reverse grid qualifying races could be introduced over the objections of Mercedes and Racing Point, providing all the other teams supported it.
However, F1’s hopes that would come to pass were were dashed in Sochi.
First McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl made it clear his team were “absolutely not supportive of the idea of introducing reverse grids”. Then Renault managing director Cyril Abiteboul strongly indicated his team will also oppose the plan, arguing the new technical regulations planned for 2022 will do more to produce exciting races without resorting to artificial measures.
“I still believe that reverse grids is a great opportunity for mixing things up and offering a show,” he said, “but I still believe it’s an artefact and we should have the ambition of offering exciting races without that artefact.
“We’ve had, again, fantastic races this year. We had fantastic races also last year with lots of things happening without reverse grids. We just need the field to be more competitive. I think that should be the focal point.
“If you have 20 cars within half a second, or a second, that will offer you a great show in my opinion – providing you have the opportunity to overtake. We don’t want to turn Formula 1 into DTM. So, I think that we are near enough 2022 not to have to use that artefact at this point in time.”
Seidl said much the same, arguing that the coming 2022 rules change means it “would be wrong to introduce any artificial randomness” via reverse-grid sprint races.
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It’s hard to avoid the impression both McLaren and Renault have more to lose from the plan now than they did 12 months ago. Both have become regular visitors to Q3, and are locked in a fight for third in the championship with Ferrari, who are usually quicker on race day than they are on Saturday. With the competitive order likely to remain much the same next year, McLaren and Renault would be trading away a significant advantage by supporting the plan.
Assuming Mercedes and Racing Point continue to oppose reverse-grid qualifying races, F1 can’t get to the 28 votes it needs to introduce the plan. If more of the team principals paid heed to their drivers’ views on the matter, the plan would be killed stone dead, as their views on the proposal range from indifferent to hostile.
Nonetheless F1 appears to be laying the groundwork for a bid to win teams over to the plan. Two weeks ago it invited fans’ views via a survey the official Fan Voice website.
No opportunity to prod respondents into giving the desired answers was missed. Those who opened the survey had to navigate through various leading questions characterising the eventful Italian Grand Prix as a perfect test case for reverse-grid qualifying races, before getting to the crux of the matter. The fact the proposal would involve dropping qualifying sessions, and thereby ending an unbroken, 70-year-old tradition, was ignored.
A separate poll accompanied the survey. After over 2,700 responses the single most popular answer to the question “do you agree/disagree that reverse-grid qualifying races are something F1 should consider?” was “strongly disagree”. The number choosing from two ‘agree’ options’ only exceeded those who selected the two ‘disagree’ options by 1%. The poll soon disappeared.
Our polls reflect much stronger disapproval for the plan: 68% of readers indicated they “strongly disagreed” with introducing reverse-grid qualifying races, and 71% strongly disagreed with holding races without qualifying sessions (the latter poll remains open).
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Whatever F1’s polls may say, teams are unlikely to be swayed either way if their competitiveness is at stake. Those who have supported the plan seem to see the writing on the wall, and in Sochi were casting about for alternative scenarios, however unlikely, in which the reverse-grid qualifying race concept might be tried.
“It’s conflicting in many ways,” says Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “The racer in you and the purist says it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.
“Then of course you see a race a little bit like in Monza and that brings the point to the fore again of mixing things up and obviously the best way of mixing things up is something like a reverse grid. That is artificial but inevitably, when you have the fastest car starting at the front of the race, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that in many cases they will stay in grid order.
“I think that Formula 1 shouldn’t be scared of perhaps trying something different. If there was an occasion or a type of venue or an invitation race or maybe even a non-championship race, that something like that could be tried, it would be very interesting to see what the outcome of it would be.”
The prospect of F1 organising a non-championship race is not on the cards: It hasn’t happened since 1983.
Meanwhile those who oppose the plan suspect the window of opportunity to try it is closing. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, a long-standing opponent and trenchant critic of an idea he likens to “WWE”, is optimistic that the coming appointment of ex-Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali as Formula 1 CEO will safeguard the sport from gimmicks like reverse-grid races.
“He knows the sport inside out,” said Wolff. “I think sport comes first. And he’s going to stay away from, in my opinion, artificial things. He’s a purist.”
Quotes: Dieter Rencken