Why F1 team bosses want changes to sprint format they created
Formula 1's new sprint weekend format got mixed reviews from drivers in Baku last weekend, and the reaction from fans has been lukewarm, to say the least.
F1 team principals had varying opinions on how the Baku weekend played out, in some cases perhaps influenced by how their own teams had fared.
Any such discussion has to be undertaken in the right context. Firstly the principle of sprint weekends has been established over the last two seasons, and it's obvious that they are not going away, so the debate is about the specific changes made to the format for last weekend.
Thus in reality Baku is being compared with the previous format, which included a Saturday FP2 session that, while useful for race tyre preparation, was essentially otherwise redundant.
Secondly, it's always risky to draw too much from any sample of one, so F1 needs to wait and see how it works out in Austria and Spa, the next two sprints on the schedule.
And finally, Baku is an unusual case in that its street race nature meant that carnage and mayhem were expected - yet that didn't materialise either in the sprint itself or the main race.
A change to the main straight DRS activation point – nothing to do with the sprint format as such – appeared to reduce the level of passing that we see in Azerbaijan.
Separating the sprint from the grand prix grid was designed to encourage drivers to risk more but given the nature of the track, they were all well aware that a mistake in the sprint could be very expensive, and not just in terms of the cost cap.
Perhaps in Austria, where the extensive run-offs allow a little more margin, they will push closer to the limit and take more risks.
As for the team bosses, the general view was to review Baku first and then maybe wait and see what happens at the next sprint.
Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG
Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
"I'm not sure if I'm a fan," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told Autosport. "But I think it's absolutely the right decision to try it out, and find out whether we like it or not. That was the purpose of implementing it quickly.
"It's more about what is best for F1 on a sprint race weekend, and I haven't got an answer. I think we need to stick our heads together."
"I think the format so far is going well," said Ferrari's Fred Vasseur. "Let's see after Austria. We don't want to draw conclusions too early. I think the format is very dynamic, and it's good for everybody."
"I don't think a lot was wrong with it," said Haas boss Gunther Steiner. "Obviously you always need to look at what you can do better, but we don't have to panic to change something just for changing. We need to analyse and see how good or how bad it was, or if it needs to change or not."
"I think this kind of format is fine," said Andrea Stella of McLaren. "It keeps you very busy from a team operation point of view. I don't think it needs to happen too often, because it may just inflate. I think that may detract from the overall business."
The revised sporting regulations had wiggle room built into them which allowed race director Niels Wittich to authorise last-minute changes in Baku if eight teams agreed to them, prior to sending them through the full World Motor Sport Council for a more permanent fix. The same applies to the next sprint weekends in Austria and Spa.
The revised rules were fast-tracked through the FIA system with unprecedented haste, and a few anomalies emerged.
It wasn't the original intention to allow teams to deploy all their new soft tyres on Friday and thus have none left for SQ3 on Saturday, which is what Yuki Tsunoda and Lando Norris did. But an attempt by the FIA to stop that happening didn't get the required support from eight teams.
The even bigger loophole that McLaren was ready to exploit was that the rules for the shootout session don't expressly stop you from running intermediate tyres to do a token lap if you have no softs left for SQ3, something that the Woking outfit was ready to do but didn't because the circumstances in which Norris might have gained a grid place failed to materialise.
Lando Norris, McLaren
Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images
Both of those loopholes could be properly addressed before Austria, although tyre usage in the shootout could see more comprehensive change.
The other big area of debate is parc ferme, with teams having to fix their specifications after the single FP1 session for the rest of the weekend.
Everyone knew that was going to be tough, and yet teams such as Alpine and McLaren took a calculated punt and brought significant upgrade packages despite just having the one hour of FP1 to correlate them and set their cars up.
It was for precisely that reason that others, notably Ferrari, only brought low-drag Baku wings rather than something more comprehensive.
Alpine was badly bitten when reliability issues curtailed running for both drivers in FP1 and the team had to guestimate a set-up for the shootout and beyond. Things then unravelled over the course of the weekend.
Indeed with Esteban Ocon's car, the Enstone team had to break parc ferme, obliging the Frenchman to give up his grid positions in both the sprint and the race.
Not surprisingly, Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer wants to see more freedom.
"We had some issues on Friday which curtailed our running, we only had three laps for each driver, and then we went into parc ferme," said the American. "Maybe we should look at it. Because the rest of the weekend you're in parc ferme.
"So if you want a change, like we had to do on Esteban's car so that we wouldn't get excessive plank wear and be illegal, you're changing it in parc ferme. That's what we got to think about. And tyre usage we've got to think through."
Red Bull boss Christian Horner is also in favour of a little more flexibility on changes to the cars.
"I think on the whole there's been a been a lot of positives out of it," he said. "I like the fact that the sprint race is decoupled from the grand prix.
"I think that parc ferme, being locked into a set-up just after an hour running on a green circuit, we should look at maybe extending that. That would be my view, that perhaps you should still be able to make changes on Friday night into Saturday."
However, Haas boss Gunther Steiner, who had to green-light the call for Nico Hulkenberg to make changes and start from the pitlane, cautioned that it's not quite so clear-cut.
"Set-up changes these days, they always involve parts," he noted. "It's not like in the old days. You couldn't even change the ride height now without putting on new parts anymore. Even the toe you can't change without putting parts on.
"I think the problem is not us, I think the FIA cannot keep up with the demand of work. I think it's the FIA that writes the rules, they need to fix that, we cannot fix that."
Nico Hulkenberg, Haas VF-23, arrives on the grid
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
Others are more open to parc ferme staying as it is on the basis that it's the same for everyone – and of course, it presents an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage if a team got its simulation right and hit the ground running in FP1.
"You have seen that some teams have chosen to start from the pitlane to adjust their cars if they have lost time," said Aston Martin's Mike Krack. "Alpine lost a lot of time in FP1, so they chose to change the setup of their car.
"I think we can safely say we were not optimum, we didn't hit the optimum in several areas, but this is what the new format is bringing.
"I think this is also a bit intentional. I think it was quite important that we somehow keep the DNA that the fast cars can qualify on the front, but that you reduce [the chances] that you have absolute order at all times.
"It's mixing up a little, but it's not mixing up completely, and I think from that point of view it's a step in the right direction."
It was for that reason that Mercedes had an average weekend.
"We were very far away, very far," said Wolff. "I think we had sub-optimum set-up decisions after and during FP1.
"At that moment we realised it was too late, the car then went into parc ferme. It was the same for everyone, everyone is rolling the dice and then who got it right."
Others had an altogether happier experience.
"We didn't have any problem," said Tost. "I think the FIA is cooperative, it worked well as far as I understood everything. If you have a fire on the car in FP1, then it's not easy.
"We just have to get everything together, because if you have a problem on the car in FP1, then you are lost. And therefore, for me, this is acceptable."
Guenther Steiner, Haas F1 team principal
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
The other aspect of parc ferme as Steiner noted is the huge workload it gives the FIA as it is introduced so early in the weekend.
After the sprint, teams tend to have a lot more reliability changes that they need to make than they would after a practice session or normal Saturday qualifying.
A series of huge crashes for Pierre Gasly, Nyck de Vries and Logan Sargeant, all of which led to major rebuilds, added to the FIA job list in Baku.
It remains to be seen whether a relaxation of the parc ferme rules would make things easier for the FIA, as technical delegate Jo Bauer and his colleagues would perhaps still have to check on what is allowed and what isn't, but it may be an option.
The good news is that there are a few weeks before the next sprint at the Red Bull Ring, so there is time to fully analyse what can be done better.
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