Formula 1 hasn’t wasted an opportunity to declare the sprint qualifying format it introduced last year a resounding success with immense popularity among the sport’s fans.
After its debut at Silverstone, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said the sprint format had received “overwhelmingly positive feedback from teams, drivers and fans”.
But after two more of its sprint events, F1 was ready to admit its innovation had some shortcomings and pledged to make changes to it for the coming season. But with the start of the new championship just six weeks away, exact details have yet to be confirmed.
Nonetheless, F1 pledged last year to double the number of sprint events on its 2022 calendar, taking the total to six. Now this too is in doubt.
The merit of the sprint events is not at stake: Inevitably, it is a dispute over money. Three teams are pushing for a break in F1’s budget cap, which drops to $140m (£103m) plus exceptions this year, to cover potential accident damage costs from three races additional sprints.
There is undoubtedly an element of opportunism in this. Last year’s three sprint races resulted in little further damage, with Pierre Gasly’s crash at Monza being a significant exception.
Nevertheless, the potential for costly accidents is clearly there. Sprint races add an additional standing start to race weekends, during which the risk of an incident is high.
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Red Bull suffered three crash retirements shortly after standing starts last season: Max Verstappen at Silverstone and Sergio Perez at the Hungaroring (where Verstappen also suffered racing damage) and Jeddah. If a crash puts a power unit out of circulation, as has happened on two such occasions, the bill explodes.
It may not be a coincidence that last week Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who previously supported the sprint format, recently gave it rather lukewarm support and said the weather was counted for F1 to firm up its plans for the new season.
“I’m very purist,” he said. “I believe qualifying and the race are the fundamental aspects of a grand prix. I think the sprint races were interesting last year. I think the format was not perfect. But if you don’t try not something that you don’t know, and I think there are things that could be done to make it more exciting, to make it more interesting.
“But it’s getting quite late now and we’re going to have to make a decision very soon.”
F1 then presented its compromise proposal to drop from six sprint races to three. So has his hope for more sprint action in 2022 been dashed by the greed of a few teams?
McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown warned of the possibility last month. “Some teams are still looking for excuses to raise the cost cap and win world championships with checkbooks,” he said. “The continued lobbying by some teams to increase the cost cap for sprint racing damages is a continuing example of this.
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“Formula 1’s Saturday sprint race initiative has added new viewers and raised the profile of the sport to expand its global fanbase. However, these teams continue to demand an increase in the cost cap of an inordinate amount of money, despite clear evidence that little damage was sustained at these races last year, in a thinly veiled attempt to protect themselves from the erosion of their competitive advantage.
How sincere are the three teams in their cost concerns, will the loss of three sprint races this year cause much disappointment? Perhaps not for sponsor Crypto.com which, given its recent troubles, would surely welcome a cheaper-than-expected bill for the format brand in 2022.
As for the fans, their view of the format has always seemed much more mixed than F1 claimed. While Domenicali claimed that “the vast majority of feedback we receive is totally positive, super positive”, the numbers paint a different picture. An F1-backed survey of more than 167,000 fans last year found that 40% (two in five) felt sprint qualifying had “improved the show” while 34% (more than one in three ) disagreed.
The sprint experience has shown that if you replace a training session with a race, schedule that race on a Saturday and hold it and Friday qualifying later in the day than usual, the viewing figures go up . It was a predictable result. Nevertheless, this will have been well noted in Liberty Media’s quarterly earnings reports, in which he strongly highlighted the success of his sprint races.
But despite the positive turn in F1, sprints have not yet been widely accepted by F1 fans. Many of them responded to yesterday’s news by observing that, as F1 had dropped three sprint races for 2022, it only needed three more to reach the ideal number: zero.
When F1 was looking for a race in Miami, it urged fans to write to local politicians and urge them to support the proposal. If he hopes fans will start asking teams to change their stance on sprint races, they will surely be disappointed.
2022 F1 Season
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