As Lewis Hamilton proposes changes to Formula 1’s weekend format, we take a look at how the schedule could be spiced up, and the implications that could have for fans at the track. Is the current arrangement a winning formula? Could the show be improved by an increase in meaningful on-track time? Or could F1 switch up the weekend completely?
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Formula 1 has followed a similar weekend schedule for years. Since 2006, with the exception of weather-affected weekends, F1 has had two practice sessions on a Friday (Thursday in Monaco), followed by a further practice session and Qualifying on Saturday, and the main event, the Grand Prix, on Sunday. The three-day format is one which has remained relatively unchanged throughout Formula 1’s history, give or take additional practice sessions, different qualifying formats and warm-up sessions, though changes could be afoot.
There are already plans to introduce a fourth qualifying session to Saturdays in 2019. The four sessions would still take place in a one hour slot, just as Q1, Q2 and Q3 do now, with the idea being that an additional session would increase the amount of time which the drivers spend on track during the qualifying hour. Additional rule changes have also been mooted, in order to prevent a repeat of the farcical Q2 session in Russia, which saw all of the eliminated drivers fail to set a time either because of engine penalties or strategic tyre choices.
Hamilton suggested F1 weekend changes
These changes only scratch the surface for some. Lewis Hamilton has recently suggested switching the weekend schedule around at certain races, in order to avoid the repetitive nature of the sport and to heighten the spectacle. Speaking to Motorsport Week, Hamilton suggested that the weekend format should be more ‘dynamic’:
“Anything different from what’s now I am sure will be interesting at least. I think though one of the biggest changes that needs to be made is that at the moment it’s the same four days every weekend for 21 weekends every single year pretty much and I think it needs to be dynamic, it needs to be different for certain circuits. There’s some tracks where the race is so boring. I remember growing up and watching it falling asleep after the start which I am sure there are people who must fall asleep after the start and then wake up, or set their alarms for the end. I used to do it when I was younger and there are some tracks which kept you on the edge of your seat which I imagine was like Baku this year […] but I am sure there’s those dull races, so picking those out, saying how we can make it different for that race. Whether it’s reverse grid or whatever we end up doing, they should look into something like that.”
There’s no doubt that Hamilton is correct in his assessment of the mix of races this season. While Grands Prix in Azerbaijan, Britain and China have been enthralling, others such as Spain, Canada and Russia have fallen short. The highs are high, but races in which tyre saving is king are becoming all too common. How could F1 go about implementing changes at certain tracks – and how would the changes impact the weekend schedule for fans?
Changes to practice sessions
Cutting down on practice time may be a starting point. Instead of two 90-minute sessions on Friday, a single 2-hour session, or two shorter sessions, may suffice. This could be particularly effective if the final practice session on Saturday was removed, so the drivers jump straight into qualifying after Friday’s practice. Shortened practice sessions may mean the teams are on track more during those sessions, unlike the lull in track action which has become commonplace on Fridays. Shorter sessions on Friday may mean less value for money for fans venturing to the circuit for the first day of the weekend, but is this balanced by placing more priority on qualifying on Saturday, and providing a practice session on Friday during which cars will be on track more?
Taking away Friday practice altogether and moving to a two-day weekend could also be a possibility, though this would affect the overall flow of how Formula 1 is presented, both at the track for fans and for media purposes. A longer run in to the main event guarantees more coverage in the preceding days and taking this away could damage the amount of coverage the sport gets from the media. It would also have an impact on overall ticket prices, with three day tickets becoming a thing of the past.
Reverse Grids and Qualifying Races
There is always the possibility for F1 to take changes even further and completely alter the face of Grand Prix weekends. Options on offer include reverse grid Grands Prix, as suggested by Hamilton, or even a race on Saturday to decide the grid for the following day.
Take Russia as an example, a race which in 2018 fell as the sixteenth round of the year. With the championship battle nearing its climax in this part of the season, this could be the perfect opportunity to have a reverse grid race based on championship order. The Sochi Autodrom hasn’t been known to produce spectacular races, so this twist could add a new dramatic element to the weekend.
Formula 1’s managing director Ross Brawn posed the pertinent question himself earlier this year in an interview with Sky Sports F1: “Can we help the promoters have a better show and can we get some diversity into the race without making it false?”
Who wouldn’t like to see Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel battling from the back while the championship is still up for grabs? Given the seeming two-tier Formula 1 which unfortunately exists at present, it’s likely that a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull driver starting toward the back of the grid would still take victory. However, if this didn’t happen and, for example, a Sauber driver won, would this feel like a hollow victory handed to them thanks to a reverse grid race? A further issue with basing the grid on reverse championship order is that the line-up would already be decided before the race weekend, making Saturday devoid of any meaningful action. While it may improve the show on TV, fans at the track would be missing out on witnessing a real qualifying session.
A further idea is to introduce a race on Saturday to decide the grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix, instead of a session where lap time is key, as has been the case since Formula 1 began in 1950. The idea, presumably, would be to have a race where the driver at the back of the pack at the end of each lap, or every other lap, is eliminated and the result of the race decides the grid for the following day’s Grand Prix. The proposed ‘Sprint Race’ would surely not please traditionalists, but could lead to exciting on-track battles on Saturdays and mixed grids – a bonus for the viewing public, both on TV and trackside.
Another option would be to have one or two weekends per year with a double-header of races, keeping a similar amount of practice on Friday, then holding a qualifying session and a race on Saturday, followed by the same schedule on a Sunday. It would be a very full-on weekend of events for drivers, teams and fans alike, but it could be manageable if it’s only for one or two weekends per year at standalone events where there aren’t races on consecutive weekends. If it were at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, for example, it would be a fairer way of handing out ‘double points’ over the final race weekend of the season, as was trialled in 2014, and helping to keep the title fight alive until the last round.
A similar format was introduced to the IndyCar series back in 2013. The idea was first carried out at the 2013 Detroit Grand Prix, in which a race took place on both the Saturday and Sunday. The series had three double headers in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but now has just one per year, which is still allocated to the Detroit race. The format could be a good option for Formula 1, so long as it is not overused and the Grand Prix distance is not shortened too dramatically. While Sprint and Feature races work in lower categories such as F2 and GP3, Grand Prix racing should always be about longer distance events.
Brawn summed up the challenge which Formula 1 faces in rejuvenating the format while maintaining the hallmarks of an F1 weekend:
“I’m not sure that we should be thinking in terms of changing a Grand Prix length. I think we have other things we can do to enhance Grand Prix racing rather than changing around the format. Qualifying works fairly well. I think practice on a Friday is open to discussion, whether we need two sessions, whether we move to just an afternoon session, because another factor in all of this is the number of races we have. If we have an increased number of races, do we change the format to put less pressure on the teams to be able to do those races?”
Of course, the ideas outlined above would each bring their own problems and teams are bound to find and exploit loopholes. There would also be a greater demand on tyres and engine usage in some of these instances, which again would have to be worked out in a fair manner.