How slashing practice to a single hour in Baku tripped up F1 teams · RaceFans

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali made headlines earlier in the year claiming it would be “wrong” not to think about making changes to the F1 race weekend format as audiences continue to rise.

Domenicali shook up the format by adding three sprint races to the calendar in 2021. Three more were added ahead of 2023, but the F1 commission took the matter one step further. Now the sprint events would lose not only the second practice session on Friday, but final practice on Saturday too. The addition of another competitive session now left just a single hour of practice in Baku.

At ordinary race weekends drivers continue to have three, one-hour practice sessions. The single hour available at sprint events is a significant reduction, and even more compared to 2020, when the first two sessions were 90 minutes long, allowing a total of four hours practice time per event.

Practice sessions may not be thrilling but they are key for teams. The drivers use the sessions to get a feel for the track and have a short window to work on their race and qualifying simulations, whilst the teams can test new parts and set-up changes ahead of the all-important qualifying session which usually takes place on a Saturday afternoon.

Sainz never got comfortable in his Ferrari in Baku

With just one hour of running before qualifying in Azerbaijan, many teams were caught out by the limited running. From Ferrari to Haas, many teams struggled to get all the information they needed from the single-hour session, and went into the weekend with compromised set-ups.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jnr, who qualified fourth for Sunday’s race, eighth-tenths of a second behind his pole-winner team mate, felt the “hectic” session and lack of track time left them on the back foot as he was unable to make many changes to his car.

“It put me under stress obviously for Q1 which put me under stress for Q2 with less tyres for Q3,“ explained Sainz on Friday after qualifying. “It was a hectic day for me, always trailing, always one step behind. But it’s my fault and in the end, we will have a look at what we could’ve done better. I didn’t enjoy today and hopefully the parc ferme rule doesn’t influence me too much.”

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Sainz’s weekend never recovered from that point onwards as he laboured to gain confidence in his SF-23. Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur said Sainz’s start to the weekend left him chasing his tail all weekend.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Ocon started both races from the pits due to set-up changes

“The lack of confidence came from the beginning, with this format, it’s quite difficult to recover. When you have FP1, FP2, FP3 some drivers are able to build up the pace over the weekend. This weekend, if you don’t start with the right pace, you are a bit lost.”

Other teams were caught out by the challenges presented by fewer practice sessions. Nico Hulkenberg experienced severe graining during the sprint race. Haas decided a suspension set-up change was needed, meaning his car had to be taken out of parc ferme and start the grand prix from the pit lane.

He joined Esteban Ocon, who had a torrid weekend after his Alpine team admitted things “snowballed out of control.” Sporting director Alan Permane described their difficulties trying to refine Ocon’s set-up on a weekend where they introduced a major upgrade to the car.

“We honestly didn’t do a good enough job. We had a hose fail on one car, and gave us a huge fire,” he began. “We had a problem with the build of the gearbox on the other car. So I think Pierre did one or two timed laps in FP1, and Esteban did two, or maybe three.

“From there, you go into qualifying. [Gasly] had an accident, which is unfortunate, but I think [Ocon] did a really incredible job in qualifying to qualify 12th with the car he had.

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“We don’t guess things, we’re applying science and deltas from this track to other tracks and from this car to last year’s car, stuff like that.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Mercedes said their W14’s set-up wasn’t optimal

The team doesn’t “guess” at set-ups, he said. “You only have an hour, you need to maximise your time. You can’t just do two laps and expect to then have a good car if you like.”

Mercedes also felt they ended the week with their W14s some way from an ideal set-up. Chief technical officer Mike Elliott said they were left perplexed after the weekend, and questioned if the shortened practice sessions was the right step for Formula 1.

“We turned up having a set-up we were going to try with Lewis [Hamilton] and a set-up we were going to try with George [Russell]. And in fact what happened to us was we had an issue with Lewis’ car getting out of the garage on time because of a parameter in the car.

“As a consequence that made it very difficult to compare those two set-ups. I think in hindsight we are still not convinced of whether we made the right choice or didn’t make the right choice.

“In terms of format overall, I guess the answer to that question is: is it exciting? Is that something people want to see?”

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Under F1’s parc ferme restrictions, teams can only adjust the front wing flap and use the tools like differential settings and brake shapes to alter the performance of their cars. The biggest set-up changes bring pit-lane start penalties, as in the cases of Hulkenberg and Ocon. Teams can replace parts if they can show to the FIA they are damaged and have the same specification.

Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Rain could cause huge disruption at one of F1’s sprint events

However the teams’ first experience of a single scheduled hour of practice in a weekend has left many teams questioning the new sprint race format and how to get the most out of a race weekend.

Last week’s practice was disrupted by a single red flag caused by Gasly. But what would happen if the disruption was more severe?

Recent events have shown this is far from an unlikely scenario. The final practice session for the Russian Grand Prix was cancelled due to heavy rain at Sochi in 2021. The same happened in the Styrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring the year before. Heavy rain due to hurricane Patricia caused significant disruption at the Circuit of Americas in 2015, preventing a Friday practice session from going ahead.

Losing one practice session is less of a problem when there’s more than one in a weekend. But under the new sprint format a wet start to Friday could leave teams heading into qualifying for the grand prix with no data.

There are still many kinks to be smoothed out regarding the latest sprint race regulations. Yet with total audiences across the three-day weekend in Baku up seven per cent from last season’s race, things look likely to remain with F1 inevitably continuing to push in its current direction.

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