Has Karun Chandhok found the ultimate F1 weekend format?

Luke Murphy
Oscar Piastri leads at the start of the Qatar Grand Prix Sprint.

Oscar Piastri heads into Turn 1 at the start of the Qatar Grand Prix Sprint.

After the final Sprint weekend of the 2023 season, has the format improved, and does Formula 1 need to listen to suggestions about further tweaks?

Formula 1 has finished its third full season with including Sprint race weekends on the schedule, and the format change has been the subject of debate throughout.

Changes have been made to Sprint weekend format in each of the last two seasons, and many have provided their inputs about how the schedule can once again be tweaked for 2024. Drivers, fans and pundits have given their two cents on the issue, including ex-F1 driver Karun Chandhok. We go through this season’s Sprint racing and assess whether or not the Sky Sports F1 pundit is onto something.

What’s happened in the 2023 Sprints?

After introducing points for the top eight places in 2022, the format was changed again for 2023 to make the Sprint a standalone event within the same weekend. Previously, the Sprint result had been used to set the grid for the Grand Prix, causing an almighty debate between F1 anoraks about qualifying statistics and pole position. For 2023, Saturday became the dedicated Sprint day, featuring a Sprint Shootout (qualifying) for the Sprint race, with regular qualifying moved to Friday.

The tidied format appeared for the first time at round four of the championship in Azerbaijan, a relatively recent addition to the calendar which has proven popular with fans.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took pole position for the Grand Prix and the Sprint to raise neutral hopes of a non-Red Bull victory. However, he was overtaken by the superior RB19 cars in the Sprint, and Perez went on to lead a one-two for this year’s Constructors’ champions. In a replica of the Sprint, Leclerc was once again powerless to prevent Red Bull domination in the Baku Grand Prix.

The second Sprint race in Austria was won from pole by Max Verstappen, but the wet weather produced some fantastic racing and the drying conditions brought an intriguing ‘slicks versus intermediates’ debate in the closing stages of the race.

Rain also affected the Belgian Sprint day, and lap one pit stops shuffled the order to bring Oscar Piastri to the lead of the race. Verstappen eventually passed for the lead after a Safety Car period, but the Australian claimed a first top three result in Formula 1.

High tyre wear was the theme for the Qatar GP Sprint weekend, and it generated an intriguing strategy split, with drivers torn between the Soft and Medium tyres. After an early battle with Mercedes’ George Russell, Piastri was once again the star name from the shortened event by taking his first ‘win’ for McLaren.

After three dramatic races, the final two Sprint events in the United States and Brazil were more static affairs. Verstappen led into the first corner and went on to claim the victory, whilst the podium positions were either settled early or simply waiting for a recovering Red Bull to take one of them.

The pros and cons of this season’s format

Since the inception of the Sprints, Formula 1 has worked on trying to strike a balance between the entertainment value of the event, the uniqueness of the Sprint racing, and the demands of the teams and drivers.

The desire to make the Sprint independent of a race weekend, but not a worthless exercise, influenced the decision to create a dedicated Sprint day, and the separation of the events has been broadly praised.

However, the knock-on effect for the teams and drivers continues to be the reduced setup time allowed in the sole practice session on Friday mornings. The double-edged sword aspect of this means that it can cause a potential shake-up of the running order, but it can also prevent the only other front-running team from challenging for the win.

This could be disregarded by a sweeping ‘it’s the same for everybody’ statement, but ultimately Formula 1 will want whatever is best for the show.

In terms of giving F1 fans value for money, whilst one of the free practice sessions has been dropped in favour for another qualifying session, there is around 30 minutes less track time across the Sprint Shootout and the Sprint compared to two free practice sessions.

If there’s no way of making every Sprint race a lights-to-flag thrill, then it might not be as valuable to the trackside fans. For casual viewers that F1 are seeking to draw in, two qualifying sessions in one weekend might be a confusing aspect.

Fundamentally, the racing at some of the Sprints has been entertaining. If you add factors such as wet-to-dry condition changes, opening lap pit stop dramas and tactical dilemmas into most races, then you generally tend to make interesting races.

The problem is that the Sprint races weren’t interesting due to being Sprint races, they were interesting due to variables, like weather and excessive tyre wear, that can affect any race on any day. This has led many to conclude that the Sprints are simply diet versions of the full Grand Prix, prompting debates about their entertainment value.

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What has Karun Chandhok suggested?

The former Hispania and Lotus driver took to X, formerly known as Twitter, to offer his thoughts following the Sao Paulo GP Sprint, and suggested an ‘independent Sprint championship’, which would still take place during a Grand Prix weekend.

Chandhok suggested placing a single Sprint race on Friday following Free Practice One, with Free Practice Two and regular qualifying coming on Saturday, followed by the Grand Prix on Sunday.

For the standalone Sprint race, Chandhok suggested a reverse grid race, with the grid determined by flipping the order of the Drivers’ Championship.

He added that teams would get points and prize money for doing well in the championship, and even suggested providing an incentive of additional wind tunnel time for the successful teams.

Could this work?

Reverse grids have appealed to many people for a number of seasons, and trying it in an environment with fewer consequences must be very tempting for Formula 1. The addition of a partially-reversed grid in Formula 2 races is seen as a test of a driver’s overtaking ability, and putting twenty of the most talented drivers in the world in wheel-to-wheel combat should generate a lot of action at the right circuits.

Having figured out that Sprints have simply become shorter Grands Prix, reverse grids have also received backing from some drivers, including Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz in Brazil.

However, the first issue that tends to come up with intensifying or increasing the racing is the cost. Teams will immediately call into question the value of the series, query who will pay for it, post questions about the cost cap, and begin to fear about the cost of ruining a car for a championship that they might not care about.

Teams will want financial reassurance, and the organisers will want to ensure teams do not simply withdraw their cars to save them for their ‘real’ championship battles.

On the flipside, if some backmarker teams do consider it worthwhile to chase a Sprint championship trophy, might this cause tactical retirements at the prior race? If retiring your cars from twelfth and thirteenth place ensures you lockout the front row of the grid for the next Sprint race, is that just another F1 obscurity for fans to try and follow?

There may also need to be a fine-tuning of the rules regarding reserve drivers. The stewards will probably be looking on nervously if the vastly inexperienced Liam Lawson made his debut for AlphaTauri after one practice session and sat on Pole Position for the Sprint with 19 other cars behind him.

Taking feedback of the current F1 drivers into consideration, the tweak they appear to be the happiest with is Friday’s running. There has been a lot of support for having one practice session before going straight into a qualifying session, which reflects what would happen in many support series. Therefore, any suggestion which reduces the number of free practice sessions will likely gain support.

Formula 1 are believed to be in talks regarding some refinement to the Sprint weekend for 2024, a process which is likely to be under continual review for at least a couple of seasons yet. But, with patience from some fans wearing thin, might their approach be revolution rather than evolution?

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