Formula 1 has wasted no opportunity to declare the sprint qualifying format it introduced last year an overwhelming success with immense popularity among fans of the sport.Silverstone, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali declared the sprint format had received “overwhelmingly positive feedback from the teams, drivers and fans”.
But after two more of its sprint events F1 was prepared to admit its innovation has a few shortcomings and pledged to make changes to it for the upcoming season. But with the start of the new championship just six weeks away the exact details haven’t yet been confirmed.
The merit of sprint events is not the issue at stake: Inevitably, this is a row over money. Three teams are pressing for a break in F1’s budget cap, which falls to $140 million (£103m) plus exceptions this year, to cover the potential crash damage costs arising from three extra sprint races.
There is, arguably, an element of opportunism about this. Last year’s three sprint races resulted in little extra damage, Pierre Gasly’s Monza crash being a significant exception.
Nonetheless the potential for expensive crashes is clearly there. Sprint races add an extra standing start to race weekends, at which the risk of an incident is high.
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Red Bull suffered three retirements due to crashes shortly after standing starts last season: Max Verstappen at Silverstone and Sergio Perez at the Hungaroring (where Verstappen also suffered race-ruining damage) and Jeddah. Should a crash take a power unit out of circulation, as happened on two of those occasions, the bill shoots up.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that last week Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who previously supported the sprint format, gave it rather lukewarm backing recently and said time was running out for F1 to firm up its plans for the new season.
“I’m very much a purist,” he said. “I believe that qualifying and the race are the fundamental aspects of a grand prix. I think that the sprint races were interesting last year. I think the format wasn’t perfect. But if you don’t try something you don’t know, and I think there’s things that could be done to make it more exciting, to make it more interesting.
“But it’s getting quite late now and we’re going to need to have a decision pretty shortly.”
F1 subsequently came forward with its compromise proposal to revert from six sprint races to three. Has its hope of more sprint action in 2022 therefore been scuppered by the greed of a few teams?
McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown warned of this possibility last month. “Some teams still look for excuses to raise the cost cap and win world championships with chequebooks,” he said. “The ongoing lobbying by certain teams to increase the cost cap for sprint race damage is a continuing example.
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“The Saturday sprint race initiative by Formula 1 has added new viewers and raised the profile of the sport to expand its global fanbase. However, these teams continue to demand a raise to the cost cap by an inordinate amount of money, despite the clear evidence that little damage was incurred during these races last year, in a thinly veiled attempt to protect from their competitive advantage being eroded.”
How sincere the three teams are in their concerns over costs, will the loss of three sprint races this year cause much disappointment? Maybe not for sponsor Crypto.com which, given its recent troubles, would surely welcome a cheaper than expected bill for branding the format in 2022.
As for fans, their view of the format has always seemed far more mixed than F1 has purported. While Domenicali has claimed “the vast majority of the comments that we receive are totally positive, super-positive”, the numbers paint a different picture. An F1-backed survey of over 167,000 fans last year revealed 40% (two in five) felt sprint qualifying had “improved the show” while 34% (more than one in three) disagreed.
The sprint experiment has shown that if you replace a practice session with a race, schedule that race on a Saturday, and hold it and Friday qualifying later in the day than usual, viewing figures rise. That was a predictable outcome. Nonetheless this will have gone down well at Liberty Media’s quarterly earnings reports, in which it has keenly highlighted the success of its sprint races.
But despite F1’s positive spin, sprints haven’t yet found broad acceptance among F1 fans. Many of which responded to yesterday’s news by observing that as F1 had dropped three sprint races for 2022 it only needs to drop three more to achieve the ideal number: Zero.
When F1 was seeking a race in Miami it urged supporters to write to local politicians and urge them to back the proposal. If it hopes fans will start petitioning the teams to change their stance on sprint races they are surely in for a disappointment.
2022 F1 season
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