The adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has become cliche, but its overuse comes for a good reason: it’s usually sound advice. Take the Porsche 911 and Jeep Wrangler, for example. Neither Porsche nor Jeep has significantly altered the design of their icons over the past several decades, instead slowly evolving them with updated graphics while maintaining the classic proportions. They know that those timeless looks hook prospective customers and get the loyal fanbase to return with each generation. So why risk mixing things up with a radical redesign?
Yet some companies don’t heed this advice: Spotify has angered customers several times over the past few years with unnecessary interface and usability changes. Starting in 2021, Formula 2 will be taking a similar chance, recently announcing a host of changes to the race weekend format that could potentially dilute the championship. F2 already produced incredible racing and a close title fight. Does it really need to change?
First let’s explore what will be different. In 2021 each weekend will feature three races instead of two. There will be two sprint races on Saturday and a feature race on Sunday, versus the previous structure of a feature race on Saturday and a sprint race on Sunday. Qualifying remains on Friday and sets the grid for Sunday’s feature race. But with the feature race occurring after the sprint races, the results of the feature race can no longer determine the sprint race grid. Instead, the top ten from qualifying will be reversed for the first sprint race, while the grid of the second sprint race is determined by reversing the top ten finishers in the first sprint race.
These changes likely won’t detract from the wheel-to-wheel battles F2 is known for, but they can potentially cause confusion for fans and add stress for the teams. To start with, most F2 fans also watch Formula 1, so an extra race just increases the number of events that a devoted fan has to follow on a weekend already jam-packed with racing.
The busier schedule might also cause more headaches for the teams. With two races on Saturday, the consequences of a crash are multiplied. If a car sustains major damage in the first sprint race, the team will face immense pressure to repair it before the second sprint race. A big enough incident could force the driver to sit out the second sprint race, and with such a tight championship, a missed opportunity for points could have serious implications in a title fight.
The new order of the races is also just confusing. Let’s say you’re an F2 driver and you qualify on pole position on Friday. Under the old system, you would then start first on Saturday, with a chance for a strong finish and then a top eight starting position in Sunday’s sprint race. But in the new system, the polesitter can’t make use of their impressive qualifying performance until Sunday, instead being put onto the back foot on Saturday when they start down in eighth. There is an appeal to having the the feature race occur on the same day as F1’s main event, but having a one-day, two-race gap between qualifying well and getting rewarded with a good starting position is simply odd. It also could confuse fans who are not familiar with the format: they may ask on Saturday, “Why is X driver starting eighth when they took pole yesterday?”
Lastly, this new format puts too much emphasis on sprint race results. F2 is meant to be a stepping stone for young drivers headed to Formula 1, so the series should place value on skills that will be important in F1. In the past, more weight was placed on feature race performances: a driver could gain a maximum of 48 points over one weekend, with 65% of those points coming from qualifying and the feature race. This was logical since F1 doesn’t have reverse-grid sprint races, and with overtaking being difficult in modern F1 cars due to dirty air, qualifying performance factors heavily into finishing position. Emphasizing the feature race benefited drivers who qualified well, a skill which will come in handy if they reach F1.
The new system, however, shifts the focus to the sprint races: the maximum points available is now 65, with 48% of those points coming from the feature race and qualifying. This new arrangement could end up favoring drivers who are less complete packages, as qualifying and feature race performances will be less important for scoring large amounts of points over a race weekend. If a driver consistently performs well in the feature races, they likely have strong qualifying pace and are adept at race management, whereas impressive sprint race results only demonstrate good race pace. In 2021, qualifying skill will matter less for drivers to extract the most points out of a weekend, and subsequently across a season.
Ultimately, we will have to wait and see how the new F2 race weekend format plays out next season. Most viewers will adjust to the new schedule, just like iPhone users have adapted to having no home button, and hopefully few teams will have to scramble to repair a car in between the two races on Saturdays. The most concerning aspect will be the added importance of sprint races, but hopefully the best young drivers will still rise to the top.