F1 has seen several different qualifying systems over the years. Many motorsports have tried their hand at changing things up to try and make the racing more interesting, but one commonly suggested option for F1 is the reverse grid system.
The reverse grid in F1 is a proposed qualifying format that involves a 30-minute sprint race, with the starting order being the reverse of the current Driver’s Championship order. The results from this sprint race would then set the starting grid for the actual race.
We will go through the details of the reverse grid in F1 below, as well as take a look at some of the reasons for and against using the procedure. We will also consider the use of reverse grid qualifying in other motorsports as well.
What Is The Reverse Grid System In F1?
The reverse grid system in F1 is a proposed qualifying format that differs greatly from any used in the sport before. It essentially involves a sprint race, with the starting grid made up of the reverse of the current (or previous season’s if it is the first race in a season) Drivers’ Championship standings. Thus, whoever is in last place in the Championship would start the sprint race on pole and so on.
30-Minute Sprint Race
The sprint race would last 30 minutes, and the results of it would determine the starting order for the actual race. The sprint race would take place on a Saturday, in place of the current 3-round elimination qualifying session. The idea is nothing revolutionary in motorsport, as will be discussed in the last section, but it has never been used in F1.
It has been in the minds of those in the F1 world for years, but in 2020 it received a fresh resurgence in popularity among almost everyone but the drivers, mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This shortened the 2020 F1 season and meant that there were going to be two sets of races at the same track, with two at Austria’s Red Bull Ring and two at Silverstone.
This seemed like the perfect opportunity to test the format, as if it didn’t work well in the first race, the second race could revert back to the original format with a sort of damage limitation approach. The owners of the F1 franchise, Liberty Media, tried to implement it but were unable to gain unanimous support from the F1 teams, meaning it could not be introduced.
One race in particular from the 2020 season, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, presented grounds for fresh claims that it is what the sport needs. Ross Brawn, the managing director of Formula One, said that the race showed exactly the kind of excitement that a reverse grid could produce. The race saw Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri win after a red flag resulted in a quasi-reverse grid restart.
However, this can be seen as an advantage and as a disadvantage, and the excitement factor is just one thing that makes it a hotly debated topic in the world of F1. So, what are the real advantages of a reverse grid in F1?
Advantages Of The Reverse Grid
The first main advantage, as alluded to by Ross Brawn, is the fact that the reverse grid would help to add some excitement to the F1 weekend. At the moment, there is a lot of frustration from groups of fans (and indeed drivers and teams) at the fact that Mercedes have won the last 7 Constructors’ Championships and the Drivers’ Championships too.
This has led may fans to find the seasons boring, knowing who is going to dominate from the very beginning. The current qualifying system, while arguably the best the series has had so far, still usually results in similar if not the same starting grids each weekend. Aside from weather and freak incidents, the same cars usually make up the top 10, and often the top 3.
The Pole Effect
This means the race is already set to be similar each weekend as well, as those in pole position tend to go on to win the race. Even in the mixed up, unorthodox 2020 season, the pole sitter won the race 10 out of 17 times, or just under 60% of the time. While this statistic varies from year to year, from an excitement point of view, fans want this percentage to be somewhat lower.
If the pole sitter is more likely to win the race, and they are the same pole sitter most of the time (Lewis Hamilton was, coincidentally, pole sitter 60% of the time in 2020), then races become more predictable. But the same rules apply for the top 5 or so racers, as they are the ones most likely to win the race and make up the podium.
Predictable Top 3
A better statistic to consider would be the percentage of races in a season where the podium was made up of drivers from the top 5 in qualifying. 11 of the 17races in the 2020 season (65%) saw a top 3 that was made up of drivers that qualified in the top 5, with the top 3 being the same three drivers, Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen, on 8 occasions.
This backs up the opinion of many fans that F1 needs some excitement injected into it. The reverse grid would mean that those who are doing well in the Drivers’ Championship would have to prove their worth each weekend in qualifying, starting from further back than those that are not doing as well. This would also carry through into the race.
Lack Of Overtakes
Overtaking is what fans love to see in F1, and the current regulations and track selection means that there often is not much room for this to happen, especially at tracks like Abu Dhabi. But if you have the best drivers starting further back on the grid on a Sunday, they will need to overtake in order to get to the front of the pack where they should be if they are really the best.
This would make the race more interesting as a result of making qualifying more interesting, but qualifying would definitely be much more of a spectacle than it is at the moment. For a common pole sitter like Hamilton, he would need to make at least 19 overtakes in 30 minutes if he was to work his way from the back of the pack to the front of the grid for the race.
It would make the latter races of the season more exciting as well, as drivers close to the top of the standings and in the fight for the championship would need to carefully calculate their moves in qualifying in order to get as close to the front as they can for the race. It would undoubtedly make the season more interesting, but at what cost?
Disadvantages Of The Reverse Grid
The first defense of the current qualifying system and the lack of a need for a new approach is that reverse grids inject false excitement into the sport. Artificial excitement is not the same as authentic excitement that occurs due to freak incidents in the race, such as the red flag at Monza that triggered a truly unique podium, one that stands out in the 2020 season for sure.
While this showcased what a reverse grid could look like, it was the unexpected nature of the race that made it so exciting. Had it been engineered things would probably be very different. If every weekend was like Monza 2020, it would lose its excitement very quickly, but there are other reasons the excitement might not even be there in the first place.
