❎ F1'24: A small but worse weekend change

Switching the weekend format round is not the way forward for F1

One of the quieter things that has happened over the F1 off-season is that the authorities announced a change to the weekend schedule when a sprint is involved.

Previously, Friday would be home to FP1 and Grand Prix qualifying, with the Sprint Shootout and the Sprint itself being on a Saturday, with the weekend ending with the main event, the Grand Prix. This makes sense to me and is the most fan-friendly way of doing things.

Now, Friday will still kick off with FP1 (it would be weird if it didn’t) before hosting the Sprint Shootout. This sets the grid for Saturday’s Sprint, and after the adrenaline rush of the shortened race, the drivers will settle back in for qualifying, to set the grid for Sunday’s feature race.

I can see the reasons for this - it’s more logical, going from practice to sprint to Grand Prix, and it keeps the element of suspense from Friday and then Saturday’s results carrying through to the next day.

But there are several reasons why this new layout is going to make things worse for fans and drivers.

Firstly, let’s look at the Saturday, along with the rest of the sporting landscape.

IT’S WORSE FOR VIEWERS

Several sports in the UK have negotiated a free-to-air component alongside their paywalled deals. It blends the best of both worlds, getting the visibility of FTA coverage and the money from beyond the paywall. Prospective fans get a little bit of coverage and know where to go if they’d like more. 

This model has worked for the FA Cup, the Hundred, and two sports with Super Leagues - netball and rugby league. There is a good selection of sport on terrestrial broadcasters that unless you really like a particular sport, you can probably make do without Sky or TNT. 

That has been the business model for F1 in the UK, where live coverage lives on Sky, with the exception of the British Grand Prix. For over a decade, Sky Sports F1 have held the rights and a generation of fans have watched there. It’s a move Formula E replicated with TNT, coming off a decent FTA broadcaster in Channel 4 and moving everything to the artists formerly known as BT Sport. 

Where does the F1 sprint come into it? I’m glad you asked. I always thought the Saturday Shootout and Sprint format was a good way to bring people into F1, give them a taste of what the sport can be on the track and bring them in to getting a 24-hour pass for the Grand Prix. It felt perfectly formatted for terrestrial, and a broadcaster like Channel 4 going for it, sandwiched in between a couple of episodes of A Place in the Sun and it would be that small gateway drug into F1 proper. For all the talk of the Netflixication of sports via shoulder programming and driver beef, nothing - nothing - beats live sports.

IT’S WORSE FOR DRIVERS

The other disappointing aspect of this switch by F1 is that the Sprint and Grand Prix Qualifying are on the same day. Putting these together now means drivers might be less inclined to go for that spectacular, but risky overtake, knowing that a wreck might put them out of Qualifying, forcing them to start from the pit lane (hey!) and wreck their chances of points on both the Saturday and the Sunday. 

The Sprint Race no longer becomes this mini-preview, with drivers taking more risks on a dying set of tyres for that extra point. It becomes an exercise in damage control, of seeking to come out of 100kms unscathed, fresh to fight another day, when the longer distances might take out a few rivals ahead of you.

It flies in the face of the reasons for the Sprint. Look at the popularity of T20 cricket, for example, where the reduced number of balls forces you to play at shots you might otherwise leave. Your aggression is normally rewarded. Shorter formats should be about risk, running through a crowded room of lasers rather than spending time to tiptoe and tapdance through them. The Sprint as Saturday’s main event works best in terms of event flow. There is still jeopardy, but nothing a crack team of jetlagged mechanics working an all-nighter can’t fix.

IT’S WORSE FOR REVERSE GRIDS

Because of this element of risk management in the shortened format, it feels like the dream of reversed grids gets further and further away. Let’s say the Sprint Shootout was abolished and replaced by having the Championship standings reversed as the starting grid. Instead of watching the leaders at the front, there would be a true reason to watch, with the videogame element of seeing a last-to-first challenge take place, packs of drivers moving together through the field and seeing if 19 laps in Florida is enough to shake up the grid.

The drivers starting at the front might try a different strategy too, attempting to work out how they can potentially sneak a point or two, as opposed to running a mini race back in 19th.

F1 thrives on risk. When the potential punishment is worse than the risk itself, drivers will invariably play it safe. And who wants to watch a safe Sprint?

There are probably other reasons why this move is bad. It’s not easy to fit everything in on an F1 weekend, especially with F2, F3, the Academy and even some fancy Porsches flying about on some Sundays. But in this case, the old format worked well, and this change makes no sense for viewers or drivers.

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