Start, Shanghai International Circuit, 2024

With fourth format change in as many years, F1 relegated sprint races to a sideshow

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The first experience of Formula 1’s latest iteration of its sprint race format posed a question: Have the series’ efforts to gradually improve the sprint race format relegated it to an irrelevance?

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said his sprint race plan had “great feedback from everyone in the sport” when he introduced it in 2021. But changing the format four times in as many years since then proved it is much less than the irresistible success F1 portrays it as.

The latest change is the second significant concession F1 has made its critics. The first came last year, when F1 abandoned the practice of using sprint races to determine the starting order for the grid, restoring the importance of traditional qualifying sessions.

This effectively decoupled sprint races from the rest of the grand prix weekend and made them extra mini-events in their own right. Now it has its own version of Formula 2 and Formula 3’s standalone sprint races, though only at certain rounds.

Lando Norris, McLaren, Shanghai International Circuit, 2024
Norris was underwhelmed by his sprint race pole position
The second change, this year, is even more significant, as sprint races have been dropped from the second-highest billing on an F1 race weekend. Instead of occupying roughly the same time slow at the grand prix, they now take place early on Saturday.

Instead of its former high billing, for spectators the sprint race served preamble to the grand prix qualifying session later in the day. Its timing meant drivers had an extra incentive to be more cautious in the race, and especially at the start, as any damage might have prevented them qualifying well for the grand prix, where almost three times as many points are available.

There was no reason to expect the latest change would make the sprint races more exciting and there’s no indication it did. While Saturday’s sprint race wasn’t as processional as many of the dozen which preceded it, that was thanks to rain during the previous day’s qualifying session.

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The drivers greeted proceedings with their now customary shrugs. After taking pole position for the sprint race Lando Norris said he was “sad it’s not for a proper qualifying.” Verstappen felt the format change was “better, a bit more straightforward, I would say, but let’s not over-do it.”

Helmut Marko, Max Verstappen
Marko and Verstappen are not fans of sprint races
One senior figure in the sport struck a balanced view about the benefits and drawbacks of the format change. Hekmut Marko admitted it had an appeal for promoters, but fails to satisfy him as a fan.

“Red Bull organises the Austrian Grand Prix [and sprint races] are simply a bonus for the spectators and therefore for the organiser that the fans are offered a qualifying on Friday and a race on Saturday,” he told Speed Week. “These two days are therefore easier to market than the classic weekend format. That’s the commercial side.

“On the sporting side, I’m more of a fan of the traditional process because a sprint takes something away from the main event. In addition, because the competitors only have one free practice session, the coordination can be wrong, as happened to us two years ago in Brazil. With the regulations at the time, under which hardly any changes to the car were allowed, a race was as good as lost.

“Conclusion on the sprint: as an organiser yes, as a racing fan no.”

The early starting time for the sprint race gave the impression of getting it all out of the way before the proper action began. Having relegated them to a sideshow, the most sensible move F1 could make now would be to quietly drop them with the minimum loss of face over an experiment which has failed.

Instead, with no room to grow the 2025 F1 calendar as the current limit of 24 rounds has already been reached, expect them to offer more sprint race rounds at a premium to promoters as a means of continuing to increase the sport’s revenues.

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Keith Collantine
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34 comments on “With fourth format change in as many years, F1 relegated sprint races to a sideshow”

  1. Finally dr. Marko has a relevant contribution I guess. Yeah, I have to say that for me the new format is a more convenient way of not having to pay attention to the sprint, never having warmed to it, at all. That does sort of match with the conclusion in the title, doesn’t it?

    One big contributor is that the sprint is run more or less (as a variant of) the same as a short GP, and with the same cars, that no matter what means anything learned from the sprint takes away unknowns from the race, and that the drivers and teams have a lot of incentive to keep the hardware in as good a condition as possible before the main event.

    I do suppose that for organizers that hardware is part of the appeal. But it does feel like switching to using different cars (f2/f3 so we could finally see drivers in ~equal equipment?) with maybe characteristics that lend themselves more to fun overtaking without worry for preserving tyres, cars, PU would in the end be a better choice. It’d still leave the big name drivers in the game after all.

    1. I luv chicken
      25th April 2024, 13:11

      Wasn’t the sprint actually tried in the late 70s and 80s with the M1 series, which accompanied F1 races? And what happened to that?

      1. If they could find a sports car manufacturer to foot the bill, they might do it again “I luv chicken”. But no, it had really nothing at all to do with sprint races at the time.

  2. The newest format, or rather precise session order is the best thus far & personally, I’m okay with 6, but I wouldn’t mind if the sprint amount increased further either, be that to 12 rounds or whatever.

    1. I agree that this newest format is the best by far, and I am also okay with 6 sprint races, but I would rather see half as many of them in an already crowded season.

