How Sprint Races Affect Team Strategy

The introduction of sprint races has been long coming. However, their implementation for this season is rather conservative and to the average viewer, so is the concept of a sprint race. At the end of the day it’s just a 100km race, right? Well there’s no yes or no answer to that, so let’s look at what aspects of a homogeneous Grand Prix weekend are most affected by sprint qualifying.

Data Gathering

For a normal Grand Prix weekend, teams have 3 practice sessions before the cars are put under Parc Ferme as they start their Qualifying lap on Saturday. These 3 practice session are trivial for the viewer but very valuable to teams. McLaren for example have struggled often this season during the Friday practices’ and have used the valuable Tyre data and Car performance data from these sessions to make important setup changes for Qualifying. This applies to the drivers too. Norris and Hamilton to name a few, have often been seen testing the limit of track and the car during the Friday sessions.

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This has paid dividends for Lando in particular, as his qualifying performances have been exceptional this season, seldom out-qualifying both the Mercedes and being a constant thorn in Sergio Perez’s side. With the sprint format in place, teams will only have one Friday session to run their simulations before they have to lock in their race setups for Qualifying and the Sprint race. It’s safe to say the race engineers will have their work cut-out, and perhaps there will be a sense of extra caution among the drivers too. A spin or shunt during Friday practice will be more costly due to the lack of time available to mend any damage to the car before Fridays qualifying.

Tyre Strategy

Ahhh Tyres, everyone’s favourite part of fast cars. However boring they may be, they do make a difference tactically. Case-in point being Mercedes come-from-behind win vs RedBull at Barcelona was in some part decided by the compounds of tyres that both team decided to reserve for the race before Friday practice. So let’s breakdown the changes to the tyre allocation and how it might affect team strategy.

  • Friday

On normal race weekends, teams are allowed 13 sets of tyres for use throughout the weekends. 8 of which are available for Friday running, however only 4 of the 8 are used and the remaining 4 handed back to Pirelli. On a sprint qualifying weekend however, teams only have 12 sets of tyres of which 7 will be used on Friday.

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2 sets for the first practice and 5 soft tyres reserved for the Friday qualifying which will set the grid for Saturday’s sprint qualifying. The key point to note here is, teams usually have to use the tyre set on which they set their fastest time during Q2 as their race tyre. For Saturday’s sprint race and Sunday’s main race however, teams will have a free tyre choice. This allows them to push the tyres more during Friday’s session, as none of the 7 sets of tyres used mandate any further use for the weekend.

  • SATURDAY

Saturday’s are where the racing starts. Teams have 3 sets of tyres available for Saturday, one for the second practice session before the sprint race and two for the sprint race itself. Teams will probably only use one of these sets for the sprint race, unless someone decides to act clever by pitting.

  • SUNDAY

Race Day… the traditional one. Teams have to reserve 2 sets of tyres and set them aside for Sunday, the only change from normal proceeding being all teams have a free Tyre choice for the race. As opposed to just the ones who did not make it to Q3 during a normal Grand Prix Weekend. This will in some cases put more pressure on teams to qualify well. This is because normally a faster that qualified that 11th, could simply overtake the cars in front of them by using a harder set of tyres and outlasting some of cars in front.

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With all teams having a free tyre choices, cars can simply match their rival’s strategy irrespective of qualifying position. This may lead to more overtaking in the midfield, pushing the pack closer bringing the Aston Martin’s into the fight between the Ferraris’s and McLaren’s (or McLaren if Daniel continues his poor form). Safe to say a free tyre choice will make the first 20 laps of the race much more exciting as tyre wear will be similar for all teams.

Engines

This is perhaps the most geekiest part, but if sprint qualifying becomes a semi-regular occurrence it might force teams to change how they manage their engines. Each driver is allowed 3 Engines (ie 3 MGU-K’s, MGU-H’s, 3 Turbo Chargers, and 3 ICE’s). An engines’ usual life expectancy is for 7 races, but if the sprint races are the pedal to the metal racing we desire, they may not last as long. Sprint races are a third of the length of an actual race, so if we have 6 sprint races next season (this is rumoured), that basically adds an extra 2 whole Grand Prix’s that the engines will need to be divided across.

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This may lead to teams turning down the engine earlier than normal near the end of races. Perhaps giving us more nail-biting finishes. Of course the worst case scenario is, teams compete in the sprint races on a lower Engine Mode in order to elongate their usability. This will result in slower lap times, and probably a higher emphasis on aerodynamics for the car setups. I’m no expert but it will be intriguing to see how differently teams will manage the car during the weekend.

Will It Make A Difference To The Competitive Order?

The long and short of it is… a little… maybe. It might pull the pack closer simply because it’s the first time sprint qualifying is being trialled and teams will take time to adjust. Next season will be a real test of the format’s value (if it makes it that far). Team strategies certainly will come more into play with the free tyre choice wrinkle, and teams with the better strategy might beat out the faster car more often. It is going to be an intriguing exercise, especially with the narrative of a spicy title fight arcing over it. But then again there is a chance that this might favour Mercedes’ and we all will be obliged to hate it, still intriguing nonetheless.

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