Formula One returns home to Silverstone this week for a grand prix weekend which will be like none before it.
The coronavirus pandemic forced last year’s British Grand Prix to be held without fans in attendance, causing a financial crisis that threatened the future of the event.
But 2021 will have capacity crowds of up to 140,000 — and they have plenty to look forward too.
A new qualifying format, a worthy challenger to Lewis Hamilton’s crown and the continued rise of McLaren make this weekend’s race enticing.
F1’s first trial of sprint qualifying
Formula One has always tried to improve qualifying.
From hour-long sessions to one-lap shootouts and the knock-out format we have today, there has been a continued ambition to make all aspects of the weekend exciting for fans.
Now we have the newest rendition: sprint qualifying.
Drivers will take part in a 100km (17 lap) race on Saturday, with the finishing order determining the grid for Sunday’s grand prix.
The usual knock-out format will happen on Friday (local time) to set the grid for the mini-race – which is one-third of a grand prix.
Formula One chiefs hope by moving the knock-out qualifying to Friday, it will generate excitement for all three days of the grand prix weekend.
In April, Formula One’s managing director Ross Brawn said the new weekend format was not aimed at taking away from the main-race on Sunday.
“It is not intended to impact the race event. The grand prix is still the vital event of the weekend,” Brawn said.
“Sunday’s grand prix is fantastic, and we don’t want to cannibalise that, but we want to lift up the engagement on a Friday and a Saturday.”
But Saturday’s sprint qualifying is not just about grid position, with championship points being awarded to the three drivers who finish on the podium.
The winner will get three points along with their pole position, with two points and one point being given to second and third respectively.
How sprint qualifying could help Ricciardo
The new format is also a chance for drivers who struggle with speed over one lap, but excel during the race, to climb up the grid.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo has had a difficult season in the McLaren during Saturday qualifying sessions.
He has been regularly outqualified by his teammate Lando Norris, who qualified on the front row for the Austrian Grand Prix earlier this month.
By contrast, Ricciardo was knocked out after the second session and qualified 13th.
However, the Australian has shown his race craft in recent times, navigating through the field to finish in the top seven on two of the last three grand prix.
With a 17-lap dash on Saturday to decide Sunday’s starting position, the new format could be a perfect fit for Ricciardo.
“It’ll be interesting to mix up the weekend and I’m sure it’ll provide plenty of opportunities to put us in a good position for the race on Sunday,” he said.
“I’m ready to go again at Silverstone and keep pushing after a more positive weekend in Austria where I gained a bit more confidence in the car.”
Norris also will be eyeing more success, after collecting his third podium of the year in Austria.
The young Briton is fourth in the drivers’ standings, just three points behind the Red Bull of Sergio Perez in third.
At his home grand prix, Norris said he was hopeful of another promising result but was tapering his expectations.
“Being on the podium for the third time this season was a great feeling,” he said.
“Hopefully, we can carry this energy into mine and the team’s home grand prix this weekend, although we need to be realistic in what we can achieve as Silverstone is a very different track.”
Mercedes upgrades don’t match Red Bull pace, says Hamilton
Mercedes should be closer to Formula One leaders Red Bull this weekend, but there will still be a performance gap, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said.
Hamilton is 32 points behind Red Bull’s Dutch youngster Max Verstappen after nine races, but is facing a track where he has won multiple times.
Red Bull have won the last five races, with Verstappen chasing his fourth successive victory, but Hamilton was hopeful car upgrades would give him a chance to fight back.
“A lot of work’s gone on over the last couple of weeks so I’m hoping that to come back to a circuit that suits us a little bit better hopefully bodes well for a closer battle,” Hamilton said.
Mercedes have won seven of the last eight British Grands Prix and also taken nine consecutive pole positions at Silverstone.
“There’s a lot of changes on the car but it’s not a massive update in terms of the gap that we’ve seen in the races,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said Red Bull’s advantage appeared to be two-to-three-tenths of a second a lap, and Mercedes had not brought that much of a performance improvement, but were hopeful they had made a step in the right direction.