This weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix will see the first of six sprint races held across the F1 2023 season.
The funky format has struggled to win popularity since its introduction in 2021 but, at the time of writing, is set to return with a difference in Baku with a greater emphasis on competitive track running.
But do the tweaks for Baku – with two separate qualifying sessions on Friday and Saturday – go far enough? Here are five simple things F1 could do right now to help the sprint format gain the acceptance of fans…
Points only for the top three
Listen to the drivers and their complaints about the current format all centre around the same issue.
A sprint race is not for racing, but for surviving. The grand prix cannot be won in the sprint, but most certainly it can be lost.
Rather than the thrill-a-minute extravaganza F1’s organisers want it to be, in its current guise it is merely a hurdle to be overcome with your prospects for the weekend still intact.
Taking place in the early stages of a grand prix weekend, the sprint by definition discourages the kind of all-or-nothing, risk-taking seen at the controversial second restart at the recent Australian Grand Prix.
The solution, then, is to make it matter more and make those risks worth taking.
Despite its short lifespan, the sprint has already seen a significant change to its points system, from only the top three being rewarded in 2021 to the top eight finishers scoring since last season.
The first step to making the sprint more worthwhile? Revert to the 2021 system.
The second step?
Make those points matter
Looking back, it is almost laughable how those sprint points were allocated in 2021 with three for the winner, two for the runner up and one for third place.
That alone undermined the importance of the format, reinforcing the perception that the sprint was something to be overcome rather than embraced. Why bother taking a risk for an extra point or two?
Statisticians may recoil in horror at the thought, but maybe the only way to make the sprint format matter is to increase the rewards on offer.
Rather than hand out mere bonus points, grant the sprint format the power to influence the outcome of a World Championship with the standard 25 points for the winner, 18 for second place and 15 for P3.
With such potentially season-defining rewards available, drivers would no longer be wary of taking risks on sprint Saturdays.
Drop qualifying and arrange the grid in reverse Championship order
When it comes to experimental formats, F1 talks the talk but remains strangely reluctant to walk the walk.
Adopting the sprint format while retaining the traditional Q1/Q2/Q3 qualifying format is the gentle way of trying new things, the equivalent of dipping a toe in the water when a whopping great divebomb is what’s required.
With the usual suspects falling in Q1 and Q2, the standard qualifying format counts against the unpredictability the sprint format seeks to generate and with the cars lined up with the fastest at the front and the slowest at the back, the tone for a processional sprint is set in stone come Friday night.
Isn’t the whole point of these funky formats to do something out of the ordinary?
A reverse grid would complete F1’s conversion to the dark side in some eyes, but would be unmissable viewing and totally reinvigorate the sprint format.
If F1 has decided new and polarising race weekend formats is the path to take, it is time to fully commit to it.
Extend the race length with a mandatory pit stop
As well as the lack of incentives to take risks, another common complaint among drivers surrounds the tired old subject of tyre management.
At just 100km, the sprint is not quite long enough for tyre degradation to take effect, the chequered flag usually waving just as the rubber tends to drop off.
With the exception of Imola 2022, when Charles Leclerc pushed too hard too soon and left himself exposed to Max Verstappen, tyre wear does not tend to be a factor in sprints.
That was intended to be a good thing given the extreme emphasis on tyres in the Pirelli era, but in reality it needlessly robs the sprint of a crucial extra variable – or, in other words, another opportunity for disaster to strike.
With sprints currently run over the course of 30 minutes, extending the race length to around half the grand prix distance – combined with a mandatory pit stop – should do the trick.
Drop the pointless FP2 session
The most irritating aspect of the current sprint format?
The retention of a second practice session on Saturday morning, when car setup has already been locked in under parc ferme rules.
At a time F1 purports to be increasingly conscious of its effect on the planet, it amounts to a gigantic waste of resources and – worse – everyone’s time and is even more useless than the daylight running in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.
The revised format proposed for Baku is far from perfect, but in dropping FP2 it is at least heading in the right direction.