Ross Brawn on F1 sprint races: 'We could have a mini championship'


More points on offer? Standalone sprint events? Pole on a Friday? Perhaps even a mini sprint championship? Ross Brawn details how sprint races could evolve in the future

sprint lead

Formula 1’s third and final sprint weekend experiment of the 2021 season will take place at Interlagos later this month, following on from the earlier trials at Silverstone and Monza.

The powers that be have long made it clear that no firm decisions on exactly what direction sprints will take in coming seasons will be made until we’ve seen the third sample. However discussions have been ongoing behind the scenes, and F1 managing director Ross Brawn has shared some thoughts on what the future might hold.

He has made it clear that there won’t be a huge revolution for next year because we are still learning about sprints. We will also have new cars and tyres in 2022, and thus the sport will have a lot to deal with.

However beyond that it seems that everything is on the table in terms of standalone events that don’t impact the grid for the grand prix, the points allocation, and how many weekends are earmarked for sprints.

“We’ve agreed with the teams that we will look towards six events for next year” Ross Brawn

“We’ve in principle agreed with the teams that we will look towards six events for next year,” says Brawn.

“There’s quite a lot of stuff we’ve got to get sorted by then. Our view is that we should take some progressive steps for next year, but not radical steps. And that’s partly because we have the new car coming along, and everyone needs to settle down. We need to see the impact of the car.

“So we’ve been relatively conservative, and evolutionary, for ’22. But we’re positive about the concept, and very pleased that F1 has been brave enough to take on trying an alternative concept in three races to see how it will work, which I think actually is a good example or a good demonstration of how we should perhaps consider things in the future.”

It’s fair to say that sprints have had a mixed reception from fans. Generally people are resistant to change, and many found the sprints at Silverstone and Monza underwhelming. However Brawn insists that there have been positive reactions.

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“I’d say that the, let’s say, the avid fans, our real dedicated fans, have not been convinced yet, they’re indifferent,” he admits. “They all watched it, by the way, they didn’t turn off. They were fascinated by it.

“But the majority of normal fans, and particularly our new fans, were positive about the concept. They particularly liked the action on a Friday, they felt it was now worth watching, which it hadn’t been before.”

“A number of drivers have commented on how they like the challenge of Friday competition” Ross Brawn

One of the frustrations for Brawn and his colleagues is that improving Friday was always one of the main targets of the sprint format, and yet many fans have focused solely on the impact of the Saturday event.

“That’s perhaps one of the points I’d like to emphasise,” says Brawn. “That we now have a three-day weekend, certainly from a fan’s perspective, and the promoters’ perspective, and I hope from the media perspective, because there must be a struggle to generate content after a Friday sometimes, with not knowing what fuel loads, tyres, etc, people are using.

“It puts quite a different nuance on the whole thing, because you get one short practice session and bang, you’re into competition. And a number of drivers have commented on how they like that, the challenge of that.

“We look at the demographics, and we seem to have engaged some more younger and casual audience fans with the sprint.

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“As I said, we’re going to be relatively conservative in the step we make next year. What we don’t want to do is lose it, because we’ve been overambitious. We need to have enough content, enough engagement to make it worthwhile. And we don’t want to spoil it by overstepping, and people feeling it’s gone too far. Plus we have the new cars next year, as I say, which in themselves are going to be quite a big story.”

Is that focus on improving Friday worth it if the Saturday sprint itself turns out to be an underwhelming procession? Brawn insists that it is.

“Personally, I think it’s a price worth paying if Saturday is not a sort of ‘crash and bang’ event. I’m not sure it was ever going to be. I think the overall weekend has improved so much that we would go with it.

“But there’s no doubt that we’re discussing with the teams how Saturday could be made a bit more challenging, a bit more engaging. I’m very optimistic that the new cars will help, because of their ability to race each other.

Valtteri Bottas with monza sprint qualifying first badge

Garlands gave way to big medals for the second sprint qualifying run at Monza

Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

“And what’s in discussion is how can we make the rewards for a Saturday greater? So there’s much more incentive to race on a Saturday in terms of points. I think probably reverse grids — I’d be quite excited by that, but I think it would be perhaps a step too far.

“But there are a few things which are on the table for discussion. The pole position [awarded to the sprint race winner and not the fastest qualifier] on Friday, which has clearly not been popular. So that’s on the agenda. The naming of the event, we all call it a race – it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck! So the naming of the event is something we want to tidy up.

“And then perhaps the points distribution for a Saturday could make it more challenging and inviting for drivers to race. That’s definitely something which is on our agenda to discuss with the FIA and the teams. Following Brazil there’ll be another get together. We’ve had the F1 Commission, it was very positive. And after Brazil we’ll start to sort out the details.”

For the three initial sprints the allocation has been a simple 3-2-1 for the top three finishers, but as Brawn indicates, that could change.

“We proposed something around a third of the points that you get in a race for the sprint,” he says. “That was the initial proposal, which was not taken up, because the feeling was that we need to see how the sprint functions first before we allocated the points.

“I think that would be the starting point for the discussion, something around that sort of order, so significant enough to be worth going for. It goes far enough down so people in low positions still want to fight for it, but not of a number that has over-influence on the championship. It will have an influence on the championship – it must have, that’s what we want – but not an excessive amount.”

One idea that definitely won’t be fast tracked for 2022 is the standalone sprint, in other words an event that doesn’t impact the grid for the grand prix but generates points in its own right.