The Real Problem
At the moment, there is a lot of disparity across the teams in F1. While Mercedes are dominating every year, teams like Williams haven’t seen more than 10 points since 2017. The front of the grid is usually made up of the same 5 drivers as alluded to above, and the back of the grid is almost as regular.
This means that, even with the reverse grid procedure, chances are the imbalance among the current F1 cars would mean that the running order would very quickly end up as it normally is. Even in just 30 minutes, those at the top of the performance scale could quite easily make their way through a pack of far less powerful cars.
The Opposite Effect
Those that are normally in the bottom 5 would perhaps just appear to be even more underpowered than they already do, as it is likely that they would be overtaken very quickly by those with faster cars. This could sap even more excitement out of things, and it could make the current qualifying system just look even more suited to F1.
The current system utilizes three knockout rounds, which, while it does yield a lot of the same pole sitters, provides the most balanced approach to the grid selection process. Plus, it provides just the right amount of excitement when inclement weather comes into play, such as at the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix which saw Racing Point’s Lance Stroll take his maiden pole position.
There is no doubt that the current system provides the fairest playing field at the fundamental level, but it also highlights the real problems with F1. The same pole sitters and regular starting grids are not a product of the qualifying procedure, but instead they are the result of an unbalanced grid that is doomed to provide predictability from the outset.
Not What F1 Needs
With the racing not being nearly as close as fans feel it should be, until the field is brought closer together, and the driving becomes more competitive, the issue of a lack of excitement is going to stay there no matter what the qualifying procedure is. In other words, the roots of Formula 1’s excitement drought lie elsewhere, and the solution does not lie in reverse grid qualifying.
Finally, there is also the issue of cost and the durability of the engines and other vital components of the cars. If there are sprint races instead of hot lap qualifying sessions, the engines will need to withstand extra stress, and this puts pressure on the engineers and the budgets of the teams. With F1 trying to cut costs across the board, this represents just another problem with reverse grids.
The Reverse Grid In Motorsport
As we noted above, the reverse grid procedure is nothing new. It is found in other areas of motorsport, and even in the lower levels of Formula Racing. It is, for example, found in F3, where the system has been used for several years but is seeing some big changes in 2021, with more races being scheduled for the individual weekends.
Under the new regulations, the top 12 from Friday’s qualifying will be reversed, and the resultant grid will be used for the start of the first race. The second race’s grid will be determined by reversing the top 12 finishers from the first race and keeping the rest the same, and then the third race will see its grid set from the original qualifying order from Friday’s session.
While this may sound confusing, and make it seem like finishing in the back end of the top 12 would be more beneficial and thus promote deliberate poor performances early on in the weekend, each of the three races still present opportunities to score points. This means there is more to be lost than gained by deliberately starting from further back, and it should make the racing more exciting.
F2 will use a similar format, but with the reversal of the top 10 rather than the top 12 taking place in each case. In these cases, the reverse grid is used to make the first and second ‘extra’ races (when compared to the single F1 race) seem more exciting, while the most important race on the Sunday (the one that offers the most points) uses the more traditional qualifying system to set the grid.
This allows for the excitement factor presented by reverse grids to be gained for some of the weekend, without the artificial excitement it generates having any effect on the Feature race on the Sunday. With the lack of extra Sprint races in F1, the system could not be used to the same effect.
British Touring Car Racing also uses reverse grids for some of its races, with three races per circuit again allowing for the different format. The first race’s grid is determined using a hot lap qualifying system (although this is changing slightly in 2021), and then the second race takes a starting grid based on the finishing order of race 1.
Race 3 takes the starting grid based on the results of race 2, but with the top ten positions reversed. However, this reversal is based on a random draw, with the number drawn being the point at which the grid is reversed. For example, if number 7 was drawn, the driver that finished race 2 in 7th place would take pole in race 3, with the driver in 5th place starting 2nd and so on.
In this case, the driver that won race 2 would start in 7th place, and then the rest of the grid would be made up of the original finishing order from 8th onwards. This element of randomness takes away any of the benefits to be gained from deliberately finishing further down the grid in race 2, along with the fact that there are still points to be won in each race.
Very Different Structure
This effect wouldn’t be in play in F1, due to the fact that the qualifying sprint race grid would be made up of the reversed Drivers’ Championship standings rather than from an individual race. The ultimate goal of drivers is to win the Championship, and so there would be no threat of drivers deliberately going slow for a few races just so they would be more likely to start on pole in one race.
With that said however, the disadvantages laid out above seem to be enough to prevent the teams from wanting to use the reverse grid qualifying system in F1 any time soon. While the top teams would obviously have their lives made more difficult, the bottom teams also probably wouldn’t want their lack of power to be showcased to the world each weekend!
The reverse grid system proposed for F1 qualifying would involve a sprint race with a starting grid made up of the reverse of the positions of the drivers in the Drivers’ Championship at the time of the race. The results from this sprint race would set the starting grid for the Grand Prix on Sunday, with the idea that it would make race weekends more exciting.
However, the added pressure put on the teams through extra engine use, and the fact that many see the proposal as adding artificial excitement, makes the format unlikely to be used any time soon. While it is used in other motorsports, this is usually due to far different race weekend structures, and at the moment F1 race weekends just do not support the cause for reverse grid qualifying.