Formula 1’s race weekend format is about to resurface as a major talking point, with F1 set to sign off its modified sprint timetable next week ahead of it being used at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. That will inevitably trigger another round of debate about what the ideal grand prix event structure is.
The Race delved into this debate in a recent podcast that addressed the reasons for the tinkering and suggested potential directions that could be evaluated. But often the discussion is framed in terms of what is the ultimate weekend schedule.
Granted, F1 now has two formats given the six sprint races, and has done since they were first introduced back in 2021. But Liberty Media clearly sees that as a pathway to universal sprints, MotoGP-style, given that serves the objective of ensuring there’s more to play for. In many ways, Baku next weekend will be F1 chief Stefano Domenicali’s ‘nirvana’, with just the opening free practice session having nothing at stake.
Regardless of whether or not the Baku format, with qualifying for the grand prix on Friday and Saturday effectively a self-contained mini-prix event that doesn’t impact Sunday, is considered a success, it is a contender for becoming F1’s standard format – the one structure to rule them all, as it were.
But it should just be one of multiple options.
F1 is set for 24 races next year and Liberty Media is pushing to expand beyond that. Standard F1 weekends are already predictable right down to the optimised runplans in FP1, FP2 and FP3, so any default format will quickly be made repetitive.
But there’s no reason why there cannot be multiple formats that F1 flits between.
This is far from unheard of in motorsport. The World Endurance Championship has races of different length, while Australian Supercars has long had multiple weekend formats. In principle, there’s no fundamental reason why F1 shouldn’t.
The question is, how much should the formats vary? Are the current two approaches enough? Should there be a set of three or four boiler-plate options that F1 rotates between? Or could there be bespoke one-off formats designed to give certain races a unique feel? These are all options.
One thing is clear – F1 should not limit its horizons. If F1 must explore alternative formats, it needs to be unafraid of considering major changes. The introduction of the sprint race felt seismic, but it’s still effectively little more than bolting an extra stint onto the race and holding it the day before. It seems perverse to push for change and then ensure that the impact is as minor as possible.
There should be limits. Many championships have more than one race of a weekend, some equally-weighted and some split between sprint and feature races – F2 style. Personally, I’d be wary of anything that doesn’t have one, single centrepiece grand prix on the Sunday. Partly it’s because of history, but more significantly it’s important for the narrative. Most fans are casual and the question ‘who won the grand prix at the weekend?’ really needs a single answer.
Beyond that, the other factor that needs to be considered is the audience’s appetite for ‘relevant’ sessions. Right now, you can follow a standard grand prix well with an hour of watching on a Saturday and a couple of hours on a Sunday. That’s a significant time commitment. In Baku this weekend, you now need an hour on Friday, a couple of non-concurrent hours on Saturday and another two on Sunday. Is that too much? Too disparate?
There’s also the question of the appointment to view. Marketing-wise, it’s good for fans to know when they are going to get something, and although the Sunday afternoon grand prix slot has become less dependable as F1 has reduced the percentage of European races it’s still a recognisable slot. Even with endless forms of communication, there are times when finding a simple, reliable start time for motorsport events on TV is challenging at best.
Tradition has rarely been a compelling argument for keeping things as they are. I’d have no problem with F1 sticking with its traditional format, but also recognise there is an argument for change. What is frustrating is that F1 has been so hesitant and narrow in the way it has explored this opportunity.
Philosophically, F1 needs to decide where it stands. If the push for change continues, and it will, then it seems ridiculous to box in the format so tightly that most changes amount to fiddling around the edges. The question then is how far do you go?
This can also be answered with a philosophy. That should be that provided F1 remains a test of driver and team ability, with a single showpiece race that’s recognisably, to invoke an archaic term, a Grand Epreuve, then nothing should be off the table for consideration.