Did Austria sprint shootout expose need for F1 tyre rule rethink?
Did the Austrian Grand Prix sprint weekend inadvertently provide Formula 1 with an easy opportunity to simplify the tyre rules while throwing a little more randomness into the mix?
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19
That’s certainly how it looked after wet weather voided the strict tyre usage rules in the Saturday shootout and allowed everyone to use whatever slick compound they wanted to over the three sessions.
That led to some frantic laps as drivers worked their way through the soft tyres that they had access to. But there was the unusual sight of Nico Hulkenberg using new mediums in SQ3 to secure fourth on the sprint grid as others scrambled around on second-hand softs.
The whole spectacle suggested that consideration should be given to the accidental format that F1 stumbled across in Austria being applied at the season’s remaining sprints, possibly even starting in Spa at the end of this month.
To recap, when the rules for the standalone sprint Saturday were formulated ahead of Azerbaijan, how tyres were to be used over the weekend was one of the main talking points between the FIA, the teams and Pirelli. The bottom line was that the previously largely redundant FP2 session was being replaced with a three-part qualifying session, which meant an extra demand for new soft tyres.
"The discussion started in Baku, because it was decided to change to this new format quite late and we already delivered the tyres to Baku," says Pirelli F1 boss Mario Isola. “We had an allocation that was already defined. That was the one for the sprint event. When we had this discussion, I said the tyres are already there, or they are arriving at the circuit. So we need the time to react to if you want to modify the breakdown of the compounds.
“And so during a sporting committee we had a discussion on that. And we said let's try to imagine how to do the race weekend, with the allocation that is already defined. And obviously you have more sets of mediums compared to what you have of the soft compound in a standard race. In a standard race, you have eight sets of soft, in the sprint event you have six.
“The idea was if I use one set of soft in free practice, then I have only five. I need three or four for the normal qualifying, or five if you need two for Q2, and then you run out of tyres for the sprint shootout.”
Sprint weekends have added a new element to the F1 calendar
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
All sorts of permutations were kicked around, including free usage across the whole weekend, but in the end it was decided that there should be a compulsory allocation for the three shootout segments, with new mediums for SQ1 and again in SQ2, and new softs for SQ3.
“The alternative tyre allocation, the one we are going to test in Budapest, is two hard, two medium and two soft, in Q1, Q2 and Q3,” says Isola. “One idea was let's take from this idea, let's see what we can do to adapt to the new situation. The original idea was hard, medium, soft. But then we had only two sets of hard, and four sets of medium. So we said okay, medium, medium, soft.”
In Baku, teams were quick to realise that, especially if they didn’t think they would make it to SQ3, there was no point in saving a set of softs that might be used more productively in an earlier session. Indeed, AlphaTauri did that with Yuki Tsunoda, who used an extra set in FP1 to be better prepared for GP qualifying, and McLaren with Lando Norris, who used an extra set in that qualifying session. The following day the Japanese driver didn’t make SQ3 so it didn’t matter, but Norris did make it through.
He had no new softs left so in theory he couldn’t take part – but a grey area in the regs meant that the team was prepared to run him on intermediates on a dry track if by doing a token lap he could gain a grid position. Had he done so it would have been a farcical situation, but it was equally silly that he was stuck in the garage and only nine cars ran in SQ3.
Extrapolate that to multiple drivers either staying in the garage in SQ3 at the next sprint in Austria, or battling each other to do a dry time on inters, and it would not have been a good look…
That’s why the FIA played a joker built into the 2023 sprint regs. It allows for changes up until the end of July, after the third sprint of the year in Spa, if any anomalies or “unintended consequences” emerge, and at least eight teams agree to any change. Before Austria, teams duly supported the simple expedient of allowing any soft tyres for SQ3, not solely new sets, to address the issue of cars not running at all or going out on inters.
With that knowledge in mind, and a strong suspicion that Saturday would be wet anyway, teams approached tyre usage differently on Friday in Austria, and especially in the qualifying session for the main race. On top of that, deleted lap times meant that many drivers went through more softs than they had perhaps planned.
