F1 sprint races get positive response but are they a mistake?

F1

Formula 1 is eager to experiment with sprint races, but is the new format a step in the right direction?

Start of Sakhir GP 2020

Reverse grids are set to be used at three races in 2021

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Formula 1 has taken a step closer to introducing Saturday sprint races, after teams backed the proposal in a meeting today. The plans are due to be developed and voted on again before the start of the season.

Stefano Domenicali, F1’s new CEO has said that he is keen to trial the format, which would set the grid for Sunday’s grand prix and award half points to teams and drivers.

The proposal to trial the concept at up to three races this year has been better received than previous ones and gained “broad support” at a meeting of the F1 Commission. The group comprises teams, as well as the FIA, motor racing’s governing body, and F1’s commercial rights holders, FOM.

An F1 statement said: “All teams recognised the major importance of engaging fans in new and innovative ways to ensure an even more exciting weekend format.

“There was, therefore, broad support from all parties for a new qualifying format at some races, and a working group has been tasked with creating a complete plan with the aim to reach a final decision before the start for the 2021 Championship.”

The sprint races are the latest attempt by FOM to experiment with the qualifying format, following several attempts to promote reverse-grid qualifying races last year.

Those were eventually taken off the table after opposition from the likes of Mercedes, but sprint races have been more positively received by teams.

Many fans, however, have been vocal in their opposition to a change in a format that they see as working. Is this solution a necessary evil to shake-up the established order or a misguided attempt at providing spectacle at the expense of authenticity?

The sprint race proposals maintain the spectacle of qualifying, only this will set the grid for the sprint race. Results from the shortened sprint event will form the order for the main event on Sunday.

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You don’t have to go too far back to the last time F1 trialled a new format to excite the fans. The elimination qualifying format of 2016 was ill-conceived from the start and ultimately fell flat on arrival.

Sprint races on the other hand have long been a part of the F1 support series show. F2 and F3 has regularly put on exciting showings and the course of a championship has never been defined by a reverse-grid sprint event. It has provided a chance for the more unfamiliar names to get their moment in the spotlight though.

The Liberty Media-owened FOM has been seeking ways of extending the racing offered over a weekend and, as far as racing DNA goes, a sprint race is hardly the most offensive suggestion that has been conjured up in recent years.

Some proposals, such as track sprinklers and success ballast, arguably take away the integrity of a championship. Countless fan surveys and F1 questionnaires have resulted in negative feedback on the topic of such concepts.

F1 managing director of motor sport Ross Brawn has been outspoken in his desire to stay away from such gimmicks in the past. He has acknowledged DRS will eventually go once the series has reached a point wheel-to-wheel racing is much closer than it currently is.

But it’s not clear whether the sprint race would increase competitiveness or simply be a novelty to make race weekends different.

If there is to be a shake-up to the format of a Formula 1 weekend, a sprint event on Saturday might be the ‘cleanest’ way of doing so. On paper, at least, the integrity of the formula will be maintained: the top teams will surely still hold the advantage based upon their true pace while midfield teams are handed an extra opportunity to gain points over a weekend.

Does the change provide the chance of a strategic car set-up play as a team focuses on earning the best grid slot for the main race? It’s unlikely. But there is room to manoeuvre if Liberty wants to tweak the changes.

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A twist to the format might add a bit of intrigue. For instance, if drivers had to begin the main race on the set of tyres they finished the sprint race with, it would open the door for a bit of jeopardy in both races and follows a system already in place from qualifying to race.

Do a driver and team opt to pit late on, sacrifice grid position in the Sunday in exchange for fresh Pirelli rubber? Or capitalise on those ahead taking such a risk to bag points in the constructors’ battle? It would be an interesting format to experiment with without taking away from the main spectacle on Sunday.

That’s even before the possibility of a big name struggling to get a clean lap in during qualifying and beginning a sprint race down the order. Ordinarily, over the course of a full race distance, the damage is usually negated by the mid-point but during a one-third distance race? A finish outside the top 10 isn’t an impossibility, and it opens up a points spot for another midfield charger.

Until the 2022 regulations arrive, we won’t know how the bigger rule changes have impacted racing. F1 says its overtaking working group has seen hugely positive numbers in simulation, but it will be a while before we see if the return to ground effect has worked or not.

F1 is a series that is arguably the most resistant to change in motor sport. Years of stable regulations can and has led to stale results while other series’ have innovated and tried something new. So why not try some things and gauge whether or not it improves racing?

The long-standing traditionalist/hardcore viewers might need more convincing or may be entirely against such plans. But if F1 hadn’t transformed at all from its original guise over 70 years ago, the conversation over sprint races would be null as it likely wouldn’t have captured and maintained interest all this time.