During the days when Michael Schumacher and Ferrari held a vice-like grip over the top step of the podium, Formula 1 drivers not only enjoyed near-unlimited testing but four individual practice sessions during a grand prix weekend – as well as a 30 minute pre-race warm up.
Over the next two decades, the format of race weekends have changed but the four hours of total practice time remained. Instead, drivers would get two 90-minute sessions on a Friday followed by a single hour-long practice before qualifying. That was still more than three hours more practice time than Formula 2 drivers would get before qualifying – and still do – despite Formula 1’s drivers being considered as the most elite on the planet.
Then, in 2020, Formula 1 decided to experiment at Imola with a compressed two-day weekend format where teams and drivers were given just a single 90-minute practice session before being thrown into qualifying and then the race. The next season, 30 minutes were chopped off both Friday practice sessions which reduced total preparation time to three hours. And with the introduction of sprint races later that year, drivers now regularly get just a single hour of practice before Friday qualifying and then two competitive sessions on Saturdays before Sunday’s grand prix.
Recently, practice time has become a topic of discussion again with the testing of the Alternative Tyre Allocation format at the Hungaroring. Reducing each driver’s dry tyre sets from 13 for a grand prix weekend to 11 led many to complain that they would be incentivised not to run during practice sessions in order to save tyres. But there are also those who feel reducing practice time over weekends would benefit the sport by challenging drivers and creating more excitement.
So is it time for Formula 1 to consider making just a single practice session the new normal?
Many drivers, including Mercedes’ George Russell, feel just a single one-hour practice session is ample for the supposed best drivers in the world. “I don’t think it’s right that Formula 1 has three times the amount of practice that you have in a F3 and F2 categories,” he said in Melbourne. “They should be the ones getting more practice also because they’re doing less races, they don’t get to test that often.”
There’s also the fact that less practice time means less opportunity for teams to hone car set ups and for drivers to get dialled into a circuit. That, naturally, puts drivers under greater pressure when it counts and leads to a higher chance of mistakes or top teams making the wrong choices on set ups and opening opportunities for teams lower down.
That all should make for less predictable and more exciting races as well as meaning that the drivers themselves can make more of a difference to their final finishing positions out on track.
Reducing uncompetitive track time during grand prix weekends may add more uncertainty heading into qualifying and races, but it also reduces the amount of time that fans get to enjoy seeing their heroes on track on Fridays and Saturdays.
With ticket prices to attend races as high as they’ve ever been thanks to F1’s boom in popularity and inflation, reducing value for money for fans is not likely to be popular with punters paying to watch live or with race promoters who have to sell those tickets.
Reducing practice sessions also puts rookie drivers at a significant disadvantage compared to veterans in an era where testing outside of race weekends is more restricted than it’s ever been before. It also denies the opportunity for teams to gather vital data on upgrades and parts which could lead to very conservative development plans under the current budget cap regulations, resulting in more static performance levels in the field over a season.
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Does Formula 1 need three hour-long practice sessions? No, almost certainly not. However, that does not necessarily mean that the sport should do away with the three free practice format.
Moving to a three hour system in 2021 was clearly a good move in hindsight and it’s true that predictability increases with practice time, but it does feel like younger drivers would suffer from the combination of only three days of pre-season testing with only a single hour of practice before heading into qualifying and a race. Especially when thinking back to the thousands of kilometres of testing Lewis Hamilton was given before he stepped off the plane in Melbourne for his grand prix debut in 2007.
But the biggest reason to be concerned about a single practice session is that doing so would feel like opening the door to the proliferation of sprint races across the whole calendar. Currently, single practice sessions during sprint race weekends allow for qualifying to be held on Friday evenings before sprint qualifying and the sprint race on Saturday before the grand prix on Sunday. Going down to a single practice session would either lead to two-day grand prix weekends, or, to justify keeping a three day weekend, see calls for every round to become a sprint race weekend.
That may appeal to many within the sport and even some reading this, but alongside Max Verstappen and the many others who would prefer for the grand prix to remain the special event that it is, hopefully the current weekend format remains for the foreseeable future.
Do you agree that F1 should reduce practice sessions and have just a single hour-long session every grand prix weekend?
Do you agree that F1 should switch to a single one-hour practice session for all rounds?
- No opinion (1%)
- Strongly disagree (57%)
- Slightly disagree (21%)
- Neither agree nor disagree (3%)
- Slightly agree (7%)
- Strongly agree (11%)
Total Voters: 145
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