F1 chiefs hope the sprint race will entice new fans to the sport

Credit: AP

Formula One has long tinkered – and agonised over tinkering – about various formats and regulations for the last decade, all designed to make the show more interesting and unpredictable. Now, one of the biggest changes to Grand Prix racing as we know it comes into effect this season. Its first outing will be run at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.

What is a ‘sprint’ race?

Sprint races are used in a variety of racing categories, including in Formula 2, F1’s feeder category and support series. In F2 they are in contrast to the ‘feature’ races, are naturally shorter – how much shorter varies from series to series, but are generally at most two-thirds to 70 per cent distance but also sometimes below half-distance. 

Points are usually awarded to drivers and teams and they count towards the championship, though – due to the smaller distance – the number of points and number of points-paying positions is cut. They often take place on a different day to the feature races – which in F1 would be a grand prix – and can also be used to decide grid order in subsequent rounds. 

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How will it work in F1?

F1 was always unlikely to follow F2’s exact format for a variety of reasons. A qualifying session on the Friday after the first hour of free practice will determine the grid for Saturday’s sprint qualifying race.

The shorter ‘sprint qualifying’ race will run to about one-third of the distance of a grand prix, which has a maximum length of just over 305km (190 miles). At Silverstone, this means it will be 17 laps or 100.147 kilometres. 

The top three finishers in sprint qualifying will receive points. The first place will receive three points, second place two points and third place one point. The finishing order of Saturday’s sprint qualifying will determine the starting grid for Sunday’s grand prix.

It will be the first time in history that the grand prix is not the only race on an F1 world championship weekend.

Parc ferme – the point when teams are no longer able to make major changes to their cars – will be introduced from the start of the Friday qualifying session. The reason for this is to prevent teams building cars specifically for qualifying, which would increase costs. There will also be differences to tyre use compared to a normal grand prix race weekend, designed to increase risk for teams. 

In first practice, teams can use only two of the three types of tyre – hard, medium and soft. Qualifying will be run only on the soft compound, with each team getting five sets. Teams will, then, be free to start Sunday’s race on whatever compound they wish, as opposed to the top 10 being locked into using the tyre they used in Q2 to set their fastest lap time. 

Teams had expressed some reservations about extra costs involved, with the bigger ones already grappling with a $145 million budget cap.

In the end agreement was reached, with $150,000 per ‘sprint’ race being added – plus compensation if teams damage expensive parts in accidents during the shorter races.

Will there be a podium celebration?

Laurel wreaths for winning drivers are to make a regular return to Formula One for the first time in 35 years.

The tradition will be resurrected for the top three finishers in the sprint qualifying race that debuts at Silverstone on Saturday.

They had been phased out in around 1986 for full race winners due to sponsors complaining their logos were being blocked by drivers draping them around their necks.

However, in the absence of any podium celebrations for the sprints, sponsors have given the green light to the wreaths returning for the new event only.

The 100km Sprint will set the grid for Sunday’s grand prix at Silverstone. Although some points will be awarded to the top three, organisers ruled a formal podium would detract from the main event.

F1 is back at SIlverstone this weekend

Credit: REUTERS

But while none of the drivers will be credited with a podium or race win, they will instead get a victory parade in front of the fans. They will then be presented with specially-designed wreaths to wear around their necks.

"F1 Sprint is a brand-new and exciting format, so we felt it was important to come up with a post-race moment that was equally special," said Alex Molina, Formula One’s Director of Event Spectacle.

"The moment recognises the seven decades of history in the sport and combines it with a modern twist — very similar to the Sprint itself."

Formula One drivers of old were given large laurel wreaths to wear on the podium but they had the disadvantage of covering team and sponsor branding. Yet they make a return as part of efforts to further stimulate commercial interest in racing. Four years into its £6billion takeover by US group Liberty Media, F1 is also under further pressure to unlock more revenue due the pandemic.

Liberty Media was forced to inject almost £1bn into F1 in April, and, in recent months, has been making "incremental" efforts to appeal to a younger audience online.

Mehul Kapadia, chief operating officer of the Motorsport Network,  recently acknowledged: “Now people want a 24/7 experience. The question is ‘how can you make your fans feel like they’re in the driver’s seat?’ That’s how the potential of the sport can be unlocked more.”

Will this help liven up race weekends?

Clearly, replacing one no-stakes practice session with a qualifying (or a pre-qualifying if you want to call it that) session and then replacing the old qualifying with an actual race will make things livelier and with more at stake.  

You have more racing, the added jeopardy of two race starts and potential chaos – what if Lewis Hamilton was taken out by Valtteri Bottas on lap one? It is worth remembering that – unlike the reverse grid qualifying idea which was floated and then blocked – this is unlikely to shake up the competitive order, especially as it will be limited to just three races. But this, at least, adds another element of unpredictability into a weekend. 

It is also worth remembering that there is every chance they are trialled in just three races in 2021 and then ditched to become just a footnote. Still, F1 and the FIA are doing the right thing in experimenting like this.  If they are not a disaster, help increase viewing figures (the entire weekend would become more interesting) and unpredictability then become a more regular fixture – perhaps at, say, a third or half of the races – it could be a new reality. Who knows, it could even become the new normal.