The hurdles F1 needs to overcome on sprint race trials

News that Formula 1 teams offered "broad support" for the introduction of sprint races this year marked an important breakthrough for the championship.

The hurdles F1 needs to overcome on sprint race trials

After running effectively the same weekend format since knockout qualifying was introduced in 2006 - with the exception of elimination qualifying's two-race stint in 2016, and the two-day weekend at Imola last year - F1 is finally on the cusp of a major change in approach.

It marks the culmination of years of discussions over possible format changes. F1 pushed for the introduction of a reverse grid qualifying race at certain events last year, only for Mercedes to block the move, fearing it went against the DNA of the series (and, no doubt, to protect its own advantage).

The tightrope between entertainment and gimmicks was one F1 had to tread carefully when it came to possible format changes, but new CEO Stefano Domenicali quickly set out his stall. He made clear earlier this month that reverse grid plans were "over", but that sprint races were on the table for 2021.

"We are thinking if this could be tested already this year," Domenicali said. "There are discussions going on with the teams in the right forum, and I think that maybe this could be the only one thing that could be interesting."

Read Also:

Thursday's F1 Commission meeting saw teams formally discuss the plans, and unlike the reverse grid proposal, everybody was on board - a rare show of unity when it comes to switching up the weekend format, but proof of how Domenicali struck the right balance to avoid descending into gimmickry.

A statement from F1 and the FIA following the meeting said there was "broad support" for the sprint race idea, but that further ideas had to be fleshed out through a newly-formed working group. The group will aim to get a full plan formed in the coming weeks, allowing for a final decision to be taken before the start of the new season.

There are a still a series of hurdles the new working group must overcome to get the sprint race plan across the line, with further details required. But with the major one - initial team approval - secured, the rest will hopefully be a formality.

It is worth stressing that sprint races will not be a total replacement for qualifying. The plan for 2021 is to hold them at three grands prix - Canada, Italy and Brazil - as part of the push to shake up certain elements of F1 to engage new fans.

Qualifying would still take place under its current format, moving to Friday afternoon and leaving just a single practice session to take place on Friday mornings. It would form the grid for the sprint race, the result of which would then set the final starting order for Sunday's grand prix.

But one of the questions teams had in the meeting was what status the winner of the sprint race would hold. Would they hold the official 'pole position' for the grand prix? Or would that still be reserved for the regular qualifying format, making the sprint race victor an official 'race winner'?

It is a technicality that F1 will need to clarify, and not just for the sake of the record books. Driver contracts often centre around race results and wins, meaning there must be a clear definition as to what the sprint race constitutes from a legal standpoint.

There will also need to be clarity on how the addition of sprint races impacts the technical minutiae of running a weekend, namely tyre usage and part life. A tyre solution appears simple, given the teams will save sets with just one practice session. On the parts front, teams are subject to strict limits on how many power unit components they can use per year, but sprint races would undoubtedly add to the stresses placed on these parts.

There will also be questions over matters such as grid penalties, and whether or not they can be served for a sprint race instead of for the grand prix. Although it will create some new areas for the stewards to introduce penalties, there will likely be far more questions emerging from it.

The points and prize money system also needs to be clarified. The awarding of points would add some extra spice to the sprint races, and leave drivers really weighing up the risk and reward of trying to fight up the order, particularly over a race length of around 30 minutes.

Given the distance is set to be one-third of a regular grand prix at 100km, awarding points at a similar weighting would seem logical. It could point to the top six getting points on a 8-6-5-4-2-1 format, or the top eight using the pre-2010 system. It is these kind of details that have to be clarified by the working group to ensure the format is fair and does not dilute the Sunday event.

Another big question surrounds race selection. Monza was an obvious pick for this kind of format, given its high-speed nature and chances to overtake, with last year's incredible race being the trigger for fresh talks over format changes.

Interlagos and Montreal are both logical picks - again, their layouts encourage overtaking - but there will inevitably be question marks over their viability this year, considering neither race happened in 2020. It is another example of F1's faith in the existing schedule, but one question would be that if the races don't go ahead this year, would other events pick up the mantle for the sprint races?

Sprint races may still cause concern among some hardcore purist fans about the direction F1 is heading in, but it is a gentle step that should not undermine the DNA of the series at a great deal. The quickest drivers and teams won't face any penalty for succeeding, which was the fear for many.