Teams have come up with alternate strategies of when to use the soft tyres
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Indeed, at the end of normal qualifying the range of how many sets of new soft tyres drivers still had left heading into Saturday was surprising. Those who had none at all were Carlos Sainz, Lewis Hamilton, Pierre Gasly, Valtteri Bottas, Fernando Alonso, Lance Stroll, Hulkenberg and Alex Albon.
A few drivers had one new set, while Max Verstappen’s pace allowed him to sail through with two sets left, and his team-mate Sergio Perez also had two after missing Q3. Four other drivers had two new sets, and somehow Kevin Magnussen had three left.
Had the rest of the weekend run to the normal schedule then SQ3 would have been a fight between those who made the top 10 and had new softs left, and those who only had used sets. However, rain on Saturday morning meant that the track was declared wet before the shootout, which meant tyre usage was free if the track dried.
And in fact it was pretty much dry from the off, and thus drivers could use whatever tyres they wanted over the three sessions. It meant that there was more track action, and more variety in terms of who was running what and when, than if we just had gone medium-medium-soft.
Only four drivers did their time on new softs in SQ3, namely Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Esteban Ocon. All-in-all it seemed to be a rather more entertaining and busier shootout than the one in Baku, and it suggested that opening up the rules so drivers can use their tyres as they wish across Friday and Saturday should at least now be given serious consideration.
If some drivers arrive in the shootout with few or no softs for the three parts, and have to rely on used sets, so be it. It also means that those who are out in Q1 will have more new tyres left to give them a boost in the shootout, which will be a gentle form of reverse handicap.
"This is a good point, honestly, I agree with you,” says Isola to the suggestion that usage should be free. “Because sometimes we make confusion between performance and wear. If you use a soft tyre for one lap, it doesn't mean that this tyre is finished. It means that probably you have lost the peak of grip on this tyre, that's true.
“In some cases, Baku for example, we measure a very good level of grip recovery. That's why on some circuits they use the same set of tyres for multiple attempts in qualifying. So if we consider that, and if we consider that all the teams, all the drivers are in the same situation, we should also accept that they can use used tyres in the sprint shootout, for example. Why not?
“And if we want to talk about tyre reduction, because we are talking about it for sustainability reasons, an idea could be to reuse the tyres. Clearly you introduce an effect that is the same as in the normal qualifying basically, the quickest drivers that are able to progress using only one set instead of two have an advantage, but it's the same in the normal qualifying, they save new tyres for the race, or they save new tyres for Q3. So it's always a discussion.”
Damp conditions and free choice of tyres created an exciting qualifying session
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Handily, there’s a meeting of the FIA sporting advisory committee at Silverstone today [Wednesday] where the sprint format will be high on the agenda. One option could be to let Spa run with the original medium-medium-soft format just to get another sample, and then consider a change for the final three sprints of the year. But why not just open it up for the Belgian weekend and see what happens?
“This format is new and I'm sure that we can find some fine tuning on this," says Isola. "There is margin for improvement. Not improvement, but we have the experience now from two weekends with sprints, and there is the possibility to analyse some details and change them in order to improve the show. [The Austrian shootout] was a great show for me.
“It is something we can do without any change [to tyre allocation]. The other point is that for me now the tyre regulation is super complicated. Let's learn from the experience and try to do something better with the rules in order to make something that is a lot more similar to a normal, standard event.”
Will the teams support a change? That remains to be seen. Some may prefer a less conservative approach, while others will no doubt have reasons why they prefer the medium-medium-soft format to something a little more fluid.
"I think we are discovering still,” says Aston Martin’s Mike Krack. “These rules were made in an attempt to create more spectacle. And when we wanted to introduce them for Baku, there was not much time to develop them, you have seen that they have been refined also for [the Austrian] weekend. And I think we discover more and more the implications of it.
“Now, all the strategists they tell you already upfront what can happen in this situation, in that situation. But I think we need to not rush into changes too quickly, maybe wait a year, wait the four more [sprints] that will come, and maybe then do a review and say where do we need to adjust?
“But all in all, it's very intense. If you have situations like that with this much freedom, it's very, very intense for the team and for the crew."
Will F1 change the tyre regulations around sprint shootouts before the end of the season?
Photo by: Alessio Morgese
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