'Scrap the whole thing': why Verstappen is right about F1 sprint races


F1's new sprint race format was meant to bring unmissable on-track action on Saturdays, but Max Verstappen's verdict was withering. The lacklustre result was entirely predictable writes James Elson

Max Verstappen looks sullen after 2023 Azerbaijan GP race

Not convinced: Verstappen gave a withering verdict on new sprint race format

Dan Mullan/F1 via Getty Images

Another new F1 format, another huge anti-climax. This time, it was the Azerbaijan GP edition.

The world championship predictably – and understandably – massively hyped up ‘Sprint Saturday’, a new self-contained sprint race format which contributes to championship points, but doesn’t affect the running order of a grand prix Sunday.

A qualifying session with slightly shorter knockout windows on a Saturday morning was followed by a 17-lap blast round the streets of Baku this afternoon.

However, like most previous sprint races since their introduction in 2021, the end result was lacklustre.

Saturday morning’s qualifying session did provide some thrills, a typically gung-ho Charles Leclerc had already gone fastest before nosing his Ferrari into the barrier, trailing bodywork as he sheepishly headed back to the pits.

That’s where the interest ended though.

2 Charles Leclerc 2023 Azerbaijan GP

Leclerc qualifying bump was most exciting part of ‘Sprint Saturday’

Getty Images

When the lights went out on the sprint race itself, things were of course hinging on Red Bull’s day going wrong and not ruining the contest for everyone by simply driving away.

George Russell got the job started by doggedly trying to get past Verstappen at several of the first corners, the two bashing wheels before finally getting past – much to the Red Bull man’s consternation.

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However, after a Yuki Tsunoda-enforced safety car period, Sergio Perez simply reeled in Leclerc, passed him and then kept him at bay for the following 12 laps – job done, race over.

Sky commentators Karun Chandhok and David Croft desperately hung on to the hope of Leclerc closing in on Perez slightly every now and then – to be fair, us viewers were all doing the same – but it always seemed in vain.

Verstappen had got past Russell on the restart, his bad-tempered complaints against the Mercedes driver in parc fermé afterwards probably more entertaining than anything that happened in the race.

“Scrap the whole thing,” was his verdict. “Why do we have to implement all these artificial ways to win? I got bored in [sprint] qualifying today to be honest. I enjoy when we have to put everything into one thing, like yesterday [in qualifying for the Grand Prix].”

Sergio Perez passes Charles Leclerc in 2023 Azerbaijan GP sprint race

Perez pass on Leclerc was straightforward

Giuseppe Cacace / AFP via Getty Images

Verstappen’s view was clearly coloured by his experience in the race, but his point is valid.

As we reached a stalemate up front cameras then forlornly looked to the back for the five-car battle at the rear, like someone at a party looking to find a more exciting scene from one room to another.

Cue Crofty’s time to tell you about Sky’s news ‘Battle Channel’ to focus on said squabble for the rest of the race, because sure as anything nothing was happening at the sharp end.

With almost all cars on the same tyres and no other variables, is it any surprise nothing happens?

Sky’s lead commentator put a call in to Haas boss Guenther Steiner, discussing how this sprint was now acting as a tyre test session for tomorrow – how exciting!

Meanwhile Checo had fully checked out by this point, eventually sailing to a sprint win and picking up a weird sprint tablet-shaped trophy, leaving Leclerc to fend off Verstappen, which he just about managed to do.

Surveying the lack of action, you ask yourself ‘What did we expect?’

Ultimately, whether it happens over 17, 70 or 700 laps, any racing series which bases its speed primarily on aerodynamics – i.e. meaning that when cars run together, they struggle to get to close one another – is likely to provide poor racing.

This is only compounded by a tyre stint-long ‘race’ (the thing that usually provides the interest) with almost all the cars on the same tyres and no other variables involved. Is it any surprise nothing happens?

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Mandatory pitstops could be introduced to provide more jeopardy, so could reverse grids. Otherwise, what’s the point in any of this sprint-themed charade?

It’s also difficult to deny this format dilutes the idea of a grand prix in several senses.

One is simply the prestige, with another race being held on the same weekend as the grand prix. Another is in its importance in the championship, with other championship points now available on certain Saturdays.

The last is just the notion of the grand prix in the consciousness of motor sport fans. With so much thrown at them, subconsciously differentiating between an ever-increasing number of sprint races and GPs becomes more and more difficult – it’s all just cars going round at the end of the day.

Zhou De Vries Gasly battle in 2023 Azerbaijan GP sprint race

Cameras had to focus on back of the field for any sprint excitement

Lisi Niesner/AFP via Getty Images

If F1 wants to get exciting via gimmicky means, it might as well stick all the drivers in the same car a la the ultimate rose-tinted race series, Procar – then we’ll really see who is the fastest.

Where are those old ‘A1 GP Powered by Ferrari’ cars? They were basically Ferrari F2004s. Someone dig them out!

Seeing the current grid going head-to-head in those ferocious V8s would be a lot more exciting than the next five sprint races promise to be.