The seventh sprint race in Formula 1 history will take place next week, and for the first time the sprint race will be preceded by a separate qualifying session. The last qualifying experiment in Formula 1 resulted in complete chaos in Australia in 2016, and there is a good chance that the same will happen this season. According to our analysis, the new format and the chess game it entails only play into the hands of Red Bull, but it also offers opportunities for cunning plans from rearguard teams.
Normally teams are supplied with thirteen sets of Pirelli tires in a Grand Prix weekend, but if a sprint race takes place on the Saturday that number is reduced to twelve. Of these twelve sets of tyres, half are soft C5 tyres, in addition to which the drivers are provided with four sets of C4 tires and two sets of the harder C3 rubber. In 2021 and 2022, qualifying for the sprint race took place on Friday, after the first free practice session. On Saturday, a second free practice session was scheduled before the start of the sprint race. The result of the sprint race immediately served as the starting grid for the Grand Prix on Sunday.
Two birds with one stone with format change
The second free practice session in the sprint race weekend was a thorn in the flesh for many drivers and teams. Since the cars had been in parc fermé since Friday evening, nothing essential could be changed in the set-up on Saturday, with the result that drivers saw little more options than simulating a long run. In addition, drivers in the sprint races were often very careful, because they knew that the result of that race determined the grid for the Grand Prix. So there was not much to gain, but much to lose.
In recent weeks, the FIA has tried to kill two birds with one stone by adjusting the weekend format. Friday qualifying now determines the starting grid for the Sunday race, while Saturday is all about the sprint race, with a separate qualifying first and the sprint race itself later in the day. Exact details are still unconfirmed a week before the Grand Prix, but according to Motorsport.com we will see a shortened version of qualifying, with sessions likely to be 12, 10 and 8 minutes, instead of 18, 15 and 12. minutes that we see in a normal qualifying session.
Shortage of Pirelli rubber
These shortened qualifying parts can lead to total chaos. The teams have one less set of tires than is the case in a normal race weekend, but will now have to get through two races and two qualifying sessions with those sets of tires. The teams normally use two sets of tires in the first free practice session, and in the normal qualifying session on Friday evening, a driver who makes it to Q3 also quickly uses five sets of tires. On Saturday, three qualifying parts for the sprint race require another three sets of tires, and then we even limit ourselves to one set of tires for Q1 and Q2, a luxury that not everyone has. In the sprint race you need an extra set of tires. In the Grand Prix itself you want to have at least two fresh sets of tires available, and with the high chance of a safety car in Baku, preferably three.
The sum then tells us that you end up with a total of thirteen or fourteen sets of Pirelli tires, even if you only use one set of tires per session in qualifying for the sprint race. With an available number of twelve sets of tires you don’t have a good time as a team. The question now is how the teams are going to solve this. According to Pirelli itself, the teams must use two sets of tires in the first practice and return one set after the session. It is therefore an option for the teams not to, or hardly, load that second set of tires, in order to save a set. The problem, however, is that the cars are in parc fermé after Friday qualifying, so as a team you only have this one practice session to optimize your set-up. Not exactly ideal then to limit your program to one set of tapes.
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What the teams will probably do is use the harder tyres. Six sets of soft tires is rather meager with six qualifying sessions and two races, so the teams hoping to make Q3 in both qualifying sessions will not want to use these soft tires just yet. The slower teams are likely to run two sets of soft tires in each of the Q1 sessions, so they too will be sparing with the red-marked tyres.
Because the teams will want to do two runs in that first free practice, they have to look for another way to save tires, and the first opportunity that presents itself is qualifying for the Grand Prix itself. We can expect a game on Friday afternoon where the teams will take risks to save a set of tires in Q1 and Q2. This provides an extra advantage for the dominant Red Bull Racing, which will achieve this more easily than, for example, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Mercedes or Alpine. These teams take into account reaching Q3, but in principle will not want to use five sets of tyres. That means these types of teams will gamble especially in Q1 with a single attempt or a run on used tyres. As a result, there is a greater chance that someone will make a wrong guess and we will see surprises as early as Q1 or Q2.