  3. Don’t think for a minute that’s the end of changes, or for that matter they’ll stick to just 6 of these abominations.

    Ross Brawn, right from the very start wanted reverse grids. I expect they’ll be introduced sooner rather than later.

    After that we’ll see an increase in numbers of the, until ultimately some events will be multiple sprints with no long format race.

    And all the while we’ll be told how the fans really like them.

    1. That what I fear as well.

      It’s quite ridiculous how much time and effort they have spent to fix things that are not broken (weekend format), while they could have used the same energy for trying to fix real problems, like how to get rid of DRS or get more teams, you know, things that all fans want. Instead of thinking how to to make more money, always think what’s the best for the sport. That’s the motto.

  4. Something I would say regarding Hekmut Marko’s comments is that having a sprint doesn’t appear to have done much from a promotional/attendance/ratings POV as something that came up last year was promoters saying that having a sprint event wasn’t driving more ticket sales or bringing more fans in on a Friday/Saturday.

    Additionally on the TV ratings side from what i’ve been told several times since sprints were introduced; They haven’t improved ratings on Friday/Saturday as with the format used before this year the Friday qualifying sessions were drawing smaller audiences than they do on Saturdays, The Sprint qualifying drawing a similar audience to what FP3 typically does & the sprint race itself drawing fewer viewers than the qualifying in that Saturday afternoon slot typically did.

    In terms of the change for this year i’ve not seen or been told what the ratings were but given the time zone I don’t think conclusions could really be drawn from them anyway.

    But outside of that as I said last year the metrics for sprint weekends were down in terms of overall fan engagement on social media etc.. The belief been that the fans who dislike the format were simply not watching and/or just not engaging online and that it also suggested that the format also wasn’t bringing in a newer/younger audience as hoped.

    1. In other words, it is largely a failure?

      Is it telling that when i woke up on saturday, I thought I might just watch the sprint, or at least the short version of it on F1TV, but then I saw qualifying was already up so went with live qualifying instead where i got told who won, and over the first 5 minutes or so learnt the rest of the top results including some stuff about the intense fight between Alonso and Sainz which made me relieved i wouldn’t have to bother with the sprint at all?

      I guess that is a rather common experience then.

  5. F1 again let itself be talked (pressured) into compromise when it introduced the sprints initially.
    Had they been reverse grid from the outset everyone would either be happier to watch them, or happier to skip them altogether, if so inclined.
    Making the sprint race fundamentally different from the GP (in ways other than length) would be a massive benefit, both for those who want to watch sprints, and for those who don’t. The more attractive the sprints are as a product in their own right, the more money Liberty and the teams can make from them. People want memorable races filled with action and unpredictability – not mini GP’s with too much risk avoidance.

    And if they must insist of the sprints being separate from the championship – then why wouldn’t they want them to be the best and most entertaining they can be? Go crazy – it won’t affect the GP.

  6. I have always considered them to be a sideshow.

    What concerns me the most is that someday there may be a massive incident during a Sprint race that affects a drivers (or his teams) ability to compete in the genuine F1 race that weekend … or worse still beyond.
    Imagine if someone broke bones during a Sprint race and had to miss the next half a dozen races.
    Both team and driver get screwed over just so that Liberty can try to make a few more dollars.

    1. Sprints are part of the championship…. Being injured in a sprint is no different to being injured in a GP.
      Every event and session F1 holds exists for their stakeholders to make money – not just the sprints.

      1. How do the sprints make money?

        1. How do they not make money? They are sponsored and broadcast, and people pay to attend the venue to watch them.

  7. The sprint doesn’t take anything away from the race, that’s nonsense. Qualifying in it’s current timeslot however, devalues the sprint race as it’s suggested that Quali is somehow more important and/or interesting than the sprint. It makes no sense to have a session like the sprint that at least has the promise of being a nailbiter followed by the most boring session in the weekend with exactly one minute at the very end that might get interesting.

    I wish we could just get rid of Quali altogether and replace it with sprints. Or at least get one of the previous formats back.

    1. You can’t devalue something that had zero value to begin with.

      1. Exactly. Hence getting rid of qualifying is the logical step.

  8. The spectacle of Formula 1 has been fine for many decades.
    Now with “sprint race”, is the spectacle so much better?
    Does the so called “sprint race” make the actual Grand Prix race better?
    Does the “sprint race” make the whole Grand Prix weekend better for fans, teams, drivers, the cars, the broadcast, the holder of F1?

    I have my own opinion to answer these questions.
    What is your opinion?
    Maybe these are not even the correct questions to ask.

    1. My answers to your three questions:
      1. At the very least, the ‘spectacle’ isn’t any worse with sprints. It’s better than the usual 3 practices.
      2. The sprint makes the GP neither better nor worse. A ‘bad’ GP is not the fault of a sprint.
      3. Sprints make for a ‘better’ event overall for me than without. They obviously have a positive effect on those making money from F1 or they wouldn’t support them in any way at all. Teams want money, and this provides more of it to them.

