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F1 prepares for ‘ludicrous’ new format in Azerbaijan

F1 prepares for ‘ludicrous’ new format in Azerbaijan

FORMULA ONE: A brand-new format that will dramatically reduce practice time in favour of more qualifying and racing will be introduced to F1 this weekend (Apr 28-30).

By Michael Lamonato

Friday 28 April 2023, 09:30AM

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc during practice at last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Photo: AFP

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc during practice at last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Photo: AFP

F1 is hoping to shake up an already experimental race weekend format with some last-minute rules changes for this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The Baku race was selected as one of six sprint rounds this season, for which qualifying is moved to Friday evening and sets the grid for a 100-kilometre sprint race on Saturday. The sprint results form the grid for the usual Sunday grand prix.

The sprint has been on trial for two seasons already, and while it’s proved generally popular among fans for featuring for more racing, the sprint races themselves have tended to be tepid, with drivers unwilling to race too hard lest they jeopardise their Sunday starting position with a crash or car damage.

But F1 is hoping a relatively minor tweak could lead to big results.

Under format changes presented by F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, Friday would comprise one hour of practice followed by qualifying, which would set the grid for Sunday’s race.

Saturday would then become a standalone sprint day featuring its own qualifying session in the afternoon before the 100km sprint race in the evening.

F1 hopes the new format will achieve the two key aims. The first is to improve the sprint spectacle by incentivising drivers to race harder knowing that mistakes won’t be punished on Sunday. The second is to reduce practice running with competitive sessions.

The teams agreed to the changes during the long break after the Australian Grand Prix at the start of the month, and the FIA World Motorsport Council was expected to rubber stamp the changes in a meeting this week. If approved, the format will be adopted for all six sprint rounds of the year, starting with the Azerbaijan Grand Prix this weekend.

Ambitious pick

Baku is an ambitious pick for a sprint round given its reputation for big crashes.

The Baku City Circuit boasts a unique layout that challenges teams and drivers. The flat-out blast out of the final sector and down the front straight to the first turn is one of the longest on the calendar and generates top speeds above 345kph per hour.

But the middle of the track is one of the narrowest and slowest ribbons of road in the sport, with cars tiptoeing around the UNESCO-listed Baku fortress at less than 100kph per hour.

It’s a difficult compromise to strike when setting up the car, and resultantly drivers are forced into mistakes - and crashes in Baku are never small.

Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner said he was braced for a messy weekend.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous to be doing the first sprint race of the year in a street race like Azerbaijan,” he said. “From a cost cap perspective, all you can do is trash your car and it costs a lot of money around there.

“One race is enough in Baku. The fact that we’ve got two - yeah, there could well be some action there.”

But even Horner admitted that the new format is likely to deliver for the sport.

“I think from a spectacle point of view, from a fan point of view, is probably going to be one of the most exciting sprint races of the year,” he said.

“That’s part of the challenge and it’s part of the task that we’ve got. Hopefully we can tidy up the format for the sprint races coming up, they are a bit more dynamic.”

After three rounds it’s unlikely even the extreme demands of Baku will trip up Horner’s dominant Red Bull Racing team, with the only question whether street-specialist Sergio Pérez can hit back against teammate Max Verstappen to keep up in the championship battle.

But with a new format likely in play that leaves almost no room for error, you wouldn’t want to write off Azerbaijan producing an unexpected result.

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