F1’s marathon to justify sprint format took first step with Interlagos epic

George Russell looks to overtake Max Verstappen. Sao Paulo, November 2022. Credit: Alamy
George Russell looks to overtake Max Verstappen. Sao Paulo, November 2022. Credit: Alamy

Amidst mounting criticism, the sprint began to justify its inclusion on the calendar with an epic at Interlagos.

“During every sprint I’m like ‘don’t get any damage, make sure you stay in the top three’,” said Max Verstappen this week in criticism of the newest format change to Formula 1 – and following Saturday’s action, it is unlikely his opinion will have shifted.

For as much as the Dutchman may dislike the format, the rise of three to six sprint events in 2023 suggest they are here to stay.

If Formula 1, who introduced the change to provide more racing action to the track-going fans, wanted to convince that sprint races are worth it, they need only to point to the outing at the 2022 Sao Paulo Grand Prix.

Even before a wheel had turned, the sprint was ready to provide excitement with unlikely pole-sitter Kevin Magnussen attempting to fend off freshly minted two-time World Champion Max Verstappen.

While the Dane’s defence ended on lap three, the Haas man finishing in the final points-paying place, there was plenty of action throughout the 24-lap shootout.

It began with a battle of team-mates as Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon sparred for track position, the former coming away with a broken front wing after clipping the rear of the fellow Alpine car on the pit straight.

“I lost the front wing, thanks to our friend,” bemoaned Alonso over the team radio, his impending exit to Aston Martin allowing him to speak more freely than you might expect about his own team-mate before returning to the pits for a new wing – a move team boss Otmar Szafnauer admitted was the end of the two-time former World Champion’s race.

The downhill nature of Alpine’s day was later reflected by Aston Martin, who also saw their two drivers come closer together than team principal Mike Krack would have been comfortable with.

Sebastian Vettel was on the charge, nibbling at Lance Stroll’s heels, before going for the move down the inside only to find himself forced wide by a late move from the Canadian.

Vettel, unlike Alonso at the United States Grand Prix who faced a similar illegal shutting of the door by Stroll, saved himself from hitting the wall and let his thoughts known with a bemused “OK” over the team radio.

Stroll was deemed at fault, as he had been in Austin, and was given a 10-second time penalty – while at the front, George Russell was threatening to steal the lead from Verstappen.

The Red Bull man, one of only two drivers to start on the medium tyres along with Nicholas Latifi, soon found himself lacking pace and complaining of running through some debris Alonso’s car had shed.

Verstappen defended well but soon the Mercedes pace proved victorious, Russell overtaking the Championship leader on the way to his first victory in Formula 1.

The Dutchman slipped further back, eventually being passed by Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz only to make contact with the rear of the F1-75 and losing part of his front wing as a result.

Verstappen ended the race P4, ahead of his team-mate Sergio Perez, and while the two-time World Champion’s worst fears had come true, the fans were able to breathe after a pulsating half-hour or so of racing.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned though, none more so than the choice of track is vital to the success of a sprint. The short circuit at Interlagos meant there could be shocks in qualifying, which there were, but also that overtaking was possible.

There have also been suggestions that the removal of a practice session has a detrimental effect on Sunday’s main event.

Verstappen’s criticisms are also valid. While there remains such a difference in points between the sprint and the race – the winner receives eight for the sprint and 25 for the grand prix – drivers do play a high-stakes game of risk vs reward.

But moving away from the top end of the grid, the format does offer plenty of opportuntites – none more so than with Haas, who earned a point via Magnussen but also saw Mick Schumacher rise from the back of the grid to 12th.

The sprint format has had its critics and while the 2022 Brazilian affair is not enough to convince the most ardent of them, it is the first step on a journey Formula 1 hopes will cement the format as an F1 staple.

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