F1 can't sprint away from its problems

The new qualfiying format is fine. It really is. But it highlights F1's other issues.

Welcome to the latest edition of SSWOS, the Sick, Sad World of Sports, where sports is the mechanism by which we learn about the depths of shithousery and assholery and dipshittery of the human soul.

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F1 can't sprint away from its problems

Formula 1, the world’s foremost motorsport category1, has been experimenting with a new qualifying format this year. At three races - Great Britain, Italy and Brazil, with the latter concluded this weekend just gone - qualifying was shifted to Friday, in lieu of the second practice session, to determine the grid for a 100km sprint race on Saturday. The finishing order of the sprint determined the starting order for the grand prix proper on Sunday.

Since 2006, qualifying has been held over an hour or so on Saturday2. The hour was divided into three sessions with a given number of drivers eliminated after each, before a top ten pole position shoot-out in the final session. The lengths of the sessions and number of drivers eliminated at each stage has varied but the concept has remained remarkably stable for the last fifteen years. This was the format used at the other sixteen meets held so far this year.

When the current qualifying format was first introduced3, it was hailed as revelatory and exciting. Now with a decade and a half experience at optimising the strategy for the format and F1’s innate disparity in speed, teams have rendered it lifeless. That’s fine4, because that’s what they get paid to do, but I can’t be the only who has noticed that F1 is at its most entertaining when teams are pushed outside of their risk management comfort zone.

F1’s previous adminstration - Bernie Ecclestone and the coterie of sleazoids that ran GP2 - were always keen on introducing a sprint to the race weekend but didn’t have either the chutzpah to override the tradition or the smarts to get it in through the backdoor.

Irrespective of the feedback, Liberty Media, F1’s current owners, will likely push ahead with rolling this out to all race weekends next year in a gambit to have something worth watching on each day of the weekend: qualifying Friday, sprint Saturday, grand prix Sunday.

Practice sessions will continue to fall by the wayside because practice doesn’t do anything except use up money and resources and make teams more comfortable with their setup (see above about comfort zones)5. Like friendlies in soccer, it’s a sub-optimal use of resources to generate content6. If you’re going to spend the money to run the cars, give them something to play for.

The reaction after the Great Britain weekend was predictable, comprising principally of people whining that it was boring (more on that in a sec) or that they don’t like change. The reality is it doesn’t matter.

The worst case scenario for Liberty is that the ratings will be the same for the current qualifying format and the new Friday qualifying will be higher than a practice session.

Even then, Liberty probably don’t care about ratings because F1 is so far behind the paywall that ratings are subservient to subscriptions. They can almost do what they like with impunity because subscriptions are sticky, F1 is a huge brand with a cultural footprint that’s bigger than the actual on-track racing and it would be purposely hard to isolate the impact of a format change in the swirling market for broadcast rights if it turns out that the impact is negative (Liberty will absolutely find a way to tell you if they think the impact can be demonstrated to be positive).

The real aim of the game is creating more content and taking up more space of people’s limited attention span while minisming spending. The addition of a sprint is going to do a better a job than the current format. Then guess what complaining online about the new format does?

The reason people complained after Britain, and presumably were quieter after Brazil, is because F1 racing is fundamentally boring7. It’s difficult to think of another kind of racing where the start is inherently more interesting than the finish. The standings after the first few laps will be, more often than not, the standings at the finish line. There’s myriad of causes for this: aerodynamic packages that discourage slipstreaming; an inability to generate sufficient speed differential between cars to allow overtaking; a qualifying format that pushes the fastest cars to the front; a factor of six difference between the biggest and smallest team budgets; and despite what the old farts will tell you, it’s basically always been like that in F1.

I won’t pretend to have solutions because people who know better than me have been trying and are yet to crack it. DRS, KERS8, refuelling bans and unstable tyres were steps in the right direction but the teams have fought back by throwing money and nerds and lobbying at it until it was manageable.

This has all happened in a wider trend in sports of risk management and analytical optimisation and, especially in the F1 context, reliability. It’s a maths problem to be solved and the result is that the race may as well be fixed. Hashtag Moneyball.

What the sprint, and the hype around its introduction, does is highlight this. A 100km race is going to go about the same way as a 300km but it is mercifully shorter. People can’t help but notice that the sprint fails to deliver on the promised excitement9 because, when the magic of the Grand Prix® is stripped away and you see it for what it is, F1 racing can’t really deliver on its promises.

I beleive there is something fundamentally exciting in there. F2 and F3 demonstrate that because teams with smaller budgets, marginally less reliable vehicles but particularly crazier and younger drivers under immense pressure to demonstrate they have what it takes to move up the ladder, have less control of the outcome. Sport is allowed to take place in the lower formulas, which is an anathema at the pinnacle.

F1 might need to throw a bunch of stuff in the bin to get there. It’s questionable whether the purists will let them or if the fans even want them to. Liberty will do what the dollars tell them to do.

