Sprint races have divided opinion since coming into Formula 1, but with the continued push to expand action on all three days of racing, they’re not going away any time soon.
It’s a year since one of the more average sprint races, at the 2022 Austrian Grand Prix, after which Total-Motorsport.com‘s Nigel Chiu wrote his critique of sprint races, why he thinks they don’t work and how they can be improved.
But the three sprints since then have been some of the best of the bunch, delivering two entertaining battles between Max Verstappen and George Russell and a brilliant, helter-skelter affair at the Red Bull Ring.
And it was that Austrian sprint race that best encapsulates what the concept should focus on in F1. Some circuits have a knack for breeding unpredictability and that’s what the sprint races should seek to capitalise on.
This misconception around sprint races
One of the most common criticisms of F1 sprint races is that they subtract from the action, but that doesn’t hold much weight when looking at what they replace.
The Austrian sprint qualifying and race were better than anything free practice has to offer (just think back to FP1 in Canada), and that’s the actual cost of the sprint events. Lewis Hamilton spoke about how boring the repetitive three practices-qualifying-race is after so many years in the sport.
F1 and motorsport is an outlier, you just can’t compare sprints with T20 cricket or the first leg of a football tie. It’s a separate beast and needs to be analysed as such. Every weekend in-season there’s hundreds of football matches taking place across Europe alone, but F1 doesn’t enjoy that glut across the season.
There’s a finite amount of laps throughout the season and some of them have to be driven at Abu Dhabi, so the more that can be like we’ve seen in Austria, the better.
The effect on raceday
There’s now been six sprints where it affected the race grid, and you could make the argument that all six of them have previewed entertaining and memorable grand prix.
The first-ever sprint directly set up Verstappen and Hamilton‘s controversial 2021 Silverstone collision, and the dramatic chase for victory that set up, as it gave both drivers a dry run of the battle that would occur over the opening laps of the race itself.
Later that year in Sao Paulo, the sprint enabled Hamilton to recover up the grid and put him in position to take victory in the grand prix victory, one of the most dramatic of the 2020s so far. And that result helped set up the winner-takes-all showdown in Abu Dhabi, a race that no fan will forget.
Daniel Ricciardo took victory at Monza in 2021 after another exciting grand prix was previewed by Valtteri Bottas‘ sprint victory and George Russell did the double at Interlagos.
Baku 2023 was the outlier, the first under the new system that isolates the sprint on Saturday and doesn’t affect Sunday. That grand prix turned out pretty processional, so it’ll be interesting to see if it’s a one-off or that trend continues throughout the season.
However, qualifying is F1‘s most consistent source of entertainment as it gives a better focus on battles further down the grid that are more competitive than the top – and the Austrian sprint shootout was no exception.
The Verstappen factor
Right now, one man is dominating F1 and that’s not looking like it’ll change anytime soon.
When Verstappen starts in front then he wins – in fact the 2022 Austrian GP was also the last time he didn’t win a grand prix after starting on pole. Before that, the last race he finished and failed to win as the polesitter was the 2021 Bahrain GP.
It’s a truly mind-blowing record, and ahead of F1‘s return to Austria in 2023, Verstappen has led 223 consecutive laps of racing. So right now, races are more exciting when some misfortune befalls him, and sprints are no different.
The Baku sprint saw Verstappen lose out and sustain damage on the opening lap that handicapped the Dutchman throughout the rest of the race, and he also suffered damage plus high tyre degradation at the 2022 Sao Paulo sprint that enabled Russell to catch and pass him.
But Verstappen‘s dominance from the front isn’t a sprint race problem, it’s an F1 problem. When there were teams that could stand up to Red Bull in 2021 and the start of 2022, the sprint races delivered good battles.
The focus of the sprint races should be giving F1 a chance to show the best of itself, and extend good battles where possible. That’s why Sao Paulo and Silverstone have both been successful, neither has delivered a bad grand prix for over five years.
Though not quite in the same tier, the Red Bull Ring isn’t far behind and even managed to succeed as entertainment despite Verstappen‘s dominance.
And in doing so it showed the true value of sprint races: if implemented correctly they allow the best of the sport, and that’s something F1 fans shouldn’t take for granted.
Where is the next F1 2023 race?
With the F1 circus finished in Austria, we move on to the 2023 British Grand Prix which will be held at Silverstone in Northamptonshire, England over the weekend of July 7-9.