James Vowles, the Williams team principal, is forecasting “mayhem” at the first sprint weekend of the 2023 Formula 1 season in Baku.
Having staged three sprint events in 2021 and 2022, F1 has increased the number of sprint races on the calendar for 2023 with Azerbaijan hosting the first of six this weekend.
Though yet to be formally announced, the Baku round is expected to see a tweak to the existing sprint format with a single practice session on Friday followed by qualifying, when the grid order for Sunday’s grand prix will be formed.
That will leave Saturday as a standalone ‘sprint day’ with a separate qualifying session followed by the sprint race itself.
Given its characteristics as a street circuit with long, flat-out blasts and slower, tighter sections, there have been concerns that some teams will be short on spare parts – particularly with the next round in Miami coming up just seven days later.
In a clip posted to Williams’ official website, Vowles has revealed that work is already underway to understand how the change to the format can be exploited – and he is anticipating an incident-filled weekend as the 2023 season resumes.
He said: “What we have now coming up is Baku, the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where it’s going to be a sprint race weekend potentially with a slight modification to the rules that we’ve had previously.
“And that work is now ongoing in the background right now to understand how we should restructure that race weekend and what the implications of that will be on everyone.
“Irrespective of whether the rules change or not, a sprint race weekend at that tight, twisty track where you go through the castle section is going to cause a little bit of mayhem.
“There’s going to be difficulties, but irrespective that’s the preparation we’re going to do going forward.”
A recruit from Mercedes over the winter, Vowles is only the third team principal in the team’s history following Sir Frank Williams and Jost Capito, with Williams – bottom of the Constructors’ Championship for four of the last five seasons – making a promising start under his stewardship.
Alex Albon scored Williams’ first point in a season opener since 2017 with 10th place in Bahrain, with the former Red Bull driver running as high as sixth at the time of his race-ending crash at the previous round in Australia.
For better or worse, Baku is the ideal sprint circuit
Vowles is not the only one expecting mayhem in the Baku sprint race – which goes some way to explaining why F1 is taking its funky format to Azerbaijan this weekend.
Among the wide-ranging complaints from drivers and spectators about the sprint is the choice of circuits, with Imola included last year not for its capacity to produce a short, sweet thriller but purely because of its status as the first European round of the 2022 season.
With the Red Bull Ring, Spa, the Circuit of the Americas and Interlagos also staging a sprint in 2023 – Qatar has made the list too – there seems to be a greater emphasis on tracks most likely to provide the fun racing integral to the long-term success of the format.
Which is fine, provided F1’s determination to produce a great spectacle doesn’t overlook other factors.
Take the controversial restart at the last race in Australia, where drivers were sent into battle for a two-lap dash to the finish in a situation specifically designed to cause chaos, encourage ill-judged decisions and prompt a discussion as to whether F1 was choosing showbiz over safety.