F1 Sprints have been Marmite with the sport’s fans since their introduction at Silverstone in 2021. Some fans love the excitement, whilst others believe it cheapens the spectacle of a Grand Prix weekend.
Regardless of what they felt after six sprints, Formula 1 decided to freshen up the format for the 2023 Azerbaijan GP with Saturday dedicated to the Sprint, whilst Friday’s Qualifying would set the grid for Sunday.
It meant teams and drivers would have only one practice session to fine-tune their cars before heading straight into Qualifying.
Although Friday’s Qualifying session was a classic dual between Charles Leclerc, Sergio Perez, and Max Verstappen, Saturday and Sunday were spectacularly underwhelming, with a combined total of 31 overtakes during both races.
So what is the verdict on the new format?
Positives – Qualifying meant something again
Whilst the old format setting Sunday’s grid, Qualifying was effectively made redundant, such iconic moments like Kevin Magnussen’s fairytale pole in Brazil and Verstappen’s dual with Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone in 2021 were quickly forgotten.
But with Friday’s session now setting the grid for Sunday’s GP, it meant Qualifying after just one practice session was back to being the most important session of the weekend.
Qualifying didn’t disappoint Leclerc, now determined to get Ferrari’s season off and running, ended Red Bull’s grip on Qualifying whilst Yuki Tsunoda dragged his AlphaTauri into Q3 for the first time in 2023.
The only downside of Qualifying’s return was that a good chunk of F1’s fanbase couldn’t watch because it took place on Friday afternoon when fans were working, cutting the TV audience down.
Negatives – Everything else
Qualifying remained the sole highlight from Baku, as Saturday and Sunday rapidly became damp squibs with a lack of overtaking, unprepared teams and drivers causing a downtown in action.
The revitalised Sprint, hindered by a DRS line which was made shorted, only had 13 overtakes, and Sunday’s race didn’t do much better with 18.
Reducing practice from three sessions to one forced drivers to take a more conservative approach, whilst Carlos Sainz openly expressed a lack of confidence in his driving because of the new format.
It meant more discussion about why the new Sprint format had failed and whether F1 needed a rethink after a weekend where overtaking opportunities were barren.
Verdict – Time to end the experiment
He may not be everyone’s cup of coffee, but Verstappen said it best, time to scrap the Sprint and refocus on how to get every team fighting for a win.
Gimmicks tend to have short-term gains, and the Sprint has showcased brief flashes of promise but little excitement on a weekend where 175 overtakes took place during Sunday’s IndyCar race at Barber.
The traditional format works much better, and even though some sessions are hardly classics, it’s stood the test of time for a reason due to its stability and giving fans plenty of on-track action.
Sprints have also become a sticking plaster to the real issues F1 faces, such as an overinflated calendar, cars too wide to pass with and a general lack of competition up front.
With F1 braced for six Sprints in 2023, a repeat of Baku would be a disaster as questions would increase over whether the sport needs a complete overhaul of its on-track product to keep fans entertained.