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Formula 1

What teams’ reversed-grid stances say about their 2020 hopes

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

Those scoundrels at Mercedes have robbed Formula 1 of a chance to finally see how reversed-grid races would work in practice. Eurgh!

Embellishment aside, it is a shame we won’t finally have real-world proof of how a properly incorporated reverse-grid format would work in modern F1. No more reliance on ‘how great was the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix?’ to underpin arguments, no more wild declarations that ‘it would devalue a win!’ – we’d see it for ourselves.

And what a way to spice up an odd season, reward fans for their patience during the wait and avoid a repetitive second race of each same-venue double-header, of which there could be two, three, four, five or even six!

I’m struggling to be annoyed by Mercedes’ actions. It’s self-interest, sure. But what Mercedes’ rivals did was exactly the same

You can probably tell I was in favour of seeing that play out. Not necessarily because reversed-grid races should be an ever-present fixture of F1 and I wish to die on that hill, but because I’m curious to see if it works.

Sadly, it won’t happen. And those keen on seeing a reversed-grid qualifying race have accused Mercedes of protecting their own interests.

But while I wanted reversed grids to be part of the season, I’m struggling to be annoyed by Mercedes’ actions. It’s self-interest, sure. But what Mercedes’ rivals did was exactly the same.

After pre-season testing it was clear Ferrari was not on Mercedes’ level. And it has continued to talk down its own prospects ever since, to the point of lamenting the carry-over of this year’s cars to 2021 as it probably means another year without fighting for the title.

And while Red Bull seems confident it has taken a step towards fighting Mercedes for the title, the jury’s out on whether that’s actually the case, or if it will be enough.

Two different scenarios for Mercedes’ two main rivals, but with one common factor: even if their car’s not fast enough to qualify ahead of a Mercedes, it might be quick enough to stay ahead of one.

Charles Leclerc Ferrari Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Italian Grand Prix 2019 Monza

Aside from the obvious candidates like Monaco and Hungary, last year’s Belgian and Italian Grands Prix are good examples of how a pace advantage doesn’t necessarily mean a faster car can overtake.

Reversing the championship order for a qualifying race at two of the opening five rounds would hand any team that’s not ahead a nice boost.

Mercedes could sweep the opening round in Austria, then be pegged back in race two. It could take the lead again over an orthodox Hungarian and British Grands Prix, then drop back in the second Silverstone round.

By this point, perhaps upgrades would be forthcoming to help rid the deficit faced by a rival. Or at least they may be firmly in the pipeline. Or maybe there would be a season-long reliance on however many double-headers take place to engineer this cat-and-mouse game for the title.

Yes, it would be more interesting. Yes, I personally would like to see it. Yes, it’s clear Mercedes is protecting itself from an unknown and dramatic new variable.

But let’s not gloss over the fact that the bigger teams favouring the idea also happen to be the teams that have been behind for several years.

Just because their act of self-interest happens to tie in with something more favourable for F1 overall doesn’t make it any less an act of self-interest.

Valtteri Bottas Mercedes Barcelona F1 testing 2020

Through the coronavirus pandemic the desire to serve the greater good of F1 has been a key narrative discussions over big and small rule changes for this season and beyond.

But there has always been an underlying selfishness as well. Whether that’s through opportunism or aggression from teams wanting to use the situation to their advantage, or defensiveness from those looking to maintain the status quo.

All of this is not to say that Mercedes is right for blocking the move. It’s just a reminder of the reasons why. Mercedes isn’t in favour because it would definitely hurt its chances. Red Bull and Ferrari are in favour because it would probably help theirs.

Ferrari and Red Bull are no white knights. It would be weird if you offered a slower team a chance to get ahead and they turned it down

Ross Brawn says the idea of a reverse-grid element is still on the table for next year. It makes sense, as F1 was keen to trial it even before this unusual 2020 schedule had to be created.

So, while the double-header has been the main reverse-grid justification for 2020, that is not the only argument behind it. And the format isn’t dead and buried, with F1’s new governance system likely to make it a reality next year assuming nobody changes their position.

And this is the point. Will teams currently in favour of the rule change their position if it not longer suits them? Or when there’s no double-header to ostensibly justify it?

Will they throw their weight behind the argument that ‘it’s the same cars and the same competitive order so we need to mix it up’?

Max Verstappen Red Bull Barcelona F1 testing 2020

What happens if over the course of the 2020 season Red Bull or Ferrari actually prove to be quickest. Will their position change for 2021?

I’d wager that things would be different. Because ‘the greater good’ only really applies when a team needs it.

Like many other elements of F1 politics, the stances on reverse-grid racing comes down to what suits a team in a given moment.

Ultimately, teams supporting reversed-grid races tells you as much about their prospects or expectations for the coming season as Mercedes’ rejection of the idea tells you about its desire to maintain the status quo.

Ferrari and Red Bull are no white knights. It would be weird if you offered a slower team a chance to get ahead and they turned it down. And on the other hand, there’s no incentive to give up an advantage Mercedes worked hard to establish.

Mercedes might be the villain in terms of blocking the proposal, but F1’s never really been a place for benevolent heroes.

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