Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: We’re Talking About Practice

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali made some headlines this week by hinting at less practice time for Formula 1 in a weekend.

Although Domenicali has walked a bit back on some of his comments, he does still insist that it wouldn’t be wrong to entertain ideas.

The current standardized F1 weekend schedule begins on Thursday, with media work, the track walk, etc. On normal weekends, Friday marks the start of the on-track weekend with two free practice sessions, each an hour long. One more hour-long free practice session starts Saturday off, with qualifying afterwards.

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In a sprint weekend, the second free practice session is replaced with qualifying on Friday, with qualifying’s Saturday slot being filled by the sprint race. The Saturday free practice session is retained, but there’s less point to it as cars are under parc ferme (in NASCAR terms, impounded) once they drive out on track for qualifying. So there are no major changes teams can make in that second free practice session.

“Obviously the more practice you do, the more up to speed you’ll be, the more comfortable you’ll be with the car,” George Russell said in the Thursday FIA press conference this week. “I don’t think it’s right that Formula 1 has three times the amount of practice that you have in the F3 and F2 categories. They should be the ones to get more practice, also because they’re doing less races, they don’t get to test that often.”

Currently, both F3 and F2 have a single 45-minute practice session followed up by a 30-minute qualifying session to determine their full grids. Both series have a sprint race on Saturday and a feature race on Sunday prior to the F1 grand prix. All weekends are companion events with F1, with F3 being at 10 F1 weekends this season and F2 at 14.

“Yeah, I agree with George,” Pierre Gasly followed up with in the same press conference. “Definitely. Three is not needed from a driving point of view. It’s always nice. You can work on fine details on the car and really try to nail the car balance for the weekend but generally speaking. I think one, two maximum, is more than enough for us.”

One drawback to less practice time would be potentially hurting engineers and the time they need to develop new aspects to their cars. Simulation work is getting more and more accurate every year, but until it’s near 100%, there will always be a need to experiment in real life.

That being said, it’s not just the drivers who are interested in cutting back on practice.

“Well, I think we need a good balance.” Otmar Szafnauer, team principal of Alpine F1 Team, said the next day. “I think we still need a bit of practice to dial in the car to get the set-up right. I think it will favor drivers that are experienced if we do reduce the practice. And, you know, it might hurt some of the rookies. So, I understand what Stefano was saying in the Formula 1 Commission that we should look at every session that we’re out on track to make it interesting for the fans.”

So, there are a number of different ways F1 could cut down on practice, but the key is to make it to where teams are not in an impossible hold to climb out of if they use a reserve driver. Currently, teams are required to allow a rookie driver (defined as having two or less F1 race starts) to participate in both of their cars in at least one FP1 session in a year.

This is why Nyck de Vries was used between the various Mercedes customer teams last year, leaving him available to jump into the Williams at Autodromo Nazionale di Monza on very short notice. That chance cemented him for a seat at Scuderia AlphaTauri.

Williams also extensively used Logan Sargeant late last season, allowing him to participate in most FP1 sessions in order to gain track time for his Super License qualification. We don’t want to enter a world where Williams can’t afford to do that, or make it impossible for Robert Kubica style third drivers to exist where a veteran can get a little bit of seat time throughout the season.

Both scenarios I’ve come up with shaves 30 minutes off practice time for F1, allowing both F3 and F2 to have 15 extra minutes they can use to either have a full hour practice session or a Saturday “warm-up” ala the NTT IndyCar Series.

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The first would be to simply cut 10 minutes off all three FP sessions, thus turning them into three 50 minute practice sessions. This would not change a lot, but it would accomplish the goal of having a little less practice time in a weekend.

The other option would be to cut FP1 and FP3 by 15 minutes each, with FP1 being a full hour whenever there’s a sprint weekend. FP2, qualifying, and the race are all at about the same time of the day every weekend, whereas FP1 and FP3 could be at completely different environments than how the other sessions could be. This would also not completely neuter the amount of time rookies can get in an F1 car, while still giving teams time for their regular drivers to get into a groove.

With all that being said, though, it should be mentioned that all the practice in the world probably wouldn’t let the field catch up to Red Bull Racing. They are entering the third round of the year looking nigh on unstoppable, with Max Verstappen leading Sergio Perez by just a point in the driver standings.

There are some interesting tidbits to watch out for the team this weekend:

  • This is the first weekend that Daniel Ricciardo has been on-site as the team’s reserve driver. It has to be very frustrating for Ricciardo to be so close, yet so far from the best equipment in the paddock. He’s at least put on a nice face for the cameras; no reports of outstretched legs yet in the Red Bull garage.
  • Red Bull has only won once in Australia, in 2011 with Sebastian Vettel. This in spite of continuously employing an Aussie driver from 2007 to 2018, between Ricciardo and Mark Webber.
  • If Perez can take the points lead this weekend, he would be the first Mexican driver to lead the world championship since Pedro Rodriguez won the opening round of the 1967 season. On the podium, the South African Grand Prix promoters had no idea what the Mexican national anthem was, so they played the Mexican hat dance instead. Somehow this was not the most racist aspect of that event, considering it was held in a country with an apartheid government.

Coverage of the 2023 Australian Grand Prix will be provided for by Sky Sports and broadcast by ESPN. Lights out will be at 1 a.m. ET on very early Sunday morning (April 2).

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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