Formula 1's New Sprint Format Adds Nothing
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Just four days ago, Formula 1 finally confirmed long-planned changes to the sprint racing format used in select weekends throughout the past two seasons. Those changes went into effect in time to apply to this weekend's 17-lap sprint race in Azerbaijan, and the results were not inspiring.
In the past, sprint races were effectively an extra session between qualifying and the race that awarded a few points in exchange for drivers putting their qualifying positions on the line before the race itself. That has now changed, with the traditional race weekend confined to just qualifying and practice on Friday before a race on Sunday. Saturdays have been replaced with an event scored entirely differently, with separate sprint qualifying in the morning before a race that exists only to award a small number of points to the top eight in the afternoon.
In other words, the only outcome of today's chaotic sprint that mattered were the points distributed. That sounds valuable enough on its own, but the reality is that the point system selected (eight for the winner, and one fewer for every position behind up to eighth) makes only a marginal difference for teams that regularly race in those spots and would make little to no impact in an all-out championship battle between two drivers like the one we saw in 2021. In practice, it rendered almost everything we saw today meaningless.
The race may have been entertaining in its own right, but look at the results: George Russell and Max Verstappen's collision early cost them no more than two or three points each and did not impact their races tomorrow. Sergio Perez may have run a strong race to get away from the scuffles behind him, but his eight points are just one more than potential rival for second in the championship Charles Leclerc scored in second. Alex Albon outperformed expectations to get a Williams to ninth even after his teammate crashed out in qualifying, but he did not even score a point.
F1 designed these sprint races to make Saturday tickets more valuable, and by putting cars on track one more day they have at least accomplished that. Making these races actually mean anything is another goal, and one the series has only drifted further away from accomplishing since introducing these races two years ago. The most exciting and significant of these was Brazil in 2021, when Lewis Hamilton was able to do most of his moving through the grid from last early after a penalty and set himself up for a race win on Sunday. With sprint race results no longer setting the grid for Sunday, these rules make such a race impossible.
Five more sprint races remain this season, all of which will use the new-for-2023 format. In the third year experimenting with added race sessions, F1 still has not shown why any of those races will be valuable.
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