Formula 1

Revised sprint rules would’ve prevented a feel-good F1 result

by Edd Straw
4 min read

What was the great feel-good Formula 1 moment of recent years? Different people will have different answers, but chances are Daniel Ricciardo ending McLaren’s eight-and-a-half year win drought at Monza in 2021 will be a popular choice.

Had that weekend run to the sprint weekend format that is set to be adopted for the upcoming Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Ricciardo’s win very likely wouldn’t have happened given the places gained at the two starts – first jumping Lewis Hamilton in the sprint, then getting ahead of Max Verstappen at the start of the grand prix proper – were central to his victory.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy

Provided the plan is signed off as expected next week, the sprint and its new Saturday morning qualifying session will have no direct impact on the rest of the weekend in terms of impacting grid position. Beyond what’s learned and any accident damage or power unit problems, the sprints now happen in a de facto vacuum.

That’s presented as a virtue, and it has its positives. But given there was a hope the sprint format might increase what might be termed ‘disorder’ in the results, that side of things is a negative.

The Monza 2021 result was a disordered one, insofar as the third-fastest car that weekend won. Some of that was down to the sprint race, although given Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas was the class of the field his back-of-the-grid penalty for taking a new power unit was also a significant independent variable.

This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that a ‘connected’ sprint automatically creates variety. But it does have an effect. The first-ever sprint event at Silverstone in 2021 didn’t dramatically change the order, but did allow Hamilton to jump Verstappen and create the conditions for the infamous clash at Copse corner on the first lap of the grand prix proper. The story of the 2021 world championship fight might have been very different without the sprint that weekend or if the sprint had been totally independent from the grand prix.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Race Day Silverstone, England

Similarly, had Interlagos 2021 not been a sprint weekend, would another of the season’s key weekends with Hamilton’s burn from the stern to win – and the controversial moment battling with Verstappen along the way – have played out how it did?

Interestingly, the set of three sprints last year tended to have the opposite effect in that they were more likely to reduce disorder. The 2022 Emilia Romagna GP had a slightly jumbled grid thanks to rain in qualifying, but the starting order for the Sunday race was more conventional.

There was a similar, although less overtly obvious, effect at the Austrian GP. There, although the top four on the grid were the same for both races, it allowed, for example, Sergio Perez to recover from 13th in qualifying to a more appropriate top-five Sunday starting position.

Perhaps the most unfortunate victims of F1’s sprint format were Kevin Magnussen and the Haas team. They did a brilliant job to top qualifying at Interlagos (justifiably getting the ‘official’ pole position for statistical reasons), but inevitably faded in the sprint. Magnussen was then booted out of the grand prix proper by Ricciardo’s mistake after half a lap. As for the main race, would George Russell have won without the sprint?

This is all very inconclusive. Do sprint events that impact the grid for the race make things more or less exciting? All we can conclude from the sample set of six is that they have the power both to create disorder or impose reality. What happens is dictated largely by circumstances. But what’s beyond question is that they impacted the narrative of the weekend, in some cases very significantly. That’s not necessarily an argument for or against the change, but is worth noting.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy

You can cherry-pick whichever examples you want to support whatever opinion you back. But the one conclusion that is striking is that, whatever happens, it’s hard to see the new disconnected sprint events being anything like as influential or significant in 2023 as the connected ones were in 2021 and 2022.

But then again, there might be a surprise. After all, one of the arguments for experimenting with formats is to gather data and it may yet prove that the self-contained sprint days have a more profound effect than anticipated.

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