Verstappen’s sprint race comments reveal wider battle for F1’s soul

Formula 1 finds itself at a crossroads to define itself into the 2030s

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Max Verstappen is fed up. Speaking ahead of the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, he made those frustrations clear.

The man at the top of Formula 1, who’ll be its undisputed figurehead once Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso retire, the most successful sprint driver in history took aim at the new format, and the wider changes sweeping through F1.

“I’ve got to be careful what I say now,” Verstappen said. “But even if there won’t be any more sprint races or whatever and we keep expanding the calendar, if the whole weekend is that long you question yourself, is that worth it?

“I do like racing, I do like winning, of course the salary and everything, you have a good life, but is it actually a good life?

“At the end of the day everyone is entitled to their own opinion of course, and sometimes what I think is right, some people don’t agree with.

“But I just think as a pure racer, what is right. When you’re running a business, what’s right is sometimes different so it’s just, I guess a difference in opinion.

“I think you always have to be talking to yourself and looking at yourself, are you still very motivated, fully motivated? And do you love what you do?”

Max Verstappen celebrates his first world title | Lars Baron / Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Verstappen is a divisive figure in F1. His hugely controversial 2021 championship title followed by two seasons of largely crushing dominance over the field make him easily dislikeable to many, as is the fate of any era-defining driver.

And here he is, complaining about doing his job. A job that pays $55 million in 2023, driving extremely fast cars in exotic locations all around the world in front of the adoring eyes of thousands in the stands and many more at home.

A job millions of people around the world would kill for. But as Andy finds out in The Devil Wears Prada, things aren’t that simple. And whatever side you come down on, Verstappen’s comments illustrate a deeper transition within F1 that will set the sport up for at least the rest of the 2020s, if not well into the ’30s as well.

The calendar

Kimi Raikkonen celebrates the crowning moment of his F1 career at the 2007 Brazilian Grand Prix | Ferrari F1 Team

F1 is big business these days. As recently as 2007, Kimi Raikkonen was literally ushered into an Interlagos stairwell after winning the championship by one point at the season finale, before stepping onto the podium for a tinny rendition of the Finnish national anthem while his flag was jolted aloft above home. At the Brazilian – not Sao Paulo GP no less.

But 2023 is a much slicker affair, and the changes go much deeper than making the cool-down room an actual room.

As shown by the introduction and expansion of sprint races, Liberty Media are pushing for action on all three days of a weekend and they’re not likely to want to just stop at six events on the year.

Azerbaijan GP 2023 Sprint winner Sergio Perez of Red Bull | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Introducing the sprint races shakes up a generation of a settled and popular weekend format and goes much further than two-day qualifying ever impacted

Continuing to expand the number of sprint races will fundamentally alter the nature and perception of F1 to future fans. Forget motorsport, the scale of its impact would be akin to the introduction of ODI or T20 cricket.

But whether next year, or in five or ten, the number of sprint races will only keep going up as long as F1 wants it to. What’s the limit? Well that partly depends on how many races F1 wants to settle at.

Since Lewis Hamilton said he’d retire if the calendar stretched to 25 races, the world has stubbornly prevented F1 from expanding beyond 22 per year.

For now, Stefano Domenicali wants to keep that number at 24 once they can get a fully-completed season, but he’s also hinted it could go up to as many as 30 – or more.

The impact on fans, teams and drivers of this season on season, could also be huge – just ask Verstappen.

But regardless of whether he walks away in 2028, F1 risks oversaturating itself in the name of profit. The laws of supply and demands apply to television audiences the same as anything else, and with today’s sky-high TV package prices F1 risks oversaturating itself to fans. Especially if it doesn’t have any title battle to sustain that expansion.

The tracks

General view of drivers in action during 2022 Belgian Grand Prix qualifying REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

As well as how many races F1 has, the sport is nearing a watershed moment for the profile of its races too.

In stuffing its pockets with as much Middle-Eastern money as it can fit and buying so heavily into the promised land and neon lights of the US, F1 has heaped unimaginable pressure on the European leg of the calendar.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are completely unnecessary – and morally corrupt – additions to the calendar (as much as Jeddah has at least produced exciting races) while there’s no need for races in both Las Vegas and Miami.

But if any more tracks want to get on the calendar, it’ll likely come at the expense of Silverstone, Monza, Spa, Monaco, Imola, Zandvoort, Barcelona or Baku.

F1 needs its great cathedrals just as much as its high-rise skyscrapers, and all of those tracks bar one have produced exciting racing just since the pandemic.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates after winning the 2021 British GP Pool via REUTERS/Lars Baron

Silverstone, Monza, Spa and Monaco are the only tracks that F1 retains from its original calendar, so those at the top of the sport really need to decide how much they value that.

Because it takes 73 years to rebuild that kind of history and that heritage as the pinnacle of motorsport – that which can be traced back over so many decades – shouldn’t be axed lightly.

However much their promotional material says otherwise, that tradition is always expendable to companies, to businesses.

For sport it’s different. They’re built on that history and tradition and you can’t change any of those decades of status quo without risking alienating fans and cutting that link to the past.

F1‘s next few years will speak volumes on which camps it places itself in.

Where is the next F1 2023 race?

The next F1 race is the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix which will be the second sprint weekend of the year, held at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg on June 30 to July 2.

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