An unexpected pole-sitter. The world champion falling back. Former perennial winners resurgent. Team-mates scrapping. Overtaking everywhere.
The Formula One sprint race at the Brazilian Grand Prix was thrilling from start to finish, representing the best example of the format since it was introduced in 2021 as a bonus Saturday event at three race weekends per year in order to add an extra level of competitiveness to the action.
Sprint races have received a largely lukewarm response since their introduction, though. The shorter event – which constitutes 25 per cent of a normal race distance – sets the grid order for the main grand prix on the Sunday, and as such teams and drivers are normally reticent to take too many risks, worried about a mistimed overtaking manoeuvre sending them to the back of the pack on the day the majority of the points are on offer.
That has led to plenty of tepid sprints which have left pundits and fans pretty nonplussed rather than feeling strongly positive or negative, but F1 believes the format is a winner, and has committed to doubling their number to six from 2023 onwards.
“The sprint provides action across three days with the drivers all fighting for something right from the start on Friday through to the main event on Sunday, adding more drama and excitement to the weekend,” said F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali after the increase was confirmed in September.
As Saturday night’s event showed, the sprint does have the potential to add to the drama of an F1 weekend successfully. But the reason this one entertained far more than any other was that qualifying had already done its job for it.
The damp conditions and a red flag caused by George Russell’s dance into the gravel on Friday meant Kevin Magnussen took a stunning pole while the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc were left in the lower reaches of the top 10. When plenty of the real contenders are having to make their way through the field and an unexpected midfield runner is out front, that naturally leads to plenty of action in a field far more tight than it would normally be.
F1 sprint race weekend schedule
- Friday early afternoon, FP1: 60-minute practice session (as normal)
- Friday late afternoon, qualifying: 60-minute qualifying session, split into Q1, Q2 and Q3, to determine sprint race grid
- Saturday early afternoon, FP2: 60-minute practice session (as normal)
- Saturday late afternoon, sprint race: 100km race to determine grand prix grid (Points for drivers finish 1st-8th, from eight down to one)
- Sunday afternoon: Grand prix race as normal
The sensation of the sprint race at Interlagos, therefore, came from the unpredictability of the running order rather than the gimmick of the format change. In a season where only two of the ten teams have been able to win a grand prix in the opening 20 weekends, and Max Verstappen alone has taken a record-breaking 14 victories, the sight of an unfancied outsider being out front while the usual suspects hunted him down was a refreshing and riveting novelty.
It may be down to the teams themselves to produce the machinery to compete with one another, but more of that unpredictability is what F1 is should be aiming for in its 2023 season and beyond. The sprint might throw up its own excitement from time to time, sure, but the notion of competition, surprises and more teams and drivers being able to contend for glory on a regular basis is a far more sustainable and popular source of entertainment, whatever the format.