New Formula 1 chief Stefano Domenicali has revived the prospect of a Saturday sprint race on grand prix weekends as early as during the 2021 season, but has done so in a way that raises more questions than answers.
In a media call on Thursday, he declared the defeated bid for a reversed grid qualifying race “over” for good, but put the concept of some form of extra Saturday race back in the mix.
Plans for one major change are on hold
— Formula 1 (@F1) February 5, 2021
“What we are looking at, for sure, is what could be the approach of the so-called sprint race on Saturday,” Domenicali said. “We are thinking if this could be tested already this year.”
He appeared to suggest that the extra race wouldn’t set the grid for the main event on Sunday, and also hinted at the possible involvement of rookie drivers.
“We need to give attention once again to the rookies, the real rookies,” said Domenicali.
“Today, with the fact that we have less testing, we need to create [chances] not only in the free practice.
“Maybe we can create good events, highlighting the fact that we need to focus the attention on the rookies.”
It’s clearly a plan in its infancy, and one that would need team approval to become reality. But what do we think of the idea so far?
Rookies vs the stars is tempting
Mixing selected F1 and F2 drivers in a Saturday race is a really nice idea – and might create a genuine buzz of excitement if an F2 driver is regularly a star of the show.
Imagine if in 2000 Fernando Alonso (or Lewis Hamilton in ’06, pictured above) had been regularly beating the F1 stars of the day just what a buzz that would have created, how much excitement the prospect of their future F1 debuts would generate.
But it probably shouldn’t be an F1 race as the F2 guys would be so disadvantaged in what are such complex pieces of kit. Engine life mileage limits/permitted component usage would get really complicated too.
Stiffened-up road cars are just too tame on a racetrack for any race to say much about the drivers, so it would need to be something reasonably demanding to drive – preferably a single-seater. What about a single spec Formula E car?
But any additional Saturday track activity would surely meet with a lot of pushback from F1 drivers and teams about interruption of schedules and preparation from the main task.
This seems meaningless
Whether you liked the idea of a reverse-grid qualifying race or not, at least there was a point to it: F1 could trial a different (and controversial) format, and by setting the grid for Sunday it could have an impact on the grand prix without reducing the importance of the main event.
If that idea is off the table, then so be it. But what does a Saturday sprint race without a new variable and without any impact on the grand prix itself achieve?
If it’s just to have a race instead of another session on a Saturday, then it’s meaningless. And if it’s meaningless, teams will treat it as so.
With nothing at stake, drivers will be instructed to take it easy and not risk damaging the car ahead of the race that matters the following day.
A shorter race for the sake of it on a Saturday would add very little to an F1 weekend. And it’s typical of F1’s fear of real change.
Last year was supposed to be a great chance to mix things up in an already-disrupted season, but what did F1 try that was actually different? It knocked a day of practice off the Imola weekend, and that was about it.
If this is as bold as F1 is prepared to get in trying something different, let’s not bother. The 2022 rules aren’t that far away now, so let’s see if they deliver the closer competition we’re all craving.
It could hurt the Sunday race
Not only is a sprint race that doesn’t impact the main race itself pointless, but it also risks being counterproductive by compromising the main event.
It would effectively become a warm-up race in conditions that would be more representative than practice. Good racing is created by variables, which teams work hard to control, so why give them greater advance knowledge of tyre performance and the myriad other factors that can shape a race?
That’s an acceptable trade-off should it impact the grand prix in some way, say by influencing the grid, but not as a standalone.
You could award points for it, but that would devalue the grand prix itself and, regardless of format, F1 must keep that main Sunday race as the sole source of points.
There are also other knock-on effects. Let’s say there’s a stipulation that a rookie driver or two has to be fielded, what impact would this have on Formula 2 should this be a regular feature of the weekend?
Plenty of F1 teams would offer seats for funded drivers, which could damage the business of many struggling teams at F2 and even F3 level.
More seat time for rookies is an important objective but this isn’t the way to do it. While it could be tied to drivers already competing in F2 or F3, this would also exclude others who might be genuine contenders for F1 but don’t have the budget for a race seat in the feeder categories in a given year.
The idea is very tentative and F1 is right to explore potential changes to the weekend format, but what has been floated creates far more problems than it solves.
It’s time to stop tinkering with new proposals of Saturday races. There are a multitude of suggestions that could very easily be implemented, but the powers to be haven’t got the wherewithal to make them happen, In reality, the teams have too much say.
So if we are going to stick with what we have, which I don’t disagree with, then as Domenicali suggest there needs to be more opportunity for rookie drivers to get behind the wheel and have the chance to show their skills.
Friday should be used for that, and all teams should have to run at least one car in both practice sessions with a driver who has not competed in more than two grands prix in the last 10 years.
If you don’t want to do that then you learn nothing as the car will have to sit in the garage.
By making it the last 10 years, there is still an opportunity for Nigel Mansell to make a return!
We can all come up with hundreds of suggestions, some good and some bad, but as long as the teams have the strength they have it’s all a waste of time and very quickly gets boring.
There are better ways to have an exhibition race
I was in favour of F1 using a Saturday sprint race as a trial for reverse-grids and I think it’s a worthwhile consideration if it’s part of the weekend.
This idea though sounds like it’s rather immature and even when it’s flashed out it will not have an impact on the rest of the event. So, it’s effectively becoming an exhibition race – and if that’s the case the best thing by far is to lean properly into the exhibition element.
That means it’s time to revive the idea to revive the BMW M1 Procar! (pictured above in a 2008 retro demo)
Now I know specifically using M1 Procars – which featured in such races in 1979 and ’80 – again is almost certainly out of the question but the idea itself is something I’m convinced still has merit.
If F1 got a sponsor to supply a (relatively) neutral vehicle, like a KTM-Xbow, F1 could invite all 20 current drivers and see who accepts. The empty spaces can be filled by reserve drivers, leading F2 and F3 drivers, and ‘legends’ who are still up for a challenge.
There would be zero problem in filling the grid with good names. It would draw more attention and promote a fun spectacle as these nothing-to-lose races are ripe for entertainment.
It’s likely very difficult, if not impossible because of different manufacturer contracts and restrictions, not to mention the challenge of getting someone to pay for it.
But a company like Red Bull doing it at the Red Bull Ring would be a huge promotional activity so there is something tangible to pitch – and Red Bull has history in organising this kind of event privately in the past.
The bottom line is it would be a much more worthwhile and entertaining endeavour than a disconnected F1 sprint race being added to the schedule – and, given the apparent irrelevance of that race to the weekend or the championship, it would be just as useful!