Race Weekend Central

Sprint Slipstream Saturday: A New Adventure at Baku

This weekend, Formula One experiments with a new take on the Sprint race format.

The new Sprint format that was announced on Tuesday, April 25, eliminates FP2 and replaces it with a smaller version of Sprint exclusive qualifying. It’s definitely a step in the right direction for the series. The FP2 session on Saturday mornings were basically made redundant on most weekends under the old format; now, at least, there will be something there.

Really, the only big issue is that smaller teams have no real incentive to use the Sprint as anything but a test session. Don’t expect teams like Haas or Williams to go for many moves on Saturday, because those teams are virtually guaranteed not to finish in the points on Saturday. So there’s really nothing they can get out of it except wrecking and ruining their weekend.

They could extend the number of cars finishing in points to 15, but that seems a little excessive and increases the likelihood late in the season for the championship to be decided on a Saturday.

F1 also chose to up the number of engine components teams are allowed to use this year, mainly due to the increase in Sprint weekends but also because the old restrictions were too tight. I wrote the qualifying recap for Frontstretch last season for Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, and it was a mess of a lineup to try and make out due to all of the engine penalties. Part of that is Spa being a very easy track to overtake at, but teams really shouldn’t enter the season expecting to take an engine penalty at some point in it.

Friday (April 28) at the track was an incredibly tense experience. With so many teams trying new components to their cars, the lone practice session prior to cars entering perc ferme at the start of the afternoon’s qualifying session became very crucial.

Alpine had a disastrous day in particular. Pierre Gasly’s power unit went boom and put on a smoke show that required a lengthy practice cleanup midway through the session. By the time practice resumed, Esteban Ocon’s Alpine was also on stands in the garage to prevent the same issue. Gasly would also DNF out of qualifying while Ocon failed to get out of Q2.

It was an up-and-down day for rookie Nyck de Vries, who was sixth fastest in practice but then didn’t complete a lap in qualifying after wrecking early in Q1. Yuki Tsunoda, however, was able to keep the speed of the AlphaTauri up and qualified a solid 8th for Sunday.

McLaren had a huge step up in performance, with both cars reaching Q3 and Norris qualifying ahead of Tsunoda in seventh. Meanwhile, Aston Martin faltered a bit due to a DRS issue robbing them of speed in the final sector of qualifying.

Of course, the big question now is if Charles Leclerc can translate his third consecutive Baku pole into a win. It would be the first win for a non-Red Bull driver in a season in which only Fernando Alonso has proven to be able to keep up a Swift pace against them.

Baku in some ways is a perfect Ferrari track, with the prancing horse able to maximize its mid-range corner speed advantage to be near unstoppable in sector two. The little tire degradation also circumvents Ferrari’s greatest weakness against Red Bull.

This weekend also marks the first race on the F1 Academy calendar. Unlike the other major F1 feeder series, this all-female series will not be following F1 as support events this season with the exception of the finale at Circuit of the Americas.

The series will not be shown live. This is a mistake in some ways. In one way, sponsors are probably not thrilled to hear the races they are paying drivers to run won’t be seen on a live basis.

However, it’s also understandable if the series won’t be shown live. The reality is that taping is much more cost-friendly than live broadcasting, especially with FOM focusing production on F1 in Baku and not FA in Austria.

FOM has already solved the problem where every 2024 race serves as an F1 support race instead of the last. Part of this could well be by design. Obviously, the goal here is to nurture a female driver to become an F1 competitor eventually. Throwing everybody on live TV immediately could well expose a lot of the women on there, some of whom are moving up directly from karts.

So this year is a starter year to establish the series at low-risk racetracks with less eyeballs, allowing talent to grow without a spotlight immediately. It’s a format that is unique to motor racing, one more akin to summer college leagues in baseball. It’ll be interesting to see if this model is a success going forward.

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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