“I don’t have the answer. I know what we have today needs tuning.” Christian Horner’s thoughts on Formula 1’s troubled and much-disliked sprint format won’t be taken by the commercial rights holder as a particularly useful interjection on the subject. But if pronouncements such as these are lacking in specific and actionable proposals to improve the format, they certainly chime with the majority opinion in the paddock: it’s not working.
The drivers think the sprints are pointless and so do the teams they represent. And, crucially, they’re not shy about expressing their contempt for the concept. Horner again: “It’s like you’ve won a long run [ie in a practice session] and got a medal for it.”
Nevertheless, F1 remains committed to the concept. You have to wonder why. Promoters remain divided over its draw in terms of ticket sales and this, theoretically, was the point – extending the spectacle over the whole weekend. Eliminating ‘pointless’ practice sessions where drivers circulated as a car-fettling exercise was also (quietly) intended to introduce unpredictability. But this has had unintended consequences, as in the US where lack of running on full tanks in practice was fingered as the likely cause of the plank wear which resulted in Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc being DSQ’d.
I have a suspicion – this based on a weekend of having to play dodge-the-selfie in the Austin paddock – that at least part of the motivation for tinkering with the weekend format is to bolster the highly lucrative (for F1) VIP/Paddock Club ticket offering on Saturdays. As such we can expect more sprints, rather than fewer, as the years progress.
Could sprint fatigue also be related to one driver’s domination? Winning the world championship hasn’t quenched Max Verstappen’s thirst for victory and when one individual takes pole on Friday, another pole and a race win on Saturday, then another win on Sunday, the reaction of the mainstream media and the punter in the street is to shrug their shoulders and say “meh”.
One way forward which would benefit the category as a whole is if the other competitors could be prevailed upon to get their acts together. One such is Ferrari, which has endured another troubled season after promising so much at the dawn of the second ground-effect era. This month we consider one half of the driver line-up, Carlos Sainz; the combination of Carlos with Charles Leclerc is rightly considered to be one of the strongest in F1 and yet, as recently as this summer, word was that Maranello’s movers and shakers had cooled their enthusiasm for Carlos somewhat.
While that picture has changed once more, what we really need is for Ferrari to get itself into a place where both drivers are in the mix on a given weekend rather than just one…