Drivers' comments expose F1 sprint race plan's shortcomings - The Race
Formula 1

Drivers’ comments expose F1 sprint race plan’s shortcomings

Feb 17 2021
By Valentin Khorounzhiy

McLaren Formula 1 team boss Andreas Seidl says there is “commitment from all the teams” to making a sprint race trial happen in 2021.

But while Seidl made it sound like a foregone conclusion, the comments of his two drivers – the first of the grid to speak on the specific F1 sprint race proposal getting traction under new CEO Stefano Domenicali – suggest the concept will be far from an easy sell as a permanent addition beyond 2021.

Following in the footsteps of the failed push to experiment with reverse-grid Saturday races, F1’s newest vision of sprint races places them as an intermediate step between Friday qualifying (which would replace the second practice session) and the Sunday race (which would draw its grid from the Saturday results).

Though the specifics of the format, and how it would work around F1’s current rules like parc ferme and tyre allocation, remain up in the air, it is known the sprint race is intended to award points on a diminished scale compared to the Sunday race, and that Montreal, Monza and Interlagos have been earmarked as the venues for the 2021 format trials.

Italian Grand Prix 2020 Monza

The proposal was discussed in an F1 Commission meeting and was understood to have received broad support from teams – something that Seidl corroborated when talking to the media ahead of the launch of McLaren’s 2021 F1 car.

“First of all, from the McLaren side we are also supportive of that discussion and the initiative,” Seidl said.

“As we have communicated last year, it was simply important that when we speak about, let’s say, different race formats, that it’s not something where you try to artificially change the pecking order, like a reverse-grid situation for example – which is not the case in the discussion we’re having at the moment.

“That’s why we were supportive. But it’s also clear in our working group to sort out the details as quickly as possible because the devil is always in the detail.

“But the commitment from all the teams is really supporting this initiative so I’m sure that’s something we can overcome quickly.

“And then we’re actually looking forward to try something like this this year, and then see how we go from there, towards the future.”

Seidl’s drivers also faced questions about F1’s latest format trial push, and both Lando Norris and his new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo were cautiously welcoming of experimenting with the idea.

2021mclarenf1launch

Both echoed Seidl in expressing relief that the proposal wouldn’t seem to substantially impact the default F1 pecking order, with Ricciardo remarking: “I was a little apprehensive but I think ultimately if the best guys and the best teams are still coming out on top and it’s kind of not manipulated or artificial, so to speak, then I’m less scared of it.”

However, both he and Norris then outlined hurdles that cannot be easily overcome and appear inherent to the very idea of the Saturday sprint race as F1 currently sees it.

The tradition angle

Italian Grand Prix grid 2020

Norris’ acceptance of the trial is borne out of the idea that it would preserve the natural balance of competition in F1 – that the top teams will continue to dominate, and that the worst teams will continue to labour for points.

“It’ll be interesting to do something maybe a little bit different,” Norris told Radio BBC 5 Live, “as long as it doesn’t interrupt the true, natural racing of Formula 1, and it doesn’t give people unnecessary advantages, [make it so that] people who are not in deserved positions are suddenly able to score points, or people get benefits from it, or disadvantages from it.

“As long as it’s thought out well, which I’m sure it will be, then I guess it’s welcome.”

“I like the way it’s set out, I like the build-up going into Sunday, the qualifying – it’s just the history, it’s how Formula 1 is, and I think it has a lot of heritage like that” :: Lando Norris

Under F1’s initial proposal, the sprint race will yield points for the top eight – a reduction from the top 10 that will give weaker teams less of a chance to fluke a strong result with the aid of a shortened race distance (or of an extra chance of benefitting from some start chaos).

The threat of ‘undeserved’ winners and point-scorers was much more prominent under the reverse-grid format. McLaren’s uniform scorn at the idea of reversed grids may be at least partly rooted in self-interest. As an upper-midfield team it would be adversely impacted more than most – its car’s pure performance would be penalised on the starting grid but it wouldn’t have a comfortable pace cushion over those ahead to ensure comfortable in-race progress through the order. Yet there’s also every reason to view its opposition last year as a genuine philosophical conviction.

But the new sprint race proposal’s advantage in that regard is also a disadvantage. All a Saturday sprint race that forms the Sunday grid would do is effectively simulate a mid-race red flag, or emulate NASCAR’s stage racing – a decent but hardly transformative addition – but make the stage break 20 hours rather than 15 minutes.

And while Norris does approve of a trial, he certainly doesn’t sound convinced that amending the tried-and-true format of a grand prix is the way to go.

“Trying it and trialling it to know if it’s a good thing is always very welcome, but I like how Formula 1 is now,” he said.

“I like the way it’s set out, I like the build-up going into Sunday, the qualifying – it’s just the history, it’s how Formula 1 is, and I think it has a lot of heritage like that.

“I hope it [the proposal] doesn’t change too much, but I don’t mind if they try something every now and then.”

The statistics angle

Pierre Gasly wins Italian Grand Prix 2020

An F1 race win is more prestigious than almost any other non-championship title accolade in motorsport, and it is more prestigious than most actual motorsport titles too.

It’s a big deal, and part of F1’s lustre is getting everyone participating to buy into that, to see a grand prix win as a seismic accomplishment, so that when Pierre Gasly wins at Monza and appears shellshocked on the podium everyone witnessing it can easily share and partake in that reaction instead of wondering, “what’s he so emotional about? It’s just one of 20 races in any given year”.

“I don’t ever want an F1 win to feel diluted” :: Daniel Ricciardo

A Saturday sprint race is therefore a statistical headache. To count it on par with a Sunday win and to make it so that every Saturday winner is a grand prix winner indelibly cheapens what a grand prix win means. To not count it, however, obviously cheapens the value of the spectacle on Saturday and makes the sight of an F1 car taking the chequered flag in first place considerably less special.

Ricciardo’s comments prove this is not just a conundrum for stats geeks.

Max Verstappen wins Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2020

“I think the biggest thing is, I want an F1 win to still feel as big as what it should be,” he says.

“I don’t ever want an F1 win to feel diluted, or somewhat lower than what it should.

“As long as, if they do bring in another race on the weekend, it carries the same value, then I guess I’m certainly more open-minded towards that.”

So how does F1 reconcile the monumental built-in importance of an F1 race win with the obvious differences between the Saturday race and the Sunday race under the new proposal?

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There doesn’t appear to be an easy answer, and if F1 and its teams think they’ve found one they will still need to carry out due diligence and work through every possibility.

And that’s why it’s surprising to already be hearing of a “commitment” to making a trial happen, and why you should expect that commitment to be severely tested, as well as expecting sprint races’ path to becoming an F1 mainstay to be so much thornier.

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