Formula 1 has had a run of the traditional format weekends in recent weeks, but the return to Qatar also signals the return of the F1 Sprint.
The format splits opinion as some feel that it takes away from the shine of Sunday’s main event, while others welcome the change it delivers.
There is little doubt that the Sprint injects new life and unpredictability into a race weekend as it keeps drivers on their toes and fans on the edge of their seats.
Just one practice session is held on Friday before the drivers jump headfirst into qualifying a couple of hours later, establishing the grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix.
Saturday sees a second qualifying format held with slightly tweaked rules, which sets the top 20 for the start of the sprint race later in the day.
Qatar marks the fourth location this year that the Sprint has taken place following Azerbaijan, Austria and Belgium.
In the three years that the F1 Sprint has been part of the schedule, the race events that it has set up shop at have largely been at locations that have a long history with the sport.
The exception to this remains Imola, which hosted the first Sprint event of the last year’s campaign.
However, Imola was a track that many of the drivers have competed at before on their path to F1, while Fernando Alonso has been around long enough to race in F1 at the circuit.
The track featured on the Covid-impacted 2020 and 2021 schedules before hosting a sprint last year. Largely, the drivers were in tune with the circuit whether it be through trips in their junior careers or their attacks at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix weekends.
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Qatar, however, poses a whole new challenge.
The Lusail International Circuit made its F1 debut in 2021, towards the end of a roughly fought campaign between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. It was absent from the schedule last year before making its return for the current campaign, kicking off a 10-year deal contract.
Although it is not officially a new track for F1, it’s been almost two years since the sport has travelled to Lusail, and it is not a venue that is fresh for the drivers.
Seven out of the 20 competitors that will take to the circuit this weekend have not raced there before in F1 and they will all just have 60 minutes of practice to get tuned in before being launched into qualifying.
But the disadvantages aren’t limited to the first-timers. There will be a challenge for those who have been on the track in 2021 as well as they come to grips with the conditions presented to them.
It will also be a challenge for the engineers, as a wrong set-up direction taken during the session can severely hamper the remainder of the weekend for the driver.
The teams themselves have a lack of historical data from the track, meaning that more than ever, the first practice could prove to be pivotal to the outcome of their weekends.
Additionally, FP1 will be dusty and a lot of the on-track time during the outing will see the cars whipping the sand that has drifted onto the circuit off the racing line, cleaning it for the push laps that will come later in the afternoon.
Some drivers also said that they expect track limits will be a problem at certain corners. F1 is no stranger to having lap times deleted in qualifying with a traditional format in play, so with little preparation before the crucial grid-setting outing, pushing to find the limit that likely won’t be discovered in FP1 may result in more mistakes and lap time deletions.
Drivers will also have to deal with the temperature present in Qatar. It’s expected to be around 40 degrees Celcius at times during the weekend, and it will still be pitched around 35 degrees when the sun sets and the lights are turned on for the night sessions.
From a driver’s perspective, it won’t be a major problem until Sunday’s Grand Prix when the drivers will tackle 57 consecutive laps in absurdly hot conditions.
Luckily for some, however, at that stage they will be used to track - but others may already have their confidence shattered by the unforgiving structure of the weekend.