      My question would be: Are the sprints the best they can be in themselves as a format?
      The answer iIMO is no – and that’s what needs to be ‘fixed.’
      Make them better. Make people want to watch them, and make people feel like they miss them when they aren’t scheduled for a particular event.
      Don’t keep compromising them to death – make them vastly different to the GP.

  9. Sprint really needs dropping, it’s not added anything of worth to F1. The fact people have to try comparing it to practice sessions to make it look “good” underlines how little they’ve added.

    1. Well, sprints don’t replace qualifying or GP’s – so I guess that makes the comparison somewhat understandable, no..?

    2. We don’t compare them to practice to make them look good, the question is: what do they replace? Practice, and to me the less of that the better, and sprints are a competitive session, so I like having more of that and less pointless sessions (in competitive terms).

  10. Whilst Sprints might not add anything in reality, last weekends schedule was much better and in reality the lineup is 100% better than having 3 practice sessions.

    There’s zero need these days for 3 practice sessions.

    1. I agree that three practice sessions feels like overkill, but I think the solution is to move to a two-day weekend, with a single practice session on Saturday morning, qualifying on Saturday afternoon and the race on Sunday afternoon. Would cut costs and make the schedule more manageable (double- and triple-headers might be more feasible if there was an extra day between race weekends).

      It may also have positive effects in relation to track evolution and teams having less time to perfect their setups, leading to greater variability in performance. To begin with, at least – I’m sure the teams would get on top of things eventually.

      1. I think the solution is to move to a two-day weekend

        That’s the opposite of solving a problem.
        Dropping to a 2-day schedule just reduces the amount of money F1 and the teams can make from each event. F1’s (and teams) costs don’t change significantly – but it really makes it harder (impossible) for promoters to recover their costs of buying their F1 event.

        No doubt it would please some people to have fewer events on the calendar – however, when most can no longer afford the event, F1 would just about be left with running a Middle-East championship only…

      2. The first thing I think about that format you suggested is “boring”, the earlier a competitive session happens in a given week, the better, and sprint quali gives that now on friday.

        I know this season is boring anyway given the domination, but if you take 2021 with the current format, we get to the real action earlier than watching 2 sprints on a friday.

      3. earlier than watching 2 practice sessions on friday*

  11. if the move the points of the sprint races outside the normal championship, then I think most purists wouldn’t have too many problems with the format at all. Instead of 3 practices you get 1, a qualifier and a short race.

    I think the only thing I would change is move the points in to a different ‘championship’ and add time to Q1 on sprint weekends so teams have time to change their setups a little easier and still make a banker before the last lap… As long as the teams get the same amount of time per weekend on track, ie FP1,2,3,Q add up to FP1,SQ,SR,Q.

    1. Have a mini sprint championship, everyone gets points. 20 for first down to 1 for last. Then! At the end of the year, the chamionship position feeds i to the main championship. Maybe 20 down to 1 again points. Would really invigorate the racing

    2. The feeling I get is that the biggest complaint is it devalues the main gp because it kinda spoils the competitive order in a race, and I can’t say this is a wrong complaint.

      I really doubt the few points sprints give are a problem, they’d only make a difference in rare seasons like 2016 and 2021, most of the time the championship contenders are so far apart there’s no difference.

  12. I found it a far better layout for the weekend, as I could treat the sprint stuff the same way I would practice sessions (out-of-the-way optional distractions) and have the ‘proper F1 stuff’ on Saturday and Sunday in their normal places. No need to worry about missing a terribly-timed Friday qualifying when I’m at work, or having to endure a two-day, engagement- and interest-sapping gap between the bits I actually cared about.

    I’d rather be rid of them entirely, but if they have to stay, this is by far the best format to date.

    1. Good to get it over with, and have the option to change setup for the Grand Prix (Lewis Hamilton might disagree).
      Wonder if the sprint race would work better last thing on Friday. Sprint Qualifying is nonsense, too short (especially in the rain) – why not stick it on the end of Friday practice?

  13. I wholeheartedly disagree. I hated the sprints when they arrived. Tying them to qualifying was ridiculous. I also hated the next iteration that placed GP qualifying on Friday. The format we just had in China has converted me to a fan of the sprint. Not because I particularly want or care for it but because it made the weekend so much more accessible for my kids. My 9 year old sat alongside me to watch the entirety of sprint qualy, the sprint race, GP qualy and the GP proper. There is no way he would have maintained interest across 3 practice sessions. The shortened format gives new fans and younger fans an opportunity to see what it’s all about and hopefully get them hooked to commit to the full races. It was such a good weekend and it felt like it just kept going which was superb!

    1. Good that this format works better for you, though a 9 year old that can keep interest throughout all 4 sessions of a weekend in such a dominant season like this is impressive, I guess very few would!

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