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Formula 1

F1's flawed sprint change proves critics right

by Glenn Freeman
4 min read

Formula 1’s first sprint event of 2024 takes place at the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend, with yet another adjustment to the format. But crucially, the tweaks made for 2024 suggest the dissenters against sprint races are right.

The changes to the order of the sessions are seen as an improvement by some - including our F1 team here at The Race - but to me, it's a downgrade that shows sprint races are irrelevant.

Moving sprint qualifying to Friday so qualifying for the grand prix can return to its traditional place on Saturday will be well-received by purists. But if sprint weekends are supposed to be F1’s way of adding bang-for-buck to each day of a race weekend, this change goes against that.

Last year, having the proper qualifying session on Friday evening meant there was a must-watch session on the opening day of track action. Now the main Friday session is the ‘take it or leave it’ watered-down battle to decide the grid for the sprint.

Again, you could argue this is a good thing: having a session as important as qualifying for Sunday’s race at a time when many fans might not be able to watch around work commitments wasn’t ideal.

But qualifying for the sprint means the highlight of a GP Friday is now a session that’s very missable. Why F1 hasn’t tried to make the sprint qualifying more distinct from the main qualifying session is beyond me. It’s just a slightly shorter version of what we already get every weekend. If we must have a separate qualifying session for the sprint, let’s do something more interesting with it. Make it worth tuning in for.

While many people didn’t like the idea of ‘Sprint Saturday’ where the sprint qualifying and race took place on the same day, primarily because it created a bigger gap between main qualifying and the grand prix, Saturday morning was a good slot for sprint qualifying. If you didn’t have the time to dedicate to watching every session, you’d probably end up prioritising main qualifying on Friday evening, the sprint race on Saturday afternoon, and the grand prix on Sunday.

The format gave fans something worth tuning into each day. And it put the rubbish, secondary qualifying session in a slot where it was easy enough to watch for those who were interested, and easy to skip for those who weren’t.

It’s still easy to skip now, but that means there’s nothing to draw people to Fridays beyond the complete hardcore (many of whom will be here reading this, I know) who would happily follow practice sessions on a normal weekend anyway.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if F1’s goal was to have something on each day that draws more viewers in beyond the usual superfans who love to follow practice, its changes for 2024 move away from that. And if it thinks sprint qualifying is a big enough deal that people will make a huge effort to watch it on a Friday, I think that faith is misplaced.


The real issue here though is F1 is telling us that the sprint RACE doesn’t matter either.

At least under the two previous sprint formats we’ve had, the main attraction on the Saturday of sprint weekends has been the extra race.

Placing it on Saturday morning undermines it. It’s the warm-up act before the main event of grand prix qualifying, and for many purists that is absolutely fine. The sprint race becomes disposable: watch it if you have the time, and if not, you can ignore it and get your F1 fix with qualifying later in the day.

I’m not criticising people who feel that way. But I’m certain that this wasn’t F1’s plan for sprint races.

Now, unless something incredible happens in the sprint, all the talking points on a Saturday evening will be about qualifying. F1 won’t get two ‘narratives’ to push that night. Who is on pole position will be the thing that matters. What happened earlier in the day in the sprint will be old news. I can’t imagine that’s what F1 wants from its sprint weekends. If that takes anyone inside F1 by surprise, then they really didn’t think this change through.

As I said at the beginning, if you’ve never liked sprint races (and one of my favourite descriptions of them is that they are the answer to a question no F1 fan was asking), it looks like F1 agrees with you.

The sprint sessions have been pushed to less important parts of the weekend, making it easier for fans to skip them. You could argue that’s a very considerate move from F1 at a time when the ever-increasing calendar makes following this sport we all love a bigger and bigger commitment.

But I doubt that was F1’s thinking here. Because if the idea is to make the sprint sessions easier to miss, why have them in the first place?

‘Sprint Saturday’ had its critics. Our guys in the paddock really weren’t fans of how disjointed it made the weekends feel when you were there on-site. But that at least made sense: Friday was all about grand prix qualifying. Saturday was all about the sprint. And Sunday - as it should be - was all about the main event, the grand prix itself.

If F1 thinks these latest changes will make more people care about sprints, it doesn’t get it.

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