Sprint qualifying becomes a game of chess
However, the biggest chaos can be expected in qualifying for the sprint race. The shortened qualifying sections in combination with the shortage of tire sets makes it very tempting for the teams to go into low-power mode here, especially when you consider that the stakes are less now that the sprint race is separate from the Grand Prix. A possible miscalculation is therefore the least expensive in sprint qualification. The top teams will therefore see this as the ideal time to gamble. This can be done by using one set of tires per qualifying part, but a top team like Red Bull will also consider saving a set of tires by, for example, driving in Q1 on used tires from Friday qualifying.
So the result is that each team will execute its own strategic plan, where you have more options if you are faster. There is therefore a good chance that Red Bull can save more tires on Friday and Saturday than is the case with the competitors. If the constructors’ champion plays it well, it can therefore start the Sunday race with an extra advantage. Red Bull is already difficult to beat in 2023 anyway, but if it starts the race with more options than the rest, it can basically react to anything, while the other teams for the Grand Prix already have to bet on a previously established plan.
The danger of the red flag
As mentioned, the shorter sessions in sprint qualifying will tempt teams to use only one set of tires per session. If the drivers choose to make their only attempt late in the session, a red flag situation could throw a spanner in the works. The grip level will improve quickly on the Baku street circuit, so you don’t want to set your lap time too early, but you also don’t want to be on your only lap at the last minute when a red flag could suddenly be waved. Certainly in Baku, the chance of that red flag is real.
In the last qualifying part, which will probably only last eight minutes, the drivers even have no choice but to use one set of tires. The fastest lap time from 2022, set by Charles Leclerc, was over 1 minute and 41 seconds. This means that an out lap, the fast lap and an in lap already take more than five minutes from the participants, and this does not take into account that an out lap or an in lap naturally takes much longer than a fast lap. So if the red flag is waved just before the end of Q3, we could in theory even experience a scenario where no one has set a lap time.
In the races themselves, the teams will ultimately be presented with the bill for how well they managed to keep fresh sets of tires on hand on Friday and Saturday. The teams will enter the races with a predetermined plan in terms of tires, and that can also lead to special situations in the sprint race. In the sprint race, teams normally use one set of tyres, but it is possible that a team has to make an unexpected pit stop, for example after a puncture. Since the teams cannot afford to use an extra set of tyres, it cannot be ruled out that teams will either no longer send their driver out, or on rather old tyres. The result of the sprint race no longer determines the starting grid for Sunday, so if a driver is forced to pit, there is likely to be little to gain, possibly resulting in deliberate retirements. The tire pressure on Sunday will probably leave teams with fewer strategic options.
More chaos later in the season?
In Baku, the teams are still somewhat spared because tire wear is often low in the Grand Prix of Azerbaijan. It will therefore be easier for the teams to use fewer tires next week, but five other sprint races will follow later in the season, in Austria, Belgium, Qatar, Brazil and at the Circuit of the Americas in the United States. Especially in Austria, Brazil and the United States, we have seen that tire wear can be quite high, which will only make it more complicated for the teams to manage with twelve sets of tires.
A midfield team can try to take advantage of the situation on such a weekend by sacrificing the sprint race and using only one set of tires for both qualifying and the race. Such a choice can give a huge tire advantage for Friday qualifying and the Grand Prix on Sunday, and by thinking outside the box, a team can try to outwit faster teams in the race where the bulk of the points can be earned.
In addition, dangerous situations cannot be ruled out. In 2021, Max Verstappen’s race came to an abrupt end after his tire exploded in the closing stages of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Now that the teams are almost forced to push the limits of the lifespan of the Pirelli rubber, the chance of this kind of situation has only grown. Ironically, just such a situation could provide a huge advantage for keeping fresh rubber on hand. If there’s a late red flag situation, a set of fresh soft tires can pay off big time against drivers who have no choice but to restart the race on worn tyres.
By: Mark Hanselman (Twitter: @MarkHanselmanF1)