Formula One Sprints: A failed experiment?


Sprint races – in their current form – can’t continue taking away from the rest of the week

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Image by Morio

By Jude Cobb

The 2021 São Paulo Grand Prix Weekend could be regarded as the greatest performance by an individual driver across a weekend in Formula 1 history. Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time in every qualifying session only to be disqualified for an illegal rear wing and had to start the sprint from 20th on the grid for the Sprint Race. He then used this sprint to rise up to 5th on the grid for Sunday’s race which became 10th after a 5-place grid penalty. From this position he went on to drive an incredible race, eventually overtaking Max Verstappen for the lead on lap 58 and maintaining his championship challenge.

When compared to the same weekend in 2023, it was not only the lack of genuine competition to Ver-stappen’s dominance that caused an arguably boring weekend, as the excitement of Lando Norris’ sprint pole had little effect beyond the first corner of the Sprint Race and had absolutely no effect on Sunday’s race, the pin-nacle of the weekend. This separation of races on the weekend is something that would have made Hamilton’s masterful display in 2021 impossible, as in the current format sprints split the weekend into Friday and Sunday for the race and Saturday for the Sprint Races. This raises a number of issues, the easiest to dismiss is the fact that qualifying is on a Friday which limits its accessibility to viewers at work or school, as it more often than not occurs in the early afternoon. During the São Paulo sprints Sky presenter Martin Brundle raised this issue, as no fan wants to miss the first competitive running of any weekend. He claimed it would be the most impor-tant change for Liberty Media when tweaking the sprints for next year.

This, however, is not the largest issue, as with the Sprint having its own qualifying and taking up all of Saturday it is re-ducing the reverence of Sunday’s race, which is obviously the pinnacle of all weekends, with per-haps the jovial exception of Monaco – with it’s qualifying session being billed as the most impor-tant of the season. The Sprint Race is around a third of the race distance which when combined with around 30 minutes of “sprint shootout” qualifying makes the whole process take almost as long as the race itself, again taking away from the race, where the serious points are given out.

This brings me on to the next issue with sprints, the point distribution. Currently first gets eight points, second gets seven and so on, until eighth gets just one. This issue is two-fold, especially in the current climate of Formula 1, with five clearly dominant teams – with perhaps a question to be asked about the downturn in performance from Aston Martin towards the second half of this season. This notwithstanding, the top ten and especially top eight positions before any given weekend can be assumed to contain drivers from those five teams, meaning more than likely, the teams that will be getting these single digit points will have hundreds of points to their name in the championship. Though the old adage “every point counts” remains true even at these high levels it is unlikely that a haul of twelve points to six is going to change much between constructors who are regularly scoring podiums. I have alluded to the 2021 Sprints which didn’t have the “Sprint shootouts” and only gave out three, two and one points for the top three, which though not perfect did a much better job of giving points and is generally similar to the fastest lap rule. With this system, the sprints aren’t likely to decide any championship positions, though it doesn’t pretend it will, unlike the current system.

The essential issue is that the current distribution offers a small amount of points to the lowest teams, where individual points mean so much more, though the chances of achieving these positions is a lot harder, with two fewer positions to aim for. This issue was seen in the São Paulo sprint, as the Alpha Tauri cars both performed well in the shootout but were left to scrap for the bottom few positions, which ended with Yuki Tsunoda scoring three points for a sixth place finish, which would be worth eight points in a full race. Therefore, Alpha Tauri were limited to a three point gain due to a strong Saturday, whereas in 2021, this would have given the team two top ten starts with no points, but a higher chance to score bigger points in the race itself.

Despite the ludicrously low points, relative to the total points of the front runners, this year a Sprint coincided with Verstappen’s title win. Only needing to score six points over the entirety of the weekend of the Qatar Grand Prix, Verstappen predictably took a noteless Sprint win to confirm his third World Driver’s Championship anticlimactically on Saturday. Though there have of course been arguably boring title deciders in the past, looking even to Hamilton’s complete lack of challenge from Valtteri Bottas in the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix, it has always been decided in a race, Did Not Finish (DNS)’s not-withstanding. It is important to note that all of Verstappen’s titles have been decided controversially, with 2021’s contested season finale, and 2022’s post-race penalty for his challengers. Though of course this year’s championship battle was nothing beyond the first four races, due to Verstappen’s dominance, the Sprint in Qatar took the final drop of excitement from Driver’s championship for the season.

Therefore, though it is obvious that sprint races – in their current form – can’t continue taking away from the rest of the weekend this doesn’t mean that they are to go the same way as the 2016 qualifying experiment, as they have provided some incredible racing. The simplest fixes are clearly changing the points system to either very little or a much higher amount, rather than this unproductive middle ground and to axe the shootout, as it only confuses the weekend. One huge positive is that, contrary to the 2016 experiment, the ownership of F1 are clearly committed to experimenting to try and improve the viewing experiences of the fans, along with of course, their bottom line.