A spirit of experimentation, of not just settling for the established way of doing things, is a good thing. It’s healthy to think that way, isn’t it? That’s why Formula 1 and its managing director Ross Brawn should be commended for adopting such a mentality, especially in what tends to be a conservative sporting world. But with the greatest respect, I still reckon they’ve got it wrong on Saturday afternoon sprint races.
The two we’ve had so far, at Silverstone and Monza, were predictable: a flurry of action on the first lap followed by a 100km procession that lasted around half an hour. I’m with Sergio Perez, who in Italy branded it “very boring” and suggested it didn’t “bring anything” to the weekend for the drivers and the public. All the sprint did was emphasise something else we already know: overtaking is tough in F1, even on Monza’s long straights, even with DRS and even with a little more variation on tyre strategy. Interlagos is one of the best tracks for wheel to wheel racing in the world, so the third and final sprint race of 2021 might well be better. The spectacle absolutely should be better in 2022, if – when – the experiment continues, because the new generation of F1 car has been designed specifically to offer better racing. If it isn’t there really will be a problem. But I’d argue we’ve already seen enough of sprints. Time to try something else.
Brawn, of course, won’t agree with that. He’s an enthusiastic advocate for the idea and was quick on the defence in his official post-race Monza reflections this week. “There have been many comments made about the F1 Sprint after we ran it for the second time in Italy,” he said, perhaps with a hint of pique. “In my opinion, there were plenty of positives to take. It shook up the order and led to a slightly evolved grid, which in turn created a different dynamic in the race.”
He also made the point that the sprint “delivered the strongest ever weekend streaming numbers we’ve ever seen on our OTT platform F1 TV”, and that’s the significant key as to why the sprint isn’t going anywhere. Brawn’s paymasters at Liberty Media are in this for the numbers when it comes down to it, and in the midst of the massive shockwaves the pandemic continues to create for F1, something that is clearly good for business and pulling at eyeballs will be clung on to. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing from a sporting perspective, which is the priority for the rest of us.
Olympic 100m champion Lamont Marcell Jacobs helped boost sprint qualifying streaming figures
Dan Isitene/F1 via Getty Images
At first, my concern was a standing start that has no differentiation from a proper grand prix getaway would dilute the Sunday main event. But I’ll admit in reality that’s not too much of a problem. For me, the main reason the sprint clunks is that F1 just doesn’t work as a short-form sport. It’s not cricket, which is adaptable to one-day, Twenty20 and The Hundred format that has recently proved a hit, while five-day Tests remain as the premier version of the game in the minds of players and die-hard fans. In motor sport, a half-hour is perfect for good club and national-level races, but it’s just not long enough for F1, and racy starts from Fernando Alonso, Perez throwing it off at Silverstone and Pierre Gasly ruining his weekend at Monza in the early stages don’t add up to a raging success in my book. Unless there is significant differentiation to the race format, the sprint is just the first third of a grand prix without the prospect of the narrative development that occurs over a full race distance.
Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto raised the reverse grids idea again
Now, that might sound like I’m about to suggest reverse grids, doesn’t it? How else could we create real differentiation? Well… Never! Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto raised that hoary old idea once again at the weekend – why, Mattia? Why? – and it’s just wrong, wrong, wrong for F1. Reverse grids are a great idea for touring car racing, but for F1 it smacks of desperation. For all its flaws and faults, F1 must aspire to be a genuine meritocracy and throwing in random factors – don’t even get me started on Bernie Ecclestone’s stupid old sprinkler idea – is just naff. There has to be a line for anything calling itself grand prix racing, and reverse grids and fake rain are so far over it they really should be out of sight by now. Banish the idea once and for all, please.
So if differentiation from grand prix distances to short-form sprints is hard, without F1 selling out completely, what’s the answer? We should look at alternative ideas, surely. You’ll have your own, I’m sure. But before we go there, let’s consider Brawn’s view once more because the great man makes valid points why just settling for what we’ve got is lazy and just won’t wash.
“We had three days of excitement and tension,” he wrote this week. “Ordinarily, you only get two days. I firmly believe the whole event was improved – and, as I said, effectively shook up the order for the Grand Prix.
“Formula 1 has been brave enough to carry out this experiment and give an opportunity to review this format. Let’s not forget, the format hasn’t changed in F1 for decades. I think it offers a lot – and we still have a track to try it on. Then we’ll make an objective assessment and work out a way forward.”
Garlands gave way to big medals for the second sprint qualifying run at Monza
Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images
Fair enough. As he hints, two free practice sessions on a Friday aren’t exactly thrilling. They’re great for engineers, at least when drivers keep their noses clean and the cars don’t break down. If programmes are completed, those sessions lay the groundwork for a successful Saturday and Sunday. But free practice ignores the TV and trackside audience and in 2021 that’s no longer acceptable. Fridays do need a shake-up and if F1 is to stick with three-day race meetings – which it will because of the promotional and revenue benefits – the first day needs to mean something beyond the pit walls and garages.
Alonso stirred the pot with a suggestion in Italy, making mention of one-shot qualifying. It’s nothing new, of course, and was last used in 2005. But a version adapted for Friday would offer a great palate cleanser, especially if it counted for world championship points. Run in championship order, last to first, it’s simple to understand, highlights out-and-out performance as F1 should, and offers a more engaging narrative that a processional race in which nothing much happens after the first lap. There is natural jeopardy in that track conditions and the weather might change over the course of the session, for better or worse for those at either end of the championship – but because it’s not contrived that’s just tough. Luck has and always will be part of the game in motor sport. In any sport, in fact.