The Azerbaijan paddock is usually a quiet place these days, after it was paired back-to-back first with Canada and then Miami on Formula 1’s calendar. Given the logistical challenges of doing both in succession, the vast majority having to choose between the two tend to favor a trip to Florida.
But quiet in terms of numbers on Thursday doesn’t necessarily translate into quiet in terms of opinions. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Admittedly, I can’t quite make my own mind up whether the sprint changes confirmed this week should be praised or criticized. I don’t like doing either too much before we’ve seen the impact proven out one way or another. It’s too easy to talk something up as brilliant when there’s unknowns that could trip it up, or similarly, talk down a new approach before giving it a fair chance.
Before we even take a look at the changes that have been implemented, the process itself has left me torn. On the one hand, it’s pretty impressive that Formula 1’s governance structure does now allow the teams to work together so effectively to agree on changes and then approve them for almost instant application.
On the other, why they hell was it so last-minute? Did nobody remember there were six sprint events planned this year and only have the idea to discuss changes four weeks ago? Fans who had bought tickets didn’t even know what the event schedule would be until two days ago, and it could certainly have an impact on their plans (not to mention broadcasters and team partners).
There are very much two sides of the coin when it comes to what the new format will do for the action being delivered, too. Realistically, F1 needs it to be exciting because it has reduced the previous amount of track time on a Saturday from two hours (FP3 being one hour and qualifying one hour – of which 45 minutes are action) to just over one hour.
But while drivers and team bosses are largely happy to see FP2 scrapped during a sprint weekend, the problem faced in the sprint itself could simply be moved around without being resolved.
F1 suggests the changes are designed to stop drivers settling for position early in the sprint in order to not jeopardize their starting spot for the grand prix. If Saturday doesn’t influence the grid for Sunday, drivers might be more likely to take risks if they are in or near the points. But those on the outside suddenly have very little to play for.
“I think in that situation you will find yourself using it to just realistically gather information for the GP on Sunday,” Logan Sargeant said of the possibility of lapping well adrift of the top eight with no return. “But at the same time, things can get crazy into Turn 1 and you can find yourself in a good position where you can score some points.
“Anything could happen, especially here, but I think if you find yourself not in the points after the first six, seven laps or so, you’re going to use it more as a test session.”
With the top four teams holding a clear advantage over the rest, that’s a situation Oscar Piastri can also see coming to pass, while George Russell doesn’t expect a change in the level of risk and Max Verstappen is clearly not a fan of more hectic weekends. But Guenther Steiner is more positive about the way Haas will approach things, regardless of the positions his cars are running in.
“I don’t think there’s this much systematic thinking to go ‘I’m not going to go fast because it doesn’t mean anything anyway,” Steiner said. “A perfect example is Brazil last year – if you’re not there when the opportunity arises because you’ve given up before, how can you get something? You can have a sprint race where there’s mayhem in the front and you still can get points, so you need to race even if you’re behind the top four teams.
“There could be something that happens and there could be points. Ten or 15 years ago we only got points down to sixth place, so what was the point for all the others racing then? If you always think negatively, you always find a reason why not to do things.”
It’s not only the sprint format that is creating some division. There are very clear examples at both Ferrari and AlphaTauri, too, where Laurent Mekies is leaving the former to become team principal at the latter later this year.
As if to prove a point that the team is still united, Mekies walked in with his current team principal Fred Vasseur on Thursday, though Vasseur’s all-black outfit could have given off the impression that he was in mourning…
“I think it’s a mega opportunity for Laurent and considering also that I have a very good relationship with him, I won’t block Laurent, for sure,” Vasseur said. “If you speak about timeline, I think (AlphaTauri) was a bit aggressive in their press release. We have a long-term contract with Laurent and now we have to discuss the details.”
The departure of Mekies had been loosely rumored, but the talk centered more on a restructuring at Maranello that some senior team members were unhappy about, rather than a promotion a team principal role being on the horizon. AlphaTauri is a familiar home for the Frenchman having worked there when it was known as Toro Rosso, but sources indicate to RACER he was far from the only candidate who came close to landing the job.
And what does that suggest? More division. AlphaTauri’s owners were clearly unhappy with Franz Tost in that role and wanted to move him on after 18 years in charge – perhaps not all that surprising now that the influence of Dietrich Mateschitz has gone – but they had to try and get a new structure in place that would ensure that such a major change after so many years goes smoothly.
That also includes Peter Bayer, who was previously at the FIA but left last summer when FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem wanted to put his own people in place in senior positions. Ben Sulayem has also been far less vocal in recent months after coming under pressure on multiple fronts, and there’s ongoing dissent against the governing body’s stewarding of race incidents.
There might have been four weeks since the last race, but it’s hardly a relaxed return to racing in Baku and the new format will guarantee it’s an intense three days as soon as FP1 gets underway tomorrow. As to whether that’s going to be better or not? I’m still pretty divided on that myself.