What’s the most exciting bit of a motor race? It’s often the start, isn’t it? The tension that has slowly built over a weekend winds to its peak as the red lights go out and a grid of cars explode off the line in a frenzy of colour and noise.
They will never be closer than in these moments as they jostle for position into the first turn, the drivers never at a greater risk of calamity, their fate resting in the lap of the gods – or the ability of each to keep within their own personal space. The start requires a delicious combination of driver skill, luck and a car working at its optimum – the holy trinity of riveting motorsport.
The trouble is, what happens if the rest of the afternoon turns out to be an anti-climax? Then the sport falls short in one of its key objectives: to entertain and keep us hooked to the end. Ideally, the best bit of any sport should come at the denouement – but genuine sport is too random to always stick to an ideal narrative arc. Sometimes sport – any sport – can appear dull, especially if the best performers start at the front, take an early lead and stay there.
So for motor racing, what’s the answer to this timeless conundrum? Logic might suggest if the best bit is often the beginning, why not create more than one? That seems to be part of the motivation behind a proposal to add a second race to Formula 1 grand prix weekends this year – all in the name of spicing up the show.
The sprint race trial
At three grands prix this season – in Canada, Italy and Brazil – there’s “broad support” from the F1 teams to trial a sprint race that will run on Saturday afternoons. It hasn’t been signed off yet and details need to be thrashed out, but right now the experiment looks more likely to go ahead than not. At these races, the three-tier qualifying session we’re familiar with will move to Friday and decide the line-up for the sprint race that will run over roughly 100km – about a third of the distance of a traditional grand prix. The result of the sprint will then define the starting order of the grid for the main event on the Sunday. The fakery of a reverse-grid format has been swept from the table (thankfully), and by maintaining an element of qualifying as we’ve always known it on the Friday (where the fastest driver over a single lap can show their pure speed and earn due reward), F1 can claim it remains true to its traditional principles as a supposedly genuine sporting meritocracy.
Typically, the drivers don’t approve. Among those to speak out during the 2021 team launch season were Max Verstappen, Sergio Pérez and Daniel Ricciardo, while newly green Sebastian Vettel offered a response born from his natural instinct. The four-time world champion and Aston Martin recruit has a respect and knowledge of F1 history uncommon among his peers and is something of a purist.