10th December 2023
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8 mins

We've had Sprint races for three seasons now, and they've been fairly divisive and I don't think the format has really found its feet yet. There have been a number of iterations of how it works but I think it could still be improved.

Sprint races were introduced in 2021, where they were used to set the grid for the Grand Prix on Sunday. This was the format the weekend had:

Friday: FP1, qualifying
Saturday: FP2, Sprint qualifying
Outcome of qualifying: grid for the Sprint
Outcome of Sprint: grid for the Grand Prix, points for top 3

The format was largely the same for 2022, with points for the top 8, and "Sprint qualifying" was renamed to simply "Sprint"

Friday: FP1, qualifying
Saturday: FP2, Sprint
Outcome of qualifying: grid for the Sprint
Outcome of Sprint: grid for the Grand Prix, points for top 8

2023 saw more significant changes, with the Sprints no longer setting the grid for the Grand Prix. The Sprint races now had their own qualifying session, known as a Sprint Shootout.

Friday: FP1, qualifying
Saturday: Sprint Shootout, Sprint
Outcome of qualifying: grid for the Grand Prix
Outcome of Sprint: points for top 8

The format for 2021 and 2022 wasn't great. I didn't like how the Sprint was affecting the sanctity of the Grand Prix and I think it was a really bad way to introduce it. For 2021, "pole position" went to the winner of the Sprint, not the driver that "won qualifying" (that's the way it always had to be explained by the commentators). I am a bit of a stickler for consistency when it comes to the history books, and I didn't like the idea of the result of qualifying not counting towards pole. They fixed this for 2022, but I still disagreed with the sanctity of the grand prix being affected by the Sprint after qualifying. The whole point of qualifying was you set the fastest time and you start the race at the front, easy. With this format, you could start the Sprint at the front, get punted off at the first corner, and your efforts in qualifying were essentially pointless. Granted that can happen in a race, but this format just completely broke the relevancy of qualifying for the race grid.

The other issue with this format was that cars entered parc fermé conditions at the start of qualifying on Friday, which meant the FP2 session was largely a waste of time because the teams couldn't do anything to adjust the car, having only had a single practice session to begin with.

Thankfully they took steps to fix things in 2023 and the Sprint was a standalone event, however it still doesn't feel right. We have qualifying, Sprint Shootout, Sprint, and Grand Prix. it's good that the Grand Prix grid is decided by the regular qualifying session, but the problem with the new format is it's just too much of the same. Aside from drivers screwing up their quali runs, the Sprint Shootout will largely have the same result as regular qualifying, and the Sprint race doesn't do much other than tell us how the Grand Prix will go. It feels like two qualifying sessions and two races and not enough to differentiate them.

I also don't like having qualifying on a Friday, and only having one practice session. I feel like having qualifying, a major aspect of the race week, held on a Friday means far fewer people will be able to watch it. I know F1 fans around the world have to put up with early starts for a lot of races, but something just feels wrong about having qualifying on a Friday. We also still have the issue of only one practice session. Some people say it adds to the excitement and unpredictability, but if a team mess up the setup, the car has and issue or the driver crashes, their whole weekend could be screwed. I think it makes the sense to have two practice sessions on a Friday that people may not be able to watch (apparently Toto doesn't think anyone watches them anyway), give the teams time to set the car up properly, and then have the main action on the Saturday and Sunday. If we want to reduce practice time, I think a good compromise could be scrapping FP3 instead. Combined with the change from a few years ago which shortened FP1 and FP2 to 60 minutes down from 90, teams would have two hours compared to the four they used to have, and I think that's a good balance of having time to prepare but not spending too much of the weekend with sessions that are less interesting. I'm someone who does watch every practice session, but I can see the merit in having Saturdays reserved for something more exciting.

So, the first thing I'd do is move qualifying back to Saturday and restore FP2 to Friday. But then what do we do for the Sprint grid?

The idea of reverse grids has been floated before, and received a near universally negative reaction from the drivers (Seb and Lewis were famously blunt about how stupid it was). However, I'm pretty sure that was related to the Grand Prix having a reverse grid element to it, in which case I'd agree completely, as that would be even worse than having s Sprint race to decide the grid. But why not have a reverse grid for the Sprint itself? If we're going to treat it as an isolated event, then there's more scope to change how its run without having to worry about the more traditional and core sessions of the weekend.

A reverse Sprint grid could be taken from either the results of qualifying, or championship position. The thing about using the result of qualifying is that some teams who know they'll perform poorly in the race (looking at you, Haas) may intentionally qualify worse to start at the front of the Sprint. I'm not sure if that would happen, but while there's a possibility of it being gamed, I think it'd be safer to base it on reverse championship order. I think it'd be fun to see Williams, Hass et al at the front and Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren, and Alonso (sorry Lance) fighting with each other while pushing up the field (with Alpine probably just in the middle either way). Will Max still win? I mean, probably. But I can't see how it wouldn't be more exciting getting there. To take it a step further, we could use the result of qualifying not to determine the Sprint grid, but to determine the tyre allocation, so drivers knocked out in Q1, Q2 and Q3 would have to use the soft, medium and hard tyres respectively. This might add even more chaos and unpredictability to the mix, as a faster car that's starting at the back due to good championship position but had a bad qualifying session gets a bit of an advantage by being on a faster tyre (and there'd be next to no chance of purposely qualifying lower down to get a better Sprint tyre). Maybe it would be too confusing, but it brings both championship and qualifying order into play to make for an exciting and unpredictable Sprint race.

So this would be my ideal race weekend:

Friday: FP1, FP2
Saturday: qualifying, Sprint
Outcome of qualifying: grid for the Grand Prix
Outcome of Sprint: points for top 8

This gives us two full practice sessions on Friday so teams can set the cars up properly, an exciting qualifying and reverse grid Sprint on Saturday, and the main event Grand Prix with no gimmicks on the Sunday. What would be wrong with that?

The other aspect of Sprints that needs to be addressed is the tracks they're held at. To me, a Sprint is supposed to be fast paced, so they should only be held at the shortest tracks. You want cars to be at the same overtaking opportunities again and again and again. So tracks like Red Bull Ring (Austria), Interlagos (Brazil), Monza, Imola, maybe Hungaroring and Lusail (Qatar) and even Bahrain outer circuit, all good choices. And in fairness most of the Sprints have been at these tracks. But tracks like Silverstone, Spa, Baku and Circuit of the Americas just don't feel "sprinty" to me, they're mostly the longest tracks on the calendar, and I just don't think they worked. Great tracks, lead to some excellent Grand Prix races, just not Sprint races.

I hope in 2024 we can trial some reverse grid Sprints and just see how it goes - we've tried other formats so it can't hurt, and if it doesn't work it can be changed again or scrapped altogether.

As a final thought, the one thing we definitely don't need to change about Sprints is the opening theme, which absolutely slaps: