So, Formula 1’s indecisiveness strikes again at the heart of yet another heated battle for the season’s helm. Ok maybe the latter isn’t factually correct, but at least the former is. After a long and yearning pre-summer (?) break, Formula 1 is finally back out on Baku streets this weekend and as one of the six venues to hold a Sprint race this season!
Alright that’s great, so where’s the problem? The Sprint format overhaul, is where the pangs lie. In its third edition of Sprint regulation tweaks, the rules now bear an attempt to reap more racing action (read, crispy Benjamins) throughout the weekend (as if 20 cars zipping in and around Baku hasn’t been historically exciting enough).
A short run-down of the new rulebook: headlining the news is just one practice session on Friday, following which is the standard (Saturday) Qualifying that sets the Sunday Grand Prix grid, ending Friday action. Do note that it is at the start of this qualifying session that the parc ferme rules come into effect, and each car’s setup is locked henceforth for the weekend.
Saturday comes off as the Russian Matryoshka doll equivalent of Formula 1 weekends, with an entire weekend’s important action taking place on that day itself. While specifications-wise the Sprint remains unchanged: a 100km dash with no compulsory stops, free tire choices and the same top-8 points’ distribution, the day begins with the sprint grid-setting “Shootout”, the Sprint race taking place thereafter.
And that’s it, the stakes and ramifications of Sprint are snapped off right there.
On paper, it is indeed a potentially greater drama-inducing change
F1’s think tank thinked out the new sprint format with hopes of improved content, and rightfully so. With only an hour’s worth of practice data (while TOTALLY disregarding the teams not having access to high performance simulating, AI and supercomputing tools rendering out their backend trials and errors on circuits they have driven plenty), there is significantly more to lose, so much so that a viewer can now place their race victory bets as early as on Friday! Trackside, teams now have less time to snoop around on the competitions’ setups, less opportunities for our superhuman drivers running off into turn 1, and Toto Wolff to cry on about how the W14 was a disaster to fan service.
Come Saturday, a progressively tighter sprint qualifying will once again give the teams less headroom for Q3 trial runs in addition to stricter tire rules, so drivers will have to eke out laps based only on their limited runs. With the stage set for the Sprint, the five lights go off and everyone fights for a handful of points and glory (and the obnoxiously ugly Crypto.com medal) having less to worry about the effect that this gladiator battle has on Sunday.
So, where really is the problem with this format?
You see, the Sprint was originally incepted to make the GP strategies more risk-prone. Taking a page out of Formula 2’s books, where the Saturday sprint race determined Sunday’s feature race start albeit in a reverse grid order and the latter having a more lucrative points grab. And in F1, it did improve the weekend spectacle; Hamilton’s Sao Paolo 2021 dash from last to 10th speaks volumes as one of the greatest ever race recoveries in history.
Now, 2021 had only the top 3 squeeze out extra points from the Sprint race, so 2022 made it worthwhile for the drivers P1 through P8. However in hindsight, the new regulations and a more stringent cost cap made the teams wary of the unwanted risks of sprint accident, eventually reaching a point of diminishing returns in terms of racing. The ’23 season thus called for further changes and after some weirdly last minute deliberations, the aforementioned format was adopted.
But much to the fan base’s dismay.
Stefano Domenicali and his contingent of baked managers devised a plan to chalk out more racing and woo the “new-age” Netflix-tethered fans, with a newfound expectation of 2021-levels of drama out of every race. At the same time, the cost cap happened to be hitting teams so hard on their backs that Red Bull can no longer keep up with their catering bills, Mercedes forgot to make their car fast, and Ferrari’s engines decided to call a strike (got to slander everyone equally to not get cancelled, after all). On top of that, everyone is pretty much fighting for 2nd place considering Red Bull are jet-packing ahead of the rest on points.
In such a scenario, teams have already started pulling their punches on any potentially risky behaviour, as repair costs would only be a nail in the already tight coffin of innovation in F1. Especially in a tight street circuit like Baku where, well, shrapnel have always flew off in some form or the other. F1 expecting teams to duke it out against one another in a Sprint race at a time when even some Grand Prix moves can be deemed costly, despite a $300k extra allowance for weekends as such, seems counter intuitive at best. To add to the disarray, with the upper midfield so sparse in terms of performance and points being awarded to the top 8 only, one can only expect potential fights around the tail end of the points bracket. Except, those teams might just choose to consider the faux-race session as a test-bed for Sunday or following weekends if they’re out of points contention anyways, and with no penalties incurred affecting the latter either.
My grievance with Formula 1 lies in…
Of course, free practice sessions do not gather as many viewers as qualifying or the race itself. So in figuring out an effective way to monetise a bleakly used weekend time slot is good only for the management and the money machines. Promising an “action-filled” weekend where teams and drivers themselves are publicly vocal on the futility of changes is really not in the interest of the sport as a whole, even though on paper it might seem to bring about a faintly shinier glitter. In fixating car setups on Friday itself, there is a limited opportunity for teams to tweak around on race-altering characteristics that could have otherwise governed their race pace, which in reality could have brought in more action.
Instead of making do with a sham racing spectacle, improving on overall racing norms, tightening in on actual innovation towards the sport and its entities, and making it easier and more interesting for newcomers to learn the traditional ways of Formula 1 racing without adapting the entire sport’s mechanisms to the newer fan base, thereby putting ardent racing purists at a weird crossroads should have been higher up F1’s priority. For example, like in lieu of creating a low risk-taking environment for the teams on Saturday, had the FIA shifted the race qualifying and parc ferme freeze on Saturday, there would still be something unusual to expect from the sprint race.
In fact, changes like the shortening of the main straight DRS zone are in fact welcomed by most, as in doing so, the effectiveness of the faster teams’ DRS can be limited for a better shot at overtaking. Now, all of this is not to say that the Azerbaijan Sprint will not sprint up any action or drama. As a matter of fact every race in Baku has been worth great words, but the outlook that FOM has at this moment regarding improving race weekends seems to be driven by factors well beyond racing interests.
Ok, rant’s over
As much as I am critical of these new changes, I love this sport will all my heart and would always want to see reforms make changes for the better. I truly hope these work to make F1 a better sport, but the current trajectory doesn’t seem to serve a fruitful and healthy goal. And it’s not just an internet nobody like me with an opinion as such: even drivers aren’t supportive at all regarding this change, with Max Verstappen even candidly threatening his departure from Formula 1 if such an anti-racing trend continues.