A GP in two parts: what F1's sprint races will look like


Is a Formula 1 sprint race a step too far? Adam Cooper looks at how they'll change the race weekend and the financial settlement that convinced the teams to sign up

Start of the 2021 F1 70th anniversary Grand prix

Silverstone is tipped to host one of the sprint race trials in 2021

XPB/Grand Prix Photo

After much debate among between the teams, the FIA and the Formula 1 organisation over the past couple of years, Monday saw formal confirmation via a vote of the F1 Commission of the introduction of sprint qualifying races within this season.

The basic principles were agreed some time ago, and latterly the main discussion concerned finances. With that thorny subject resolved, today was a matter of formality, with rubber stamping by the World Motor Sport Council to follow.

The change is sure to generate a mixed reaction, but for now it is just a three-race experiment. The official release doesn’t say, but Silverstone and Monza will be the first venues. The third will be a late season flyaway – at the moment it’s supposed to be Brazil, but that could well change.

If the format works then it could become an established feature in 2022 and beyond. If it flops, it may well be quietly dropped at the end of this year.

The main thing to understand is that there are no reverse grids, and no artificial handicapping. You can almost think of it as an extended single event with the first chunk run on Saturday, and an overnight red flag with the cars then resuming, after some fettling, with full tanks and new tyres.

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The details of the format have been discussed at length in separate meetings of team principals and team managers. The latter group are experts at dissecting any new regulations, and their discussions will have considered every possibility.

So how will it work? Well much like last year’s two-day Emilia Romagna GP weekend at Imola, a result of tight transport schedules but also a handy chance to experiment, there will be a single free practice session in the morning and qualifying in the afternoon.

A sole practice session is bound to create some jeopardy, and give teams limited opportunity to hone their cars – in fact it’s even tougher than Imola last year, as for 2021 free practice sessions were trimmed from 90 minutes to just 60. There will clearly be a focus on one-lap performance ahead of the afternoon’s qualifying session.

The lack of running provides an extra challenge for this year’s three rookies, none of whom have driven an F1 car at Silverstone and Monza.

Red Bull of Alex Albon at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix

This year’s rookies are likely to have just one hour of practice before qualifying at Monza

Florent Gooden/DPPI

Qualifying then takes place as normal and forms the grid for the Saturday afternoon sprint. After the start of the Friday qualifying session, cars will be in parc fermé, with changing of “major components” forbidden.

F1 says that this is to “stop the construction of special qualifying cars” and to “limit the number of hours required for preparing the car for the following day.” However the rules will “allow enough reconfiguration of the cars to make Saturday morning free practice a useful session.”

FP2, again just an hour, will clearly solely about longer runs and honing the car in race trim – both for the afternoon sprint and Sunday’s full distance race.

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Few details have been released about how the sprint races will work other than they will be held over 100kms, which at both Silverstone and Monza equates to around 17 laps. The top three finishers will earn points on a 3-2-1 basis.

The cars then go into a full parc fermé, just as they do now after qualifying. Weight distribution can be altered, and cooling inlets adjusted if the FIA officially declares that there’s been a change in ambient conditions before the race. Sunday runs as normal, except that the grid is formed in the sprint race finishing order, and there’s no requirement that the top 10 must start on the tyres they ran in Q2 and so on.

That rule has become obsolete anyway since the quickest drivers began to consistently get through Q2, and start the race, on the medium tyre – giving them an advantage over those immediately behind.

Much of the detailed discussion among the team managers has revolved around how the current tyre allocation is shared out over this new weekend format. That also had to incorporate how intermediate and wet tyres fit in should some or indeed all of the track sessions see rain.

The team principals were more concerned with the financial side – the feeling was if teams are putting on an extra TV show, they should be paid for it. The final agreement is understood to be for $150,000 (£108,000) per team per sprint race – in other words each team will get an $450,000 (£324,000) bonus payment from F1 for the three events. Not much in the scheme of things, but all helps…

The other big concern for teams was the potential cost of extra damage incurred, as they rightly pointed out that a 17-lap race, and in particular an extra start, was more risky than normal qualifying. That was significant in the context of a budget cap that has forced the big teams to account for everything they spend, and risk penalties should they go over the limit.

“We need to protect the DNA of the sport. A pre-final on a Saturday is not a grand prix.”

The eventual compromise, only for cars that retire or pit after incidents, was a sort of “insurance” equating to $100,000 (£72,000). It’s not added to the cap, but will be a “downward adjustment” when each team’s overall spending for the year is added up. Pirelli tyre testing costs, which are seen as outside the actual racing programme, are treated in a similar way.

All of that is internal housekeeping for the teams, and of little interest to fans and purists. What really matters is what will it do to the show. The reality is nobody really knows, which is why this is basically a live experiment, one that Liberty Media was determined to undertake.

It could well be that at Silverstone, apart from a few first lap place changes, the entire field completes the 17 laps in the original qualifying order, and then everyone will wonder what the fuss was about.

Contrary to what some might think, a lot of thought has gone into what fans might be happy with, which is why any reverse grid nonsense was abandoned long ago.

However, those who signed off on the new format may have missed something that will only become apparent after it’s been tried a couple of times. A lot of people work on Fridays for example, and while they have a sprint race bonus on Saturday, they will now not be able to watch proper one-lap qualifying.

“I think probably we share the mindset that we are racing purists and we know of the importance of the grand prix,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said last month. “It’s always been like that and we mustn’t dilute the attraction of that singular event happening Sunday afternoon as somehow a cornerstone of everybody’s weekend.

“Now, we have always been very reluctant to change that traditional format, and I have seen some experiments in other race series where they have put in a second race on Saturday and the audiences were actually quite interested.

“Having said that, it by far didn’t have the importance and tradition like F1, so we need to be really careful of how we are testing things. We are in a data-driven world. We simulate, and here we are talking about going live with something that hasn’t been simulated properly.

“So, I don’t think we want to block anything – it’s worth the experiment – but we need to be very careful with it, with the format that we have and with the responsibility we carry for F1.”

“A mixed opinion,” said Red Bull’s Christian Horner. “It’s something that the Commercial Rights Holder is keen on and I think, if you don’t try things, you never know. We’re keen to try to support the Commercial Rights Holder in having a look at it.

“Is the format right? I mean, it could just be a static Saturday race that creates a static Sunday race – but it’s another start, there’s more jeopardy, etcetera, etcetera. I think we have to give it a go. We’re interested to look at it.”

Max Verstappen celebrates winning the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Another unknown: how will sprint race wins weigh again grand prix victories?

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Horner pinpointed one of the issues with the format – a sprint race victory is not, and never will be, a grand prix victory.

“It has to be a Sunday afternoon,” he said. “It’s almost like a pre-final, this race concept that you’re winning a qualifying race – effectively you’re not a Grand Prix winner. We need to protect the DNA of the sport, the history of the sport.

“A grand prix winner should only be a guy that prevails on a Sunday afternoon. A pre-final on a Saturday is not a grand prix.”

Quite how F1’s statisticians log sprint race performances remains to be seen, while the extra points also have to be accounted for. This year even winning all three sprints will only earn a nine-point haul, but the weighting will become more significant in the future if sprints are extended to the full season. However, fastest lap points have already provided a bonus outside of actual Grand Prix results.

At the end of the day it’s an experiment, and should be treated as such. If fans don’t like it, they can make their feelings known – soccer’s recent European Super League fiasco no doubt taught F1 a good lesson about not straying too far from tradition…