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An Exciting Outing Doesn’t Redeem Formula One’s Obsession With The Sprint

Pole position qualifier Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and Haas F1 talks to the media in parc ferme after qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 11, 2022 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Dan Istitene/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Kevin Magnussen won qualifying at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix. Read that again, it’s really quite something. The Danish Haas driver has had a pretty good season, relative to his team’s standing, but him pulling out a win in qualifying was on no one’s radar until it happened. Magnussen became the first Danish driver to win qualifying in Formula One, and he gave Haas its first team win in qualifying, too. It was a delightful moment, a Friday for the ages, celebrated by the entire Haas paddock.

Sao Paulo qualifying took place on Friday because this race had been designated as the third and final sprint weekend of the season. This meant that Magnussen had only won the right to start the sprint from pole position, not the actual race on Sunday. (Yes, F1 still credits him for a pole, but I used the phrasing of “qualifying win” above for a reason; the real pole on a sprint weekend goes to the driver who wins the sprint.) That meant that his unlikely start at the front would have to be defended for, essentially, one-and-a-half races rather than just one.

This did not happen, because of course it didn’t. Winning a Q3 is a matter of skill, yes, but luck can intervene to give drivers in worse machinery a shot. That’s what happened on Friday; Magnussen put in the lap of his life to grab the top spot, just before George Russell caused a red flag that delayed the session long enough for rain to intensify over the Interlagos track. Once that occurred, no one was really going to give it a real shot at toppling Magnussen, who achieved his lap in drier conditions. So, the luck went Haas’ way, and they were rewarded with a pole position.

Asking for that much luck two days in a row, and over half of a full race on Saturday, was too much. Magnussen bravely defended during the start of the sprint, but he eventually was passed by Max Verstappen and then six other drivers. The Dane would then start in eighth on Sunday, despite winning qualifying. Magnussen did get a point from the sprint—places one through eight receive points, so he held on to the last scoring position—but now would start the proper race from the middle of the pack, rather than the front. This, unfortunately for him, was what doomed him on Sunday. In the first lap of the race, Daniel Ricciardo did as he does and banged into Magnussen, taking both drivers out of the race. From pole position earned in qualifying to a first lap DNF, Magnussen was done before he could even get started.

In his stead, it was George Russell, the winner of what was admittedly an exciting sprint, who would start on pole and lead most of the race, winning by just over a second over second-place and teammate Lewis Hamilton. This was Russell’s first win, and the sprint did help him achieve that. Is that a good thing, though, if you are anything but a Mercedes fan?

The sprint tends to widen the gap between the great teams and the rest of the pack. After all, if an advantage is present in the machinery, more real racing laps can only help tilt the balance to the teams with that advantage. Mercedes has not been the best car this season, or even the second best, but it was probably the best set-up car for this weekend, something that Red Bull and Verstappen acknowledged during the weekend. Magnussen likely would not have won the race even if it had been normal qualifying; the Haas just isn’t good enough. (There’s also an argument that he would not have gotten pole if qualifying had taken place on Saturday; there was no storm of Friday’s proportions on that day.)

However, Magnussen’s slip in the sprint did throw him further into the middle of the pack, where crashes occur in the first lap, as the cars are all closely packed together. Would Ricciardo have been close to the Dane if Magnussen started upfront? Almost certainly not. Things happen in races, though, and Magnussen is a very aggressive driver; perhaps he would have taken out a different driver trying to pass him on turn one. It’s the fact that he never got to find out that serves as a point against the sprint, though.

Formula One’s reasoning behind the sprint is to give more racing action for fans, both in the stands and at home, but it throws the competitive balance further out of whack. An upset win, or even podium, from a midfield team becomes nigh impossible on a sprint weekend. You could point to the fact that the podium slots were dominated all year by the Red Bull-Mercedes-Ferrari troika anyway, but no midfield driver qualified on pole this season … until Magnussen. It would have been great to see him have a go from the front on Sunday; even if the results of the sprint were transported to the race itself, finishing eighth would have been a great result for him and for Haas.

Instead, he was caught up in the middle of the pack, knocked out of the race through no fault of his own, and his “pole position” becomes a statistical oddity rather than a true moment to remember. Unfortunately, he won’t be the last to experience this. Formula One is adding three more sprint races to the calendar for 2023, for a total of six. There is an entire offseason to decide which cars will be the fastest on the grid for next season, but it’s a safe bet that the trio of frontrunners this year will be there again. If Magnussen, or whoever else outside of those teams, lucks into a qualifying win during one of those weekends, this will likely repeat again.

The sprint is the opposite of a great equalizer, which was never its purpose. Instead, it gives the top teams a second shot at fixing any issues that might have come up in qualifying, giving them better positions for Sunday’s races that further reinforce their advantage. If there is an exciting race, that’s a bonus, but it’s beyond the point. (It surely did not hurt that this sprint took place on one of F1’s very best tracks.) It’s a shame that the sprint is so beloved by the head honchos of Formula One, but it’s here to stay, and it will continue to rob a specific type of surprise moment of its magic.

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