What would a reverse-grid Styrian Grand Prix have looked like this weekend?

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Ahead of the rescheduled 2020 season, Formula One discussed the idea of running a reverse grid qualifying race at this weekend's Styrian Grand Prix, the name given to the second race at Austria's Red Bull Ring.

The concept was fairly simple. To make back-to-back races at the same venue more exciting, F1's traditional qualifying session would be replaced by a short race, with the starting decided by reversing the championship standings. The finishing order of the qualifying race would then determine the grid for Sunday's grand prix.

The three reasons Mercedes blocked reverse grids

The idea, which required support from all teams, was scrapped after Mercedes made clear it was not in favour. Mercedes' objection meant the exact details of reverse grid racing were never fleshed out, but it was expected to be a 30-minute qualifying race, amounting to roughly 26 laps of the Red Bull Ring.

Here's a look at what might have happened based on the championship order after the Austrian Grand Prix.

How the grid would have lined up

Pole: Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
2nd: Daniel Ricciardo (Renault)
3rd: Lance Stroll (Racing Point)
4th: Kevin Magnussen (Haas)
5th: Romain Grosjean (Haas)
6th: George Russell (Williams)
7th: Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo)
8th: Alex Albon (Red Bull)
9th: Daniil Kvyat (Alpha Tauri)
10th: Nicholas Latifi (Williams)
11th: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
12th: Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo)
13th: Esteban Ocon (Renault)
14th: Pierre Gasly (Alpha Tauri)
15th: Sergio Perez (Racing Point)
16th: Carlos Sainz (McLaren)
17th: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
18th: Lando Norris (McLaren)
19th: Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
20th: Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)

What the qualifying race might have looked like

The first and most obvious point is that, barring any car failures or mistakes, Max Verstappen would be locked on for a victory on Saturday and pole position on Sunday.

The high number of retirements in last Sunday's race means the top ten on the reverse grid would be peppered with quick cars, and none would be quicker than Verstappen. The Dutchman would start on reverse-grid pole thanks to his engine failure on lap 11 of the Austrian Grand Prix and, with that advantage, it's hard to imagine anyone challenging him during the sprint race.

But look behind Verstappen and things start to get more interesting. Daniel Ricciardo was running 10th in the Renault when he retired on Sunday, but was easily keeping pace with Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari and the Racing Point of Lance Stroll, which also had an engine issue and would line up third behind Ricciardo. The general feeling is that the Racing Point is the faster car, but both Stroll and Ricciardo would probably choose to stay out of trouble in the hope a clean race would give them a good starting position on Sunday.

Given how closely matched the midfield was last weekend, there's a chance they would retain positions on the second row, but the pace of the Red Bull would likely see them come under attack from Alex Albon. The Thai driver also retired from last week's race but he was the last of the nine retirees and would start ninth as a result. In order to join teammate Verstappen on the front row for Sunday's race he would have to overtake one car every four laps, which seems very doable considering there are four relatively slow cars between him Stroll in third.

The bigger question is whether a Mercedes would be able to make a charge through the field and secure a second-row grid slot, and that is where majority of the attention would be focused in our reverse-grid sprint race. Lewis Hamilton looked like the fastest driver in the field last Sunday, and despite starting fifth on the grid and losing time early in the race, he was right up behind teammate Valtteri Bottas when the first Safety Car came out on lap 25.

That Safety Car actually gives us a useful sample of the relative pace of the cars over 25 laps and it was clear to see how much of an advantage Mercedes and Red Bull had over the rest of the field. Okay, it's not a perfect sample as the drivers were not racing overly hard and they were running with heavy fuel tanks, but it gives us some ball park figures to play with. And by lap 25, the Mercedes drivers at the front of the field held a 20-second advantage over Lando Norris and Sergio Perez at the head of the midfield.

Extrapolating that information to our imaginary sprint race, we'll assume Stroll can achieve a similar pace in a healthy Racing Point to Norris and Perez at the front of the midfield. That would mean Hamilton have a 0.8s-per-lap advantage over the Canadian and between 25 and 26 laps to make up whatever deficit he had after the first lap. If he had clear air, Hamilton would probably reel in Stroll in as little as eight or nine laps, but in the reverse grid race he would have to pass 14 cars to get there. The task would be to maintain a pace advantage of about 0.4s per lap while simultaneously overtaking one car every one and half laps. It's a feasible task in a Mercedes, but also high risk considering one tangled wheel would see him start from the back.

Meanwhile, last weekend's race winner Valtteri Bottas would be facing an even tougher challenge in the second Mercedes. Starting last, he would need to make up a position almost every lap and would likely hit a buffer should he catch his teammate through the field. Based on Bottas' sometimes tentative overtaking moves in previous years, it's possible he would struggle to make the top eight, especially as he comes up against the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc.

He would likely make up the rest of the positions in the grand prix on Sunday, but would be at a significant disadvantage compared to his main competitors.

Would F1 be better with reverse grids?

After such a thrilling opening race at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday, it hardly feels like a chore to go back and do it all again seven days later. A repeat of last weekend's action would be anything but a disappointment, so there is a wider question of whether F1 really needs spicing up with reverse grid racing?

But there's no doubt that it would have been a curiosity. Seeing fast cars race from the back of the grid would have added some jeopardy, although midfield cars seeing a Mercedes or Red Bull in their mirrors would likely get out the way, knowing they would only eventually lose the position in Sunday's race anyway.

The main positive from a championship point of view would be giving Red Bull an immediate leg up after such a disappointing opening round. But then we get to the wider argument of whether failure should be rewarded and success penalised in F1?

When you consider rain is forecast for Saturday in Austria anyway, the standard qualifying format could result in an even more of a mixed grid than a reverse-grid race.