Picture the scene: it’s the dying seconds of qualifying at the opening race of the 2022 Formula 1 season in Bahrain and, with Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton having just completed their final laps of Q3, all eyes turn to George Russell as the last man across the line.
Purple in the first sector and with a personal best in the second, the world television feed picks up Russell just before the braking zone for the last corner.
Inch perfect through there, the final hurdle cleared, all that’s left for Russell to do is floor the throttle, take one last dose of DRS and… P1. Pole position. On his Mercedes debut.
“What a lap by George Russell!” the commentators and social media erupt in unison. “Mr Saturday does it again!”
What a lap indeed.
In reality, though, it’s not really The Lap they’re revelling in, is it? How can it be when the cameras only caught the final corner?
It’s more the lap time – something rather quite different and altogether less romantic. It’s more the achievement, the result – the final product rather than the process – and quite often it’s not until later, after the session, that the lap itself is seen in its entirety and in all its glory.
— PlanetF1 (@Planet_F1) May 22, 2021
There’s a special intimacy that comes with watching the pursuit of the perfect lap unfold live and uncut, most vividly captured in modern times by Verstappen’s attempted seizure of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix circuit in the penultimate qualifying session of 2021.
Viewers were made to feel like passengers as the white-helmeted Red Bull flashed through Jeddah’s collection of high-speed corners, skimming walls and scattering sparks in an absorbing and amazing assault on the senses.
So when it suddenly all went wrong – Verstappen reacting to a lockup into the final corner by refusing to let the lap go to waste, still intent on bending the car to his will when it would’ve been more beneficial to back off slightly – the impact with the wall was felt all around the world.
It was akin to being jolted out of a trance and, certainly, the sense of just what had been lost was infinitely more profound than had the live footage, in the rush of cars crossing the line, only found Verstappen in the final stages of the greatest lap that never was.
Of all the things that need changing in Formula 1 in 2022, by common consent the qualifying format does not rank high on the list and attempts to interfere with it in recent years – first with the ill-conceived elimination experiment in 2016 and the trials of sprint qualifying last year – have been met with fierce opposition from some fans.
Yet if the Q1/Q2/Q3 system is a staple of race weekends – and, having been implemented in 2006, all an entire generation of spectators has ever known – it has arguably become stale, especially so in an era when the spread of competition is so wide that many have long since taken to casually dividing the 20 cars into separate classes.
Science tells us the more samples you run, the more accurate the result and in that context the existing format – allowing the frontrunners to dig themselves out of holes created by flat-spotted tyres or track limits breaches simply by going for another run on another set of tyres – is too forgiving and denies Formula 1 the very unpredictability it craves.
One of the great statistics at the end of Valtteri Bottas’s five seasons as a Mercedes driver, after all, was that he reached Q3 in every single one of his 101 qualifying sessions with the team.
Unpredictability, of course, was a key motive behind the introduction of the sprint format and its effect on the races in 2021 – creating the conditions for the collisions between Verstappen and Hamilton at Silverstone and Monza before giving the latter a leg up in his recovery from the back in Brazil – was undeniable.
Once it quickly became evident it was essentially a glorified opening stint, however, some fans’ minds were made up.
F1 intends to double the amount of sprint weekends to six in 2022, though those plans remain subject to a vote ahead of winter testing amid friction over how they will work for teams against the backdrop of a tightening cost cap.
Liberty, you suspect, will ultimately find a way to push it through because this is the path they’re seemingly determined to pursue.
But, at this juncture, why doesn’t Formula 1 just revert to one-lap qualifying and be done with it?
As well as instantly eliminating safety concerns over traffic after several close calls in 2021, the one-shot system is perhaps the purest form of F1 qualifying and would bring intense pressure to all within the pitlane without straying into the territory of gimmicks.
In an era when there is a concerted effort to make the drivers the stars of the show, there is something to be said for shining the spotlight on each of them on a Saturday, placing their skill and bravery under the microscope with no margin for error in the one and only chance to shape their Sunday.
It would create a tantalising risk-versus-reward psychological challenge for the drivers. How much would Verstappen be prepared to risk a track limits violation (and therefore an invalidated lap and poor grid position) at Hungary’s Turn 4 for the sake of pipping Hamilton to pole? – and potentially blur the lines between the real world and eSports, another of Liberty’s pet projects.
Although the sport itself has refrained from using it since the end of 2005, the one-shot format has been a long-running feature of the official F1 games. Another centrepiece of the virtual racing world? Ghost cars – and it is perhaps here where qualifying as a TV spectacle could be done better than ever before.
Rather than relying on the sponsored AWS graphics claiming to measure car performance, could the data from the cars be used to create something a little more tangible and useful? Could the technology be developed for the fastest lap of the session at any given time to be transposed onto the live TV pictures as a ghost car, a moving target for the driver on track to beat?
As the session progressed it would provide a great insight into the strengths and weaknesses of each car – a visual indicator of the differences between a backmarker and a solid midfield team, a podium finisher and a title contender – with the climax coming in the battle for pole.
The sight of Verstappen racing a virtual representation of Hamilton’s car would be surreal, but the chance to examine the subtly different lines and techniques into each corner – the areas of the track where Max gains and loses time to Lewis – in real time would render the SkyPad effectively redundant.
With the Formula 1 fanbase supposedly becoming younger and more informed – notwithstanding the bile projected by some on both sides of the Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry as 2021 turned nasty – that is the kind of data-driven sophistication Liberty should perhaps be aiming for.
As Formula 1 searches for a new long-term solution to its age-old problem of how to spend its Saturdays, perhaps the best option of all would be an old idea – putting the drivers and the intimate artistry of their laps front and centre – with a very modern twist.
Alonso wants fans to have the vote on sprint races
Fernando Alonso believes that fans should decide if F1 has sprint races.