Let’s start with the good news. Formula 1 has expunged one of the worst features of the sprint races it introduced two years ago.a separate ‘Sprint Shootout’ qualifying session being introduced. This will decide the starting order for the sprint race, while the grand prix grid is unaffected and set by a qualifying session held on Friday.
This corrects the flaw in the format which was demonstrated most clearly by the last sprint round, the 2022 Brazilian Grand Prix. On that occasion Haas’s Kevin Magnussen mastered changing conditions in qualifying to perfection, defeating drivers from a string of better-funded teams with faster cars to be fastest in Q3.
His superb performance deserved to be rewarded with the prestige of pole position for the grand prix. However come Sunday’s race that place at the front of the grid was occupied by Mercedes’ George Russell.
He had won the Saturday sprint race which decided the starting order for the grand prix, while Magnussen inevitably sank down the order in his otherwise uncompetitive Haas. He was unlucky to have performed his giant-killing qualifying feat on a sprint race weekend.
While F1 declared Magnussen was the Brazilian GP pole winner, the pole position contradiction was a fault in the sprint race format which was inevitably going to surface at some point. The new sprint rules announced today corrects that.
More broadly, F1’s move to ‘standalone’ sprint races – with the grand prix occupying the two days either side of ‘sprint Saturday’ – can be seen as an implicit acknowledgement that they have not produced a spectacle of sufficient quality to meet the endless, breathless hype bestowed on the new format by the series and its broadcasters.
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While F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali likes to characterise the format’s detractors as mostly “old fans”, the sport’s 25-year-old two-times world champion has proved one of the most trenchant critics of sprint races. Max Verstappen articulated the shortcomings of the format earlier this month.
“For me a sprint race is all about surviving,” he said. “It’s not about racing. For me, when you have a quick car, there’s nothing to risk. I prefer to just keep my car alive and make sure that you have a good race car for Sunday.”
Verstappen understands the value of winning sprint races, having taken more victories in them than any other driver. The key test of whether the revised format is a success will be whether it provokes drivers to push harder in the pursuit of victory.
It will likely be a few races before we can definitely judge whether standalone sprint races are more exciting than the ‘sprint qualifying’ races they replace. What is clear is that drivers and teams will know they no longer have to reach the chequered flag in the sprint race to ensure the best possible starting position in the grand prix.
So at what point in this Saturday’s 17-lap race does the driver running in 20th place decide he has no realistic chance of reaching the top eight (the positions that award points in sprint races) and therefore may as well pit to preserve their engine mileage and stock of rubber for the following day? Granted, Baku is the kind of track where some kind of drama could upend the running order, and staying on-track could pay off, but that calculation may change elsewhere.
The revised format is due to appear a total of six times during 2023. This weekend’s sprint event will be followed further editions at the Red Bull Ring, Spa-Francorchamps, Losail, Circuit of the Americas and Interlagos. That will double the total number of sprint events F1 has ever held, and should allow it to draw useful conclusions whether ‘standalone sprint’ or ‘sprint qualifying’ can provide a better alternative to regular grand prix weekends.
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2023 F1 season
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