F1 wants to make practice more exciting — at what cost to the race?


F1's free practice sessions should be scrapped in favour of a more entertaining format, according to the series' CEO, Stefano Domenicali. Is it unrealistic to demand non-stop excitement throughout a grand prix weekend? asks Chris Medland

Alfa Romeo F1 car with flow vis paint at 2023 preseason testing

Test and practice sessions give engineers a chance to see real-world performance of new parts

Florent Gooden / DPPI

What’s the old adage: ‘Practice makes perfect’? Well, not according to Stefano Domenicali it doesn’t.

Domenicali was at the MotoGP season-opener in Portugal this weekend where he told Sport TV: “I am a supporter of the cancellation of free practice sessions, which are of great use to the engineers, but that the public doesn’t like.”

And with that he’s given me one of my favourite topics to talk about, but first I should be fair to the Formula 1 CEO and outline exactly what he meant by “the cancellation of free practice sessions”. F1 sources insist it wasn’t intended to sound like the Italian wanted to get rid of them, but instead highlight his preference to make such sessions more engaging.

Take the MotoGP race he was at as an example. Now with a sprint race at every round (in the case of bikes it’s a standalone short race that hands out points but doesn’t set Sunday’s grid, with qualifying doing that for both races), there is one fewer practice session and no warm-up, but the combined results from Friday’s practice sessions determine the riders going straight into Q2 in qualifying. There’s something riding (pun intended) on every day.

Barcelona main straight during practice for 2022 Spanish Grand Prix

Friday practice at Barcelona: more competitive running could fill grandstands

Eric Alonso/Getty Images

And it’s that latter point that gave Domenicali something to talk about. F1’s race weekend format has been under constant review, particularly after an attempt to fit all activities into a three-day weekend of Friday-Saturday-Sunday. The aim there was to remove Thursday as a media day and push back the first practice session so that teams could arrive one day later at each event, allowing the calendar to expand further.

That went well didn’t it? The format has reverted to its previous set-up of activities at the track from Thursday to Sunday but more races still being added regardless.

While Domenicali appears to have cleverly found ways of adding more races without too much pushback, he now wants to make sure promoters are getting the best value for money possible (and in turn allow F1 to keep charging huge hosting fees) by increasing the entertainment factor.

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One such idea that has been floated is similar to that of MotoGP, with the sprint not impacting the grand prix itself, and instead Saturday seeing a separate qualifying for the main race on top of the Friday schedule. But even if that were to come to pass, it’s only currently going to impact six events.

With at least 18 other races intended to take place each season, that’s 18 times where F1 isn’t happy with the interest level because Friday’s two practice sessions don’t carry a competitive element to them. And I’m torn on this one.

Regular readers (you have my apologies) may remember towards the end of last year I stated how I’m a fan of the sprint format because of the additional competitive edge it gives to a race weekend, with one fewer practice session and one additional race. F1 has tended to have significant amounts of practice time and it felt like a good trade.

So while I am in favour of reducing the amount of free practice that takes place during a race weekend if it means more sessions that are competitive, I do push back on the idea of cancelling practice altogether – whether that was the intended point to be taken from Domenicali’s comments or not.

Lewis Hamilton passes Max Verstappen in the 2022 Brazilian GP sprint

F1’s sprint races have brought added entertainment to Saturdays

Getty Images

Formula 1 is a global championship, and claims to be the pinnacle of motorsport. And like any elite sport, the competitors need to be able to train and practice and hone their skills. The lack of in-season testing – and even of pre-season testing now, though the three days did feel like the right amount for this year – restricts so much of the work to be done via simulator, and really limits the opportunities for drivers to actually practice driving the car they will race all year.

Something like Formula 2 provides a harsh training ground for young drivers because of the total of 45 minutes of practice time before heading into qualifying and two races, but then it’s a spec series where the car isn’t changing race-to-race – only the conditions and track – and there are much more limited set-up adjustments that can be made.

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That’s not the case in F1, where the constant updating of cars in search of more performance is one of the sport’s most intriguing aspects, and the technological challenge is something that makes it so special to more than just the drivers.

Domenicali is right that practice is of great use to the engineers, but the hint of whataboutism in saying the public doesn’t like it is slightly concerning. Not everything has to be everything to everybody. You can’t create a race weekend schedule that works for every single fan around the world, nor that provides the exact same amount of entertainment to each one.

At which stage do you remember to perfect the core product – the racing – and stop trying to make every single second of a race weekend as enticing? Surely if you held a grand prix on each day, that would dilute the overall attraction of each one and you’d still have certain days watched more intently than others.

Ferrari mechanics fit front wing to Charles Leclerc F1 car

Testing restrictions mean practice is the only regular opportunity to try new components

Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images

It’s one of the points I was trying to make in last week’s column about Red Bull, as F1 worries about the dominance and how fans who became hooked in 2021 might lose interest. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a desire to improve things – far from it – but having a brilliant season and then seeing a negative because others aren’t as brilliant is the wrong way to view it in my opinion.

Not every single thing has to be incredible and amazing and exciting at all times, or even can be. Much more low-key events such as practice sessions are acceptable if they facilitate a better overall product when it comes to qualifying and the grand prix itself.

Feel free to look into changes for that reason Stefano, but not because you want to get the same viewing and attendance figures for a Friday practice as you do a grand prix.