‘Not fish, not meat’ – F1 risks prioritising quantity over quality with sprint qualifying format

MONZA, Italy — Another sprint race, another underwhelming 100km of racing. The second running of Formula One’s experimental race format offered up a couple of spills but very few thrills at Monza on Saturday.

It wasn’t helped by the fact that the driver who qualified first on Friday, won the sprint race on Saturday and was therefore in line for pole position on Sunday, Valtteri Bottas, will start from the back of the grid following an engine change — but that’s another argument about F1 grid penalties that should probably be saved for another day.

The main problem with Saturday’s sprint race was a simple lack of overtaking.

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Dull races are to be expected in F1 — last weekend’s Dutch Grand Prix was hardly a thriller — but a big question remains over whether the sprint format has earned its place in Formula One.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff summed up the feeling towards the format on Saturday night, saying it was “not fish, not meat”, which roughly translates to “neither fish nor fowl.”

The sprint format will be used one more time this year in Brazil, but looks set for some modifications before it is rolled out again in 2022. Nevertheless, F1 motorsport director Ross Brawn wants to wait for the sample of all three races before passing his final judgement.

“We all know we get good and bad races,” he said on Saturday. “We might find in Brazil we have a fantastic sprint, so it’s over three races that we want to judge it.

“There’s probably an element in this event that drivers take a little less risk because they know they want to be there [still in the race].

“But lots of positives that we need to work on and build for what we take into next year.”

The clear positive of the sprint format, which remains a strong argument, is that over the course of a race weekend F1 has essentially exchanged a non-competitive, one-hour practice session for a 30-minute race. On paper that sounds like an upgrade, but the sport must be careful not to value quantity over quality.



Lewis Hamilton loses ground at the start of sprint qualifying and Pierre Gasly hits the barriers.

It is true that viewing figures will be higher if there are three competitive sessions over a weekend rather than the two, but if the sessions are not entertaining is it really an improvement?

“First of all, everybody is confused [by the format],” Wolff added. “I don’t know how it is with you, but I don’t know when each session is on [with the revised timings of the new format].

“I believe that the sprint race format as it stands at the moment doesn’t give a lot of benefit because nobody will take a serious risk [to overtake].

“There are too few points at stake and the risk of compromising your Sunday grand prix, in which points on offer all the way to tenth position, is just not worth the risk. What we have seen today is a combination of general difficulties in overtaking because the straight line speeds are very similar [between cars], but even Turn 1 and 2 nobody takes a risk.

“So let’s give it another try in Brazil, let’s see if there is anything that changes, and it was a worthwhile experiment. But for me, as a personal opinion and the opinion of the engineers here: ‘not fish, not meat’.”

One suggestion starting to gain traction in the paddock is to convert the sprint into a standalone race on a Saturday that offers points to more than just the top three drivers. It would have no impact on setting the grid, would still carry less kudos than the main race on Sunday but would help provide the extra 30 minutes of action F1 is keen to deliver.

Brawn, who seems reluctant to abandon the idea of sprint races entirely, believes it could provide the solution.

“We had a [sit down] session with the drivers after [the first sprint race at] Silverstone and I must say they were very positive, but some of them felt there should be more reward for the sprint, there should be more jeopardy in the sprint, and I think if we’re doing that then maybe a standalone event is a consideration,” Brawn said.

“So I think qualifying on a Friday, race on a Sunday, but a standalone event with some decent reward but maybe a little bit of jeopardy in the grid of how you start it. But we have to be conscious, we don’t want gimmicks, we don’t want an artificial [race], we don’t want to cannibalise, we don’t want to affect the integrity, there’s a definitely potential there.”

But there is also the question of whether a 100km race will ever offer excitement. In normal conditions — i.e. a dry race without major incident — most overtaking during a grand prix is created by diverging tyre strategies. Yet without the full 300km distance for the strategies to play out, the only passing is created by drivers making mistakes.

“My feeling is the sprint is too short and the cars are driving pretty much flat-out every single lap and don’t offer enough opportunity between the cars to be able to overtake,” George Russell, who will join Mercedes in 2022, said.

“Normally when you see overtaking it’s because of a tyre [performance] delta, but everybody goes out there, everybody is within a few tenths of each other and you only get that overtaking opportunity when there is a tyre delta. But 100km doesn’t give you that opportunity.

“Maybe we need to run softer tyres or make it mandatory to be no the soft tyre. I’m glad they’re trying things, but for me, you’ll finish where you started with this format,” he added.

One hope is that F1’s new regulations next year, which are aimed at making it easier for drivers to race wheel to wheel, will have the simple effect of improving racing over both short and long distances.

“We are optimistic that next year’s car is going to help a lot, but I must say I was surprised how difficult it was to overtake with DRS [on Saturday],” Brawn said. “This was one of the races we selected because we thought there was going to be more opportunity, but as the race panned out that didn’t seem to be the case. So next year’s car will definitely be a step forward.”

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who dropped from second to fifth following a bad start on Saturday, added on the matter: “There was not much overtaking in the two races we have had, but I still think it is a good exercise and I’m proud of F1 for trying something and there are definitely going to be learnings from these sprint races.

“I am sure we can adapt it for next year and hopefully next year there is more overtaking if Ross’s car delivers what they promise to deliver.

“We have to try and do something different at some of these tracks where there is no overtaking. I know as a fan…it is not fun as a driver. It is not fun for the fans not to see any action.”

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