Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Alessandro Erazo
For a large number of fans, there are really only two sessions that matter during the weekend: Qualifying and the race. But perhaps the most important ones for the teams, drivers and even F1 itself, are the ones that come before them: The Free Practice sessions. These last two years however, F1 has tried to restrict them as much as possible, in various ways and with polarizing results. But why would a sport get rid of such an important part of it?
To anyone who doesn’t know, Free Practice ( or FP) is split into three, formerly four, sessions, with the first two on Friday and the other one on Saturday. Teams and drivers have little to no restrictions to run their cars, as they’re left free to try new setups and parts. They also allow drivers to learn a new circuit they’re going to for the first time, or one they haven’t been to in a while. Perhaps their greatest contribution however is the fact that teams are allowed, or rather required as of 2022, to run at least two different young drivers in two seperate weekends.
So how is Formula 1 attempting to get rid, or at least limit FP sessions? This began at the start of the 2021 season, when Formula 1 announced that both FP1 and FP2 would be an hour, like FP3 on Saturday, instead of 90 minutes. In the same year, the sport announced they will be trialing a new weekend format on three out of the eventual 22 races, where instead of the traditional structure, there was one practice session, then qualifying, then a second practice session, then a sprint race, which starting order was determined by friday’s qualifying and finally the race, with the grid forming from the finishing order of the sprint race. Having proven moderately successful, F1 is sticking with this format for three out of the 22 weekends this year as well.
Thing is, why would F1 be doing these things, just to get rid of what are essential parts of a race weekend? It all comes down to one simple factor: Viewership. While dedicated fans may sit through some or even all the practice sessions, most ones, especially newer ones, tend to ignore them completely. What this means is that Friday running is guaranteed to bring lower viewer ratings to the other two days. With qualifying being moved to Friday in the new sprint format, all days see at least one competitive session. This of course will attract a bigger audience, which is exactly what happened at Silverstone last year, especially because F1 can now market Grands Prix as having more than one race in a single race weekend. And that's what F1 wants- racing and more importantly, closer racing, which brings me on to my second point:
For a number of years now, F1 has started restricting testing in all forms, from banning mid season tests, with the exception of tyre tests, to shortening the pre-season test from eight to six days in 2020 and three in 2021, although that was mainly because around 60% of the cars was carried over from the previous year, and finally, experimenting with the length and number of practice sessions. All this is done to ensure more teams are closer to each other in terms of performance, which in turn results in overall closer racing. This can be a double edged sword however. There have been Grands Prix where Friday running had to be abandoned or was completely scrapped, USA 2018 and Imola 2020 for example, and Sunday's races turned out to be really good. But less practice and overall testing time means a team that is already behind the competition is less likely to catch up, especially because they can’t infinitely spend money either, thanks to the budget cap. This is true more so for smaller teams, like Haas and Williams, but bigger ones can suffer too. It took Mercedes ten races to fight for a win in 2022 and even then, both Red Bulls and a Ferrari suffered issues and setbacks.
What is the verdict then? Should Formula 1 keep playing around with the weekend format or should it leave it as it is? To be honest, there is no clear answer for now. But one thing is for certain: F1’s management will try its hardest to make viewing figures go up and if FP sessions are getting in the way of that, they won’t hesitate to alter them in the slightest. Removing them though is almost out of the question, as they are far too important for teams and drivers to omit completely.