Written By Juan Arroyo, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
The FIA has officially approved six Sprint races for the 2023 Formula One season, double the number from this season. After regular calls to modify or remove them, the decision to increase the number of events seems to have been influenced by factors outside of racing. In theory, viewers get more entertainment throughout the weekend but, owing to the Sprint’s anticlimactic nature, does this actually mean less entertainment for viewers?
Formula 1 sought to create a “short and fast-paced racing spectacle”, designed to act as a new qualifying format for Sunday’s Grand Prix. With the length of this spectacle capped at 100km, the idea was for drivers to go the full distance flat out, without needing to make a pit stop.
Normal qualifying is moved to Friday, and sets the grid for Saturday’s Sprint. This means less practice sessions but, in theory, additional entertainment throughout the weekend.
Sprint races serve as a bite-sized version of the real Grand Prix. Drivers are encouraged to overtake and climb their way up the field, spicing up the show for viewers. With this format, Formula One Management (FOM) created a scenario where drivers had to evaluate whether it was worth risking their starting position on Sunday in order to gain a spot.
Where this idea falls short is the risk/reward ratio. For drivers, there’s not as much to gain as there is to lose. The priority is Sunday, when there’s much more at stake. It makes sense not to jeopardize your entire weekend for a single overtake. Unless it was dire, no one in their right mind is making that move.
Qualifying on Friday already sorts the cars by speed, so all that’s left for fans to watch is a stagnant twenty lap parade. If entertainment was the objective, FOM has truly missed the mark.
What do fans think?
The general consensus online is that Sprint races need to go, or at the very least, be modified. Fans and drivers alike have labeled the format “rubbish” and “gimmicky”, but repeated calls to scrap them have been ignored.
“I find them unnecessary,” said one Twitter user. “They take some of the fun out of the actual race because those who qualified out of position basically get 20 extra laps to get to where they should’ve been or closer. You can also tell who’s got the pace to win the actual race so why even bother?”
Normal qualifying sets a tone of mystery for the race that Sprints take away. It’s hard to be excited for an event when you’ve already watched a shorter version of it.
With a grid pretty much decided and no pressure to make moves, drivers are tasked with simply bringing the car home in one piece.
“Gotta go, in most instances after position changes in the open laps it becomes processional. Doesn’t add much to the weekend and no real excitement as drivers aren’t taking risks for fear of ruining their race.”, added another user.
Unless there’s a significant incident on track, the entire weekend is a pretty dull experience for spectators.
After having asked fans on Twitter for their thoughts, the most common suggestion was to scrap the format entirely.
However, other users suggested adopting the Formula 2 system, which reverses the starting order for the top 10 in qualifying. Whoever takes pole on Friday starts 10th in the Sprint, and so on. This is a system that would yield some interesting results, but it’s likely that teams who proceed to the final stage of qualifying would tank in order to have the best chance of winning on Saturday.
Another suggestion, which sounds more controversial, is to reverse the entire grid order, be it by qualifying or championship standings. Personally, I cannot agree to this. While a very entertaining Saturday in prospect, it throws away sporting integrity by giving backmarkers a chance to score points through no effort of their own. Amusing? Yes, but not something that should count for championship points.
Regardless of public opinion, Sprint races are likely to stay for years to come.
Formula 1 is a championship with ever-changing rules — qualifying format, refueling, pit lane procedures, etc — and that doesn’t plan to stop any time soon. This could simply be the F1 higher-ups giving the format a chance to grow on viewers. Two years might not be a sufficient sample size for them; after all, FOM seems in no rush to appeal to old markets.
Stefano Domenicali and Co. have made it clear they’re not afraid to toy a bit with things, but they must carefully consider the value of sacrificing a proven and beloved format for the sake of entertaining the casual viewer. Television deals come and go, but sporting integrity is forever.
The championship is bound to see growth in all areas, bringing in newer, more casual fans. I can understand the need to adapt the show for this new audience, however, I can’t help but think Formula 1 is overthinking in its methods to strike while the iron is hot.