O Opinions & Commentary

F1's new ‘Sprint’ qualifying race idea: Boon or Bust?

July 18/21 (GRW): This weekend, after much discussion and hand-wringing by fans and commentators, F1 introduced its new idea to spice up the F1 race weekends – Sprint races on Saturday in addition to Sunday’s Grand Prix. This year it is on a trial basis at a few Grands Prix; next year it could be at every F1 race. Naturally, this innovation generated lots of commentary by the media and by the fans.

Is this new idea going to make an F1 weekend more engaging or less?

This weekend’s Sprint was a short 17-lap/100-mile race – that is a ‘sprint’. The starting lineup for Saturday’s Sprint was set by the standard three-session qualifying procedure but on Friday. The finishing order of Saturday’s Sprint set the order for the standing start of Sunday’s 52-lap race (the standard distance).

I tend be unreceptive about innovations like this that are obviously aimed at pleasing the new or less engaged race fan. For example, in NASCAR, I dislike the three-stage nature of their races. In NASCAR it is the norm for a race to have many ‘natural’ caution breaks at unpredictable times –often ten or more. This is one of the strengths of this type of racing – the unpredictable cautions force crews chief and their drivers to juggle their strategy to be prepared for the unexpected; given the different choices on when to pit under green or not, the race story is uncertain and the strategy decision by crew chiefs can win or lose the race for them. In addition, these cautions lead to a fresh restart and the fans in the stands can remind themselves of the race order and the restart produces a fresh round of close-order racing action.

Adding competition or ‘end-of-Stage’ cautions simply adds more breaks in the action but it also makes the race strategy more obvious and less unpredictable for the crew chief or the race fans. That unpredictability is an important factor in engaging the race fans. I believe that the NASCAR racing before the introduction of Stage-end pit stop cycles was better. I would get rid of the Stages in NASCAR in an instant.

In a way, F1's Saturday Sprint is analogous to the first Stage in a NASCAR race. It is different in that it is run on Saturday; after that the cars are impounded until the Sunday start which in lined up in the exact order Saturday’s Sprint ended.

Despite my dislike of NASCAR’s Stages, so far I like F1's Saturday Sprint. In simple terms it is simply an extension of the Grand Prix with the addition of a first heat run on Saturday. This makes the race longer by adding the Sprint heat’s laps to the existing Sunday race distance. Given that these extra laps happen on Saturday, it gives the Saturday customer more bang for the buck – real racing is always more interesting that practice or qualifying laps. Inasmuch as this moves the familiar qualifying sessions back to Friday, this gives the Friday customer the competitive qualifying runs – better than the tedious practice sessions which are the usual Friday fare.

For sure, a short sprint like this followed by an overnight break will change the race strategy. Mandated tire usage (soft, medium or hard) goes out the window for the entire race distance. On Saturday, the short race means no tire changes – simply a 100-mile blast. For anyone who misses the tire change strategy with its undercut or overcut, the Sunday race should play out the same as it always has - with a Saturday, opening act.

There will be two more trial runs of the ‘Sprint’ concept this year – events TBA – but Italy and Brazil are suggested.

Whatever your thoughts were before or after the first trial at Silverstone, keep an open mind. For my money, I think that the concept as currently formulated will make for a more interesting racing and more enjoyable race weekends – which, for the ticket-buying fans, will be better value for money – and it will give those of us watching from home a better reason to watch F1 on Saturday.

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