The new sprint weekend format promised more action for viewers and more headaches for the drivers. As it turned out, it didn’t provide much of either. Given that this was something entirely new it was bound to have a few issues, but ultimately the new format didn’t add much extra value to the racing we would’ve had anyway.
Full disclosure, I myself believed that the weekend would be a mess. The lack of practice sessions I believed would lead to greater errors from the drivers and teams causing chaos on the track. Instead, the teams played it very safe in anticipation of this, which led to a very well behaved grid that lacked excitement.
Great in Theory
The largest problem was that both qualifying and race sessions produced almost identical results. The Sprint Race feels like a spoiler for the actual Sunday race. The added Sprint Shootout, the qualifying session for the sprint race, wasn’t as exciting as the session on Friday, for that same reason.
Theoretically, more sessions that involve competition and impact on the World Championship means more entertainment value. In practice, the timing of the sessions, particularly the qualifying sessions, often highlighted the redundancy of their inclusion. Viewers complained that having qualifying for the race proper on Friday meant that many were at work and unable to watch it which is a shame given that this is the session that really matters. Granted, this could be easily fixed but it goes to show that the adding more events that “matter” can be counterintuitive.
In Australia, it’s often no issue due to the time difference, but for those who get to enjoy these races in the afternoon, Friday sessions are just not able to be viewed by a significant number of people.
Why Even Race?
Adding a qualifying session for the sprint was to try and incentivize drivers to push and take risks during the sprint race. Otherwise, the drivers are just trying to avoid causing damage to their car and risk losing their position for Sunday’s race. However, for those outside of the top 10, there was still little point to racing on Saturday.
As Sky Sports pundit, Naomi Schiff, said (via Planet F1), “… for the teams not performing that well – let’s say, below the top 10 – for them, the question is what is the point of today? If there are no points on the cards for them then everything out there, especially, on a track like this, is just a risk.”
Removing practice sessions and putting qualifying on Friday also removes the potential for teams in the midfield to improve their cars as parc ferme rules are implemented earlier. Schiff agreed that it must have been frustrating for the engineers over the weekend.
“I guess it’s quite frustrating for the engineers because you’ve only got that one session to do it and then, once you’ve established you’ve established an issue in the car after that, you can’t really fix it,” she said.
Of All the Tracks in All the World...
The decision to try out the format in Baku seems like one based not on the appropriateness of the track, but on the potential entertainment value. What’s more exciting than a chaotic race with plenty of overtakes and crashes? However, with a cost cap in effect, forcing teams to take risks in more sessions could potentially cost millions of dollars for little in return. So again, you have to ask why would the midfield teams, with typically smaller budgets, run that risk? Look at Logan Sargeant who couldn’t even compete in the sprint because of a shunt in the Sprint Shootout.
Alternatively, the same could happen to the top teams. A simple error could have found them out of position, providing opportunities to the midfield teams. As we saw, however, that didn’t happen as the teams seemed to have all agreed not to take too many risks and limit the damage to their cars (which also affected the enjoyment of the Sunday race).
Was it a Success?
So was the new format a success? It wasn’t as big of a trainwreck as it could have been, but it also didn’t add any extra value to the weekend. If anything, the format spoiled the Sunday race as what we learned in the sprint race was almost exactly what happened in the following race.