Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domnicali’s plans for practice sessions are not as radical as his comments last weekend indicated.Autodromo do Algarve, Domenicali told Portuguese channel Sport TV he supports “the cancellation of free practice sessions” in F1.
Taking his words at face value, this would obviously be deeply unpopular with grand prix promoters. A typical race weekend features three hours of practice, which can therefore last longer than competitive running. The longest race of 2023 so far took little more than an hour and a half, and by regulation qualifying can last as little as 45 minutes.
An F1 spokesperson subsequently stressed their priority is not to do away with practice sessions but make them more engaging. The series has already adjusted the balance between competitive and non-competitive track action in recent years.
In 2021, Friday’s practice sessions were cut back from 90 minutes each to 60, cutting total race weekend practice from four hours to three.
At a selected number of other rounds F1 went even further, introducing its divisive sprint race format. This effectively traded one practice session for a one-third-distance grand prix at three rounds.
It’s no secret Domenicali intends to carry on in this fashion. He explained his position on practice sessions to media including RaceFans last year, saying he would be “very aggressive” in pursuing a policy of having only one non-competitive practice session per race weekend.
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“Free practice is very interesting for the engineers or for the drivers, but at the end of the day, in sport, you need to fight for something,” he said, words he largely echoed in Portugal.
“Every time we will be on the track – with the respect of the race on Sunday, that has to be always the most important part of it – there should be something to fight for in terms of points, in terms of awards. That’s my opinion.”
But while Domenicali has clearly had this goal in mind for some time, he has not yet indicated how he intends to achieve it. The potential obstacles are obvious.
The reward would have to be a strong incentive in order for teams to compete for it. If it doesn’t come with prize money or points it’s probably a non-starter.
Offering championship points would further complicate a system which has already grown in complexity since Liberty Media took over. It would risk ending championship fights earlier in the year, as the more points on offer, the sooner a title can be decided.
It would also increase the likelihood of a title being decided outside of a grand prix – something which became a more realistic possibility when sprint races were introduced two years ago. F1 further increased the chances of a championship being decided before the last race by doubling the number of sprint races and scheduling three in the final six rounds.
The challenges to this problem are similar to the still-unresolved problems with sprint races. While F1 has hyped the format to extremes, fans gave it a mixed reception, and the likes of Max Verstappen remain unconvinced of its merits. Several drivers last year urged F1 to end the practice of using the sprint races to decide the grand prix grid, but no change was made for this season.
Nonetheless, F1 says further changes to the sprint format remain under consideration in addition to Domenicali’s plans to enliven practice sessions. Whether any of this can be achieved without further lessening the status of a grand prix as “the most important part” of a round, or making too great a demand of viewers’ time during a race weekend, remains to be seen.
As is already the case with sprint race qualifying sessions on Fridays, F1’s problem may not only be attracting the interest of viewers in the first place, but failing to appreciate many people will not attempt to watch sessions while they are at work.
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