One of the valid concerns would be what the presence of another race in a weekend format does for the grand prix itself, and whether it would take any sheen off the Sunday event. But as Jonathan Noble pointed out in his column earlier this week, the Macau Grand Prix runs a qualifying race format, and has never suffered as a result. If anything, it just adds to the entertainment and variation, often producing different winners. 

And the beauty in all of this is that it can be rolled back quite easily if required. If at the end of the year, the feedback is that sprint races were a bad idea, the fact they were only run at a handful of events makes it easy to remove. The opposite is also true: if they are a roaring success, then it can be expanded fairly easily.

With the teams on board for a trial of sprint races this year, the biggest hurdle has already been overcome. F1's new working group will iron out the details, but once clarity arrives in the coming weeks, it should give another reason to get excited for the 2021 season - and has to be considered an impressive early success in Domenicali's premiership.


Related video

Alonso undergoes surgery for jaw fracture after cycling accident

Previous article

Alonso undergoes surgery for jaw fracture after cycling accident

Next article

Ranked: Top 10 McLaren Formula 1 cars

Ranked: Top 10 McLaren Formula 1 cars
Load comments

About this article

Series Formula 1
Author Luke Smith
The Barcelona practice times that prove Red Bull has hidden pace Prime

The Barcelona practice times that prove Red Bull has hidden pace

Lewis Hamilton led the way in Friday practice for the 2021 Spanish Grand Prix, but there was one major encouraging sign for Red Bull. However, making good on that gain will require Max Verstappen to avoid repeating a mistake that left him well down the FP2 order...

Formula 1
May 7, 2021
Why McLaren doesn’t doubt Ricciardo can escape his ‘dark’ place Prime

Why McLaren doesn’t doubt Ricciardo can escape his ‘dark’ place

Three points finishes from as many starts represents a decent opening innings on paper, but Daniel Ricciardo has endured a tough start to his McLaren career - only magnified his teammate's excellent form. Yet both he and the team have good reason to expect a turnaround soon.

Formula 1
May 6, 2021
What needs to “change” for Red Bull is ending Verstappen’s errors Prime

What needs to “change” for Red Bull is ending Verstappen’s errors

OPINION: Going up against the dominant force of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton was always going to demand the best from Red Bull and Max Verstappen. But after making a couple more errors during the Portuguese Grand Prix, the Dutch driver showed there's a small gap he still needs to close in the 2021 Formula 1 title fight.

Formula 1
May 5, 2021
The "subtle" Red Bull upgrades that kept it in the Portugal F1 mix Prime

The "subtle" Red Bull upgrades that kept it in the Portugal F1 mix

Red Bull's Portuguese Grand Prix fortunes were decidedly second best to Mercedes', but the result skews the potential that the team had at Portimao. With a new set of updates, the team looks good going forward into the rest of 2021's spicy F1 competition

Formula 1
May 3, 2021
Portuguese Grand Prix driver ratings Prime

Portuguese Grand Prix driver ratings

The 2021 Portuguese GP will for several drivers go down as a weekend of missed opportunities amid imperfect track conditions that caused struggles with tyre warm-up. But the performances of a select few stood out from the crowd

Formula 1
May 3, 2021
The five key tests Hamilton passed to claim Portugal victory Prime

The five key tests Hamilton passed to claim Portugal victory

Just as he did in 2020, Lewis Hamilton had to come from behind to win the 2021 Portuguese Grand Prix. Only this time there were two rivals he had to pass, among the several challenges he had to overcome, on his way to securing a 97th grand prix victory

Formula 1
May 3, 2021
Imola 1994: Memories from Ayrton Senna’s F1 rivals Prime

Imola 1994: Memories from Ayrton Senna’s F1 rivals

The tragic events of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix changed Formula 1 forever. Here, 17 of the drivers who took part explain how they coped with the devastating deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.

Formula 1
May 1, 2021
The data that leaves both Red Bull, Mercedes uncertain of supremacy Prime

The data that leaves both Red Bull, Mercedes uncertain of supremacy

Lewis Hamilton topped the crucial FP2 session on Friday as F1 returned to Portugal, but his Mercedes team cannot be sure it has the edge on its Red Bull rivals. As cool temperatures and wind combine with the still-slippery surface to present drivers with quandaries over set-up and tyre warmup, there's still everything to play for come qualifying.

Formula 1
May 1, 2021