Mercedes driver George Russell has advocated for a reduction to just one practice session on a race weekend, while also talking up the sprint race format.
Formula 1 has not been shy to tinker with the format of its race weekend in recent times, the latest initiative being an alternative structure which incorporates a sprint race to form the Grand Prix grid, with traditional qualifying moving to Friday to determine the sprint starting order, with a practice session either side. The Grand Prix then remains the main event on Sunday.
First introduced in 2021 with three sprint events held that year and in 2022, the number has been doubled to six for F1 2023.
But the topic of the traditional race weekend format has been brought up for debate ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, with F1 president Stefano Domenicali having suggested that he is in favour of cutting down the amount of practice, drivers currently getting three hours across three sessions ahead of qualifying.
And so Russell, who is also a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, was asked whether the drivers need three practice sessions on a race weekend.
As it turns out, he does not think they do, referencing how in the junior categories Formula 3 and Formula 2, there is just a single 45-minute practice session.
“I think no is the answer,” he told reporters at the Australian Grand Prix press conference. “Obviously the more practice you do, the more up to speed you’ll be, the more comfortable you’ll be with the car.
“I don’t think it’s right that Formula 1 has three times the amount of practice that you have in the F3 and F2 categories. They should be the ones to get more practice, also because they’re doing less races, they don’t get to test that often. No practice would be too little.
“I wasn’t in favour of the sprint races initially, but having done – how many have we done now? Six, nine, maybe over the two years? I really enjoy the sprint races and having action on a Friday, I think, is vital for all of us and also for the entertainment factor.”
Alpine’s Pierre Gasly agreed with Russell’s claim that three practice sessions are not needed, saying one or at most two is more than enough.
As for the sprint races, he thinks further work would be needed to refine the format.
“I agree with George,” he said. “Definitely, three’s not needed from a driving point of view.
“It’s always nice, you can work on fine details on the car and really try to nail the car balance for the weekend but generally speaking, I think one, two maximum, is more than enough for us. So yeah, I kind of agree.
“On the sprint races I think we’ve had different feedback. I think there’s a lot of discussions on what to explore and how to increase the entertainment and the racing, so I think it’s good to always kind of question what we’re doing and kind of looking at how we can improve the format and just the whole format of the weekend in general.”
Russell was then asked whether, taking the amount of practice out of the equation, it could be an idea to add some sort of benefits to the practice sessions, like points for setting the fastest time.
He does not believe that would be positive, arguing that practice should be free of such stipulations to allow for the teams to test out new setups and parts to move forward and perhaps impact the pecking order.
“I think, just practice to dial in the car, to test things for the future,” he said. “We obviously have no testing at all.
“I think one session is good enough for all of us to do the various things we need to try and to help develop. This is still the pinnacle of the sport and you don’t want to be just left with the car that you created at the start of the year with no opportunity to try out new things.
“And that is sort of the beauty, sometimes; you’ve got this 60-minute session, you can try new things, develop, improve further. Whereas if you’re going straight into a session that is points-worthy or there is a reward, you’re less likely to trial new things.”
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So, Russell’s ideal race weekend would consist of the single practice session and a sprint race format, though he argues that the one practice session should be held later in the day on a Friday, to allow for a later arrival time for personnel, thus reducing the demands of a 23-grands prix calendar which is expected to grow to 24.
“I probably say, for the benefit of the two or 3,000 people travelling around the world, having the first session on a Friday afternoon, evening so there’s less pressure for teams to arrive, let’s say, on a Wednesday,” said Russell as he began to lay out his vision of the perfect race weekend.
“If you have your first session on Friday morning you need to be here on a Thursday which for a lot of the races requires flying on a Wednesday, and if we can push that back to allow teams to fly on a Thursday morning… You add that up over 24 races in a year, you’re getting on for almost a month extra at home or sleeping in your own bed, which is huge for everybody in this circus.
“So yeah, I’d say sprint format, but just making sure that first session is delayed a bit.”
That idea sounded very good indeed to Gasly, as long as the Sunday Grand Prix would continue to be the star attraction of the weekend.
“No surprises he’s running the GPDA!” Gasly said with a smile. “I think George has got a great idea. I think I support that.
“We’re all quite keen, I think there were a lot of talks in trying to push the weekend a bit forward, having a session on the Friday and yeah, I think we all are quite keen to do that, especially with more racing on the calendar and always more talks to add these races in the future.
“So definitely, yeah, keen on trying that and Friday for practice, more action on Saturday. I think the sprint is definitely something to explore, as well, but just keeping the main Grand Prix on Sunday, and not changing the DNA of the sport.”