Where does Formula 1 draw the line between maintaining its purity of competition and being in the entertainment business?
That debate was waged at the start of this season, and has again reared up in the wake of last month's Italian Grand Prix when the sport was provided with a glimpse of just how a reverse-grid race could potentially work.
When Lewis Hamilton was pitched to the back of the pack after serving a 10-second penalty soon after the restart following a crash involving Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, a tremendous spectacle unfolded. At the front, we had an AlphaTauri dicing with a McLaren and a Racing Point, while at the rear there was the sight of Hamilton cutting his way through the field to claim a handful of points.
F1's managing director motorsports Ross Brawn was naturally captivated as it was his suggestion at the start of the season for a reverse-grid race that lit the blue touchpaper on the conversation.
Fearing a repeat of the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix for the Styrian event, Brawn's plan to spice up the second race at Spielberg was for qualifying to be replaced with a 30-minute sprint event, with the grid decided by championship order, and with its result forming the grid for the main event on Sunday.
At that point in the year, and given the regulations, only one team needed to be opposed for the idea to wither on the vine, and Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff was the lone dissenting voice as it is understood the rest were in favour.
Wolff opposed the proposition on three points, primarily that some teams would try to play “a strategy game” in order to secure pole; second, that F1 is about meritocracy and does not require “a show format like wrestling”; and finally, conceding the reason was “inward-looking”, there was a championship to consider.
As Red Bull team principal Christian Horner suggested at the time, it appeared the “perfect opportunity” for F1 to try something different given the circumstances of this campaign, and with back-to-back races at the same venue, only for Wolff to effectively put his foot down.
Brawn's proposal was then placed on the backburner until Pierre Gasly's stunning win at Monza, providing him with ammunition to again fire the plan back at the teams.
Brawn is believed to be looking at staging reverse-grid qualifying sprint races at four grands prix next season, and unlike earlier this year, F1's little-known super majority system comes into play.
A super majority is reached with 28 votes. The FIA and F1 hold 10 votes apiece, with each of the 10 teams holding a single vote, so even if two teams reject an idea, it would still come to fruition.
In the aftermath of Monza, at the time Brawn said: “Monza was a candidate for a reverse-grid sprint race when we were considering testing the format this year. Unfortunately, we could not move forward with it.
“But the concept is still something we and the FIA want to work through in the coming months and discuss with the teams for next year.
“We believe that race showed the excitement a mixed-up pack can deliver, and with next year’s cars remaining the same as this year, our fans could be treated to the similar drama we saw at Monza.”
You can imagine Wolff's reaction, which was condemnatory, to say the least. “I don't think we should be designing freak results where it is almost to overtake just because we believe the pecking order should be a different one,” asserted Wolff.
“F1 is a meritocracy, a sport where the best man and best machine wins. This is not worldwide wrestling where the outcome is completely random.
“If you want to do random, let's make it a show. But the core DNA of a sport is being a sport, and then an entertainment platform, but it's not a show, it's not Big Brother, and I don't think we should be going there.”
On this occasion, Wolff naturally requires support from two other teams for Brawn to again be left frustrated. Unlike last time when there were nods of approval from the drivers – perhaps due to a degree of boredom they were experiencing during lockdown and they were willing to try anything – the majority are now firmly against.
As a director of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association, four-time champion Sebastian Vettel did a very good job of speaking on behalf of those opposed when he claimed the proposal to be “wrong in the name of sport”.
Vettel added: “If you are pushing in that direction, it’s a testimony that you failed to come up with regulations and tools that bring the field more together and make racing better on track.”
Wolff does now have the firm support at least one other team principal in McLaren's Andreas Seidl.
“For us, Formula 1 is a championship, and always has been, where everyone is working within the same regulations, and the best team, with the best car, with the best driver, is at the front in qualifying, and if everything also goes well on Sunday, is also at the front and wins the race,” said Seidl.
“This is why we are absolutely not supportive of the idea of introducing reverse grids”, and that it “would be wrong to introduce any other randomness now”.
There is one possibility, as mentioned by Horner, who accepts that “as a racer...as a purist... it's absolutely the wrong thing to do”.
But he can also see the flipside and suggests that “F1 shouldn't be afraid of trying new things... to see what the outcome is”.
Horner's suggestion is for such a race to be incorporated into an invitational or non-championship event, ensuring there is no need for new regulations and the sanctity of the championship would be preserved.
“If one event was selected to try a different format, to try something totally different, what would we have to lose?” questioned Horner.
On one hand, It appears to be a logical solution; on the other, you have to wonder where F1 would be able to slot it into a calendar, be it a normal one comprising 21 to 22 grands prix, or – heaven forbid – if there is a repeat of this year's COVID-hit schedule.
As usual, F1 finds itself in that uncomfortable position of being damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't.