“It’s definitely being discussed, setting the sprint as a standalone event, having qualifying for Sunday. And having a sprint very much as a standalone event, and with its own identity, and its own rewards, I think that’s a stage for the future if we do it. It’s certainly something which we’ve discussed with all the various stakeholders.”

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An independent event creates its own issues, as Brawn readily admits: “At the moment setting the qualifying for Sunday means every position in the sprint is relevant. So if you let a position slide in the sprint on a Saturday, then you’re going to start one place further back.

“So there’s an incentive from the front to the back. If you have a standalone race on a Saturday with points for the top 10, what’s the incentive for the bottom 10? In the real race there is some incentive because finishing orders can count towards championship positions.

“If you have a standalone race on a Saturday with points for the top 10, what’s the incentive for the bottom 10?” Ross Brawn

“How would you deal with a sprint where only the top six or eight or 10 get a reward, because the bottom 10 after a while would decide this isn’t worth doing? So there’s quite a lot of consideration to be put into how how you would configure a standalone race, and not cannibalise the main race, but also make it a race worth having.

“And I think we’re some way from really being able to conclude or decide what that should be, or if it should even happen.”

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“Yes, I think that’s a possibility. I think as you saw with Crypto we were able to bring in a new commercial partner, which was partly around sprints. And so therefore that could be a very appealing aspect for commercial partners.

“The trick is always to make sure we never cannibalise the main event, the race on a Sunday is the main event, it’s the grand prix. And we want to enhance that, and not cannibalise it.

“So whatever we do, we’re mindful of not detracting from the Sunday event.”

So where will the sprint events be held in 2022, and indeed beyond should there be an expansion from the currently planned six? Brawn says that all venues have indicated an interest, which is perhaps no surprise given how hard it is to get people excited about Fridays.

“Every promoter wants to have a sprint,” he says. “There’s no downside for a promoter, in that they have the addition of Friday. So Friday now becomes a proper day. And so I think it’s clear that every promoter we have would like to have a sprint.

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“I think there’s a number of factors we’ve got to take into consideration. One is the spread through the year, how do we spread these events? Probably not something that we’d want to have at the first race, probably not something we’d want at the last race.

“As we see how these cars are working and developing, what type of circuits do we want? It would be nice to have a variety. How do we judge whether we want promoters to be able to enhance their Fridays, and get more crowds in, or do we want promoters to be able to reward the crowds they have?

“We’ve had a bigger impact on a Friday than we anticipated” Ross Brawn

“If you look at Austin, they had a fantastic crowd on Friday. And that was great to see. Should we be supporting those places where they can get those crowds in on the Friday and therefore we can really make the most of it? So I think it’s a very open discussion. But in terms of the promoters, 100%, they all want it. And you can understand why.”

It’s obvious that the sprint format gives F1 something new to sell to the circuits, and a reason to bump fees up. Will we see a bidding war with the richest venues winning the right to hold sprints? Brawn plays down that possibility.

“In terms of which races we choose, the finances of F1 are always a consideration, that keeps the whole show going, as you know. The split in prize money with the teams and with F1 means the teams benefit, F1 benefits, and the promoters benefit.

“But I don’t believe it will be the determining factor in where we have these events. Because we need the right spread, we need the right circuits. We need to look at the whole thing from a reasonable distance, in terms of where we choose to have these events.”

As Brawn has made clear F1 is taking things slowly with the gentle increase from three sprints in 2021 to six next year. He admits that longer-term the number could expand significantly – and potentially across the whole season.

“Well, I agree there’s no reason why that couldn’t evolve in that way. I think we’re taking it carefully, step-by-step. And I think off the back of six, you can then decide if you want to increase the number. So I don’t think we should be afraid of doing that, because in doing that, it would be a measure of success of the sprint.

“And if that is the format for the future, then I think we’ve gone about it the right way. But equally, we may conclude that having it as a showcase event adds some interest to the season. How do you balance those two?

“If I’m frank probably we’ve had a bigger impact on a Friday than we anticipated and I’d say that Friday had pretty uniform support from most of the drivers. The only ones who were a little bit apprehensive were the rookies who didn’t get as much running on a Friday as they might have enjoyed.”

As Brawn suggested earlier, one aspect that fans definitely don’t like is that pole position currently goes to the sprint event winner, and not to the guy who was fastest in qualifying on Friday. It’s an anomaly that he says will be addressed.

“We definitely need to look at it. That’s been a consistent comment amongst fans and media and drivers that the person who does the fastest single lap with low fuel in that competition is the pole position holder. And I guess we hadn’t really considered that, if I’m honest, when we set out this new format.

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Points could be available for drivers further down the grid in the sprint race next season

“Personally I’d like to see a reversion to that being pole position. But these things are decided with the FIA and the teams. I think there is broad opinion that Friday should be pole position for the sprint weekends. So that’s something I would hope we could get through for next year.”

Even if you don’t like any aspect of the sprint format the positive is that the sport is at least trying things, and doing it arguably a more democratic process than was evident in the past, when teams could block any change.

“There is a governance process,” says Brawn, “Which I’m glad to say is a little bit more liberal than it used to be, in that depending on the timescale we need five teams or eight teams to agree with the FIA and F1. We’ve been leading the charge on the sprint, because that’s our role in F1. But it’s being contributed to by everyone.

“I’m very pleased the way the teams in particular have supported it. They’re seeing that we are doing our best to improve F1 in many aspects. But also the teams are quite right in being the elements that remind us of the things that are important to them, and their partners and sponsors.

“It’s great that F1 is working well on these sort of initiatives to see how we can take the sport forward, while still strongly respecting traditions and commitment of our fans.”