Formula One will have its first sprint race weekend of the 2023 season at Baku’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix this weekend, albeit with a tweaked format to how it ran in 2021 and 2022.
The sprint race was introduced to spice up certain races, offering venues the chance to effectively have three days of competitive running (Qualifying on Friday, a sprint race on Saturday, race on Sunday) rather than an entire Friday dedicated to practice sessions. That format has been polished up for the six events which will run under a sprint schedule in 2023.
The sprint is a shortened version of the grand prix, 100km of the circuit — in Baku that will equate to 17 laps.
The format has been met with a mixed reception and remains controversial, with reigning world champion Max Verstappen one of its biggest critics. The Dutchman has gone so far as to suggest F1’s constant tweaking and expanding of the sprint format will eventually lead to him quitting the sport.
So what’s changed? Why? And will it make a big difference?
The old format
Previously, F1’s main qualifying event on Friday, which is run in segments called Q1, Q2 and Q3, would set the grid for the sprint race.
The result of that shortened race would then set the grid for Sunday’s showpiece event.
Friday Practice One, Qualifying
Saturday: Practice Two, Sprint Race
Sunday: Grand Prix
This schedule was unpopular with teams, who said the Saturday practice session was effectively irrelevant.
The new format
Not only is that practice session now gone, but it has made way for a shorter, standalone qualifying session on Saturday — dubbed Sprint Shootout — which will set the grid for the sprint race itself.
Friday: Practice, Qualifying
Saturday: Sprint Shootout, Sprint Race
Sunday: Grand Prix
The key difference between Friday qualifying and the Saturday Shootout will be timings.
Friday Qualifying: 18 minutes
Saturday Shootout: 12 minutes
Friday Qualifying: 15 minutes
Saturday Shootout: 10 minutes
Friday Qualifying: 12 minutes
Saturday Shootout: 8 minutes
It is hoped that the shorter times will create more jeopardy, especially in Q3, where traffic or incidents on track could limit drivers to just a single timed attempt. It also means drivers setting a time late in the session are more at risk of a red flag leaving them with no qualifying time at all, potentially creating a mixed up grid order for the sprint.
The other major difference between Friday qualifying and Saturday Shootout will be tyres.
The Shootout dictates that all teams must use new tyres. In Q1 and Q2 it must be new mediums, while drivers setting a lap time in Q3 will have to do so on new soft tyres.
In both, five drivers will be eliminated from Q1 and Q2 apiece, leaving ten drivers to fight it out in Q3. In the record books, pole position will be the driver who qualifies fastest on Friday.
The change means everything that happens on Saturday is now dedicated to the sprint. A bad result or a crash in the sprint race will no longer ruin a driver’s starting position for the race itself.
So for example, when Kevin Magnussen took pole position in qualifying at the Brazilian Grand Prix last year, he would have started from first position on Sunday under the new schedule. As it ran under the old format, he started the race from eighth position having dropped to that position in the sprint race which followed.
This hasn’t changed. In the sprint, points are given to the top eight in descending order, 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.
That is a big difference to the grand prix, where points are given to the top ten, 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1, with a bonus point for anyone in the top ten who secures the fastest lap of the race. So the Sunday main event is still the more rewarding session in terms of the championship.
Will the new format make the sprint more exciting?
F1 certainly hopes so. Under the old format, where the result of the sprint race was a double-whammy, giving points out to the top eight and setting the grid for Sunday, drivers erred on the side of caution for the shorter format to not compromise the main event.
A crash would have a massive impact. A good example was Pierre Gasly at the 2021 Italian Grand Prix. Just one year on from his famous win the Frenchman had a nightmare under the sprint format, qualifying sixth but then crashing out of the sprint race. That meant he started the grand prix itself from last position.
Under the new format, Gasly would have started Sunday’s grand prix from sixth position regardless of his sprint race result. With Saturday now entirely dedicated to the sprint and the outcome having no impact on Sunday’s grid position, F1 believes drivers will have more to fight for.
F1 boss Stefano Domenicali is a big fan of the sprint race format and made headlines recently when he said he wanted to replace some practice sessions with more meaningful events. F1 says its research into the six sprint weekends over the past two years is that there is a major increases in both audiences and engagements on a Friday when fans are offered qualifying over a practice event.
However, there are still some obvious drawbacks. Teams are wary of the hefty repair bills that come with accidents, given the fact all 10 teams now operate within a cost cap.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner said in March: “The reality is it’s absolutely ludicrous to be doing the first sprint race of the year in a street race like Azerbaijan. I think from a spectacle point of view, from a fan point of view, it’s probably going to be one of the most exciting sprint races of the year.
“From a cost cap perspective, all you can do is trash your car. And it costs a lot of money around there. So one race is enough in Baku, the fact that we’ve got two [races], there could be well some action there.”
There will also be a question of whether the drivers in the lower half of the order during the sprint race have much motivation to continue once it is clear they cannot finish in the top eight — they will not be racing for points nor grid position, having already qualified for the Sunday event, and may be inclined simply to nurse a car to the finish or retire the car in the pits. For some, Baku’s sprint will be a high risk-zero reward style event, and it will be fascinating to see how this plays out in real time.
Why does the sprint divide opinion?
Reigning world champion Max Verstappen has suggested the sprint format could eventually lead him to leaving F1 for good if it becomes a bigger part of the schedule going forward. Verstappen’s reservations are with the concept rather than the format and he has said the new rules will not change his opinion.
“Even if you change the format, I don’t find that is in the DNA of Formula One to do these kind of sprint races,” Verstappen said before the new tweak was confirmed.
“I hope there won’t be too many changes, otherwise I won’t be around for too long.
“I am not a fan of it at all. When we do all that kind of stuff, the weekend becomes very intense and we already do a lot of races. But it is not the right way to go about it.
“I understand that they want to have every day exciting, but then I think it’s better to just reduce the weekend — only race the Saturday and Sunday. And if you start adding even more stuff, it’s not worth it for me. I’m not enjoying that.”
For some race promoters, sprint races are a fantastic addition to the calendar, giving them the chance to charge for three competitive days of action. This raises the question of where F1 draws the line with this new sprint concept. Fans will also have noticed that the amount of sprint races doubled from 2022 to 2023. It is not outrageous to suggest there will be more than six sprint races on future F1 calendars, which begs the questions as to whether the traditional format of a qualifying session on Saturday followed by a race on Sunday will slowly become the less common.
This might not be a bad thing for fans wanting to see three days of action, but some have voiced concerns that the sprint event dilutes the showpiece event on Sunday. With Max Verstappen and Red Bull dominating this season it may also not be the best advert for the format.