This weekend’s Baku event will be the first of six sprints in 2023, featuring an extra qualifying session known as the Sprint Shootout.
That event replaced what was ordinarily the second practice session during a sprint weekend.
The Shootout will set the grid for a 17-lap sprint on Saturday, a race which no longer has any bearing on Sunday’s main event, where the starting order is determined by a traditional qualifying session on Friday.
Fernando Alonso experienced race weekends with qualifying sessions on multiple days in the earlier days of his career but thinks the lack of practice before the Shootout will present a unique challenge.
“In the past when I was doing one qualifying on Friday and one on Saturday, back in 2004, 2006 or whatever, we had always practice before qualifying,” Alonso said during media day in Baku. “There was FP1 or FP3 or whatever.
“Now we don’t have any practice and we go into Q1. So it’s more stressful. It’s very easy to make a mistake. I think at the end of Q3 we will all have the practice and we will optimize the lap. But in Q1 if you brake late, or you crash, especially here in Baku where there’s no room for mistakes, you could look terribly bad.
“So this weekend there is a big opportunity to have a big mistake.”
F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali recently made headlines by saying he is open to the idea of removing practice sessions entirely from race weekends.
Alonso said he can see why F1 wants to make sessions more competitive, reflecting on when he watched the sport from home during a sabbatical in 2019 and 2020.
“When I was out of the sport in those two years and at home, I was not watching the practice, I have to be honest,” Alonso said. “They were just too long and boring, and I knew what the people were doing, you never know at home how many kilos of fuel they have, the engine maps, all these things were not interesting.
“I see the point of making something different on the weekend. So we have to embrace that, we have to help F1 and hopefully their fans will give us good feedback on the weekend.”
Lewis Hamilton echoed his fellow multiple world champion’s support of the new format.
When asked if he approved, he replied: “Absolutely. It’s going to be tough for everybody but we’re all in the same boat. And what a track to be able to do it at, where overtaking is possible, great racing here, we always have the best races.
“It’s definitely difficult to have one session,probably just 20 laps, and then straight into qualifying. I hope we’re in the mix, I hope we get to battle, it’s an amazing event for us to be able to do that. Particularly with the shake-up of the whole format, it’s probably the most exciting weekend so far this year. Looking forward to seeing how it turns out.”
McLaren’s Lando Norris might not be fighting at the top end of the order like Hamilton and Alonso this week but he welcomed the change too.
“I’m excited. I think it’s a better format. I prefer it a long way from what we had before, more and more opportunities for everyone. I like the fact we have two qualifyings. I love the format of practice, qualifying on Fridays. The pressure isdefinitely higher.”
F1 has six sprint events in 2023, after running three in both 2021 and 2022.
Norris thinks F1 needs to be careful not to make the new format too common.
“I don’t want to have a sprint race every single weekend, I think it’s still important to have what we’ve had for many years. That’s what makes F1 exciting and cool. I like having a Saturday qualifying and Sunday race. But every now and then having these sprint races is good for the fans, good for people watching.
“Exciting to change things every now and then and it’s a better structure of doing that. Having it separate to Sunday, having a little Saturday on its own, is a good thing.”
When asked if the sprint race will encourage more risk-taking, now the result no longer sets the order of Sunday’s race, Norris said: “I would expect so. But there’s still a budget cap, you don’t want to damage the car in any way or do anything silly!”
The sprint race awards eight points to the top eight finishers, on a scale 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.