The grace, the beauty of sports

News from around the grounds

  1. Karate: the first day of the Karate World Championships has been completed in Dubai

  2. Handball: IK Savehof has defeated PAUC, 30-25, in the European League

  3. Basketball: Baskonia defeated Red Star, 93-74, in the Euroleague

  4. Cycling: the bidon kid from the Tour de France is Scotland’s newest U14 cyclocross national champion

  5. Hockey: Kyle Clifford has been traded from St Louis to Toronto in the NHL

See the latest on the Governors and Leagues lists on Twitter.


For a sport I’ve barely ever watched (the two laser runs in Tokyo - that's it), I’m obsessed with the UIPM’s decision to find a new discipline to replace show jumping on an unfamiliar horse in time for the 2028 Olympics. So here’s the new segment, #ModernPentathlonWatch.

And it’s going well. Let’s hear from 2020 Olympic men’s gold medallist, Joe Choong10:

The UIPM has hastily convened an athlete consultation process in response to the (presumably almost entirely negative) response from athletes and national federations, which must be the only people who are really interested in the outcome of this change11. There seems to be some evidence that the decision has been made and this after-the-fact consultation is just ass covering.

Naturally, athletes and federations are pretty shitty about this. Denmark and Hungary are making threats. Some athletes are signalling for a vote of no confidence in the administration, based on the surprise, the lack of consultation and the goal post shifting for the entire sport, most of which are valid complaints. Now, revolution is afoot.

While I sympathise with the goal post shifting, if your argument, as per Chloe Esposito, is:

I’ve been riding since I was 10. Young athletes have been working hard on their riding. All that goes waste.

I think that speaks a lot to the mindset of these people. God forbid you enjoy horse riding for it’s own sake or, worse, commit to it and become an equestrian.

However, if, as has been hinted, this is a result of IOC pressure, this is going to be fascinating.

Keeping the IOC on side is absolutely critical to the UIPM. Modern pentathlon barely exists at the Olympics, let alone outside of it. The space it takes up could go to literally any other sport - chess, ballroom dancing, something people have heard of - for a better return to the IOC. If the UIPM can keep themselves in the Olympic program and if the current cohort decide to form a Real IRA-style splinter federation, the UIPM can always find new athletes because someone, somewhere will want that gold medal.

If the athletes and federations (presumably all ex-athletes themselves) get their way and retain the riding element, if the IOC doesn't like it and the outcome is the pentathlon get the boot from the games, then it's not just the hard work on one discipline that goes to waste, it's all five. Indeed, the IOC might be able to boot the UIPM and modern pentathlon anyway, citing the very obvious lack of unity within the sport as being contrary to Olympic values or some bullshit.

The UIPM has almost no leverage with the IOC and the athletes have none. Frankly, no one cares what they think because no one’s heard of them. Joe Choong might be able to get on UK breakfast TV but I’ve got bad news about how much breakfast TV is actually watched. This issue is what gets the sport into the news. No one cares about business as usual12.

But the athletes are a lot more motivated to fight, notwithstanding that a lot of the athletes complaining in 2021 won't be at the LA games in 2028 as they will be too old. Given they're not really fighting for themselves, who is this for? The youth or their legacy or their own conservatism?


Reader Achilles Manyara of Melfi, Chad, writes:

Do you actually like the new sprint format of F1?

That’s a great question, Achilles. The short answer is “yes” but the longer, and more accurate, answer is “I don’t hate it”. I think I’m more inclined to watch it than the standard qualifying format, partly because I’ve gotten used to the idea in lower formulas and partly because races are naturally more chaotic (even if only slightly) than qualifying, so there’s more potential for something to happen to disrupt the procession. Plus it’s short. The Brazilian GP was a good example of what F1 can be - new format or otherwise - but it’s the exception, rather than the rule, and that’s what I think needs tinkering.

Mail in your questions with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Sick, Sad World of Sports, Locked Bag 6969 in your capital city or yell at @scksadwos.


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Suck it, Nascar.


There were a couple exceptions where it was moved to Sunday due to typhoons and the like.


That makes me feel old. The previous few seasons had toyed with single and double lap aggregate qualifying, neither of which were more or less interesting than the ‘traditional’ format of having an hour to set the fastest time. I’m surprised neither option were recently mooted because if there’s one thing the oldies that keep sport alive love, it’s a solution that looks to the past. Maybe it’s just that I don’t trawl F1 forums for sicko takes like I used to.


Not least because I haven’t watched a non-sprint qualifying session on TV in years.


This entire argument is predicated on you watching on TV, as 99.9% of the F1 audience is. In person, the different sessions are fairly indistinguishable and all equally exhilirating.


Shortening race weekends from Thursday to Sunday is another example of this trend. Why waste a day on Thursday for the media, when scrapping it would open up the calendar to more grand prix weekends? Thursdays don’t drive revenue, more weekends do.


For non-sickos, at least.


Which I think is now somewhat old fashioned terminology. We prefer to refer to them as hybrid vehicles these days.


Unless Lewis Hamilton starts at the back of the grid on a technicality, which is the kind of thing that teams hate because it wasn’t on the spreadsheet but it creates a far more interesting spectacle for the people paying the bills.


This is an interesting choice of optics. I’m not sure this was the image that was going to cut through and generate popular support with the masses, most of who are only familiar with the sport’s existence because of The Punch.


Who aren’t complete sickos.