F1’s sprint shake-up could be the beginning of the end for Max Verstappen

Comment: The changes announced by F1 to the sprint weekend format, with a standalone ‘shootout’ session, will be to the satisfaction of the sport’s growing fanbase – but not its dominant world champion

Kieran Jackson
Formula 1 Correspondent
Tuesday 25 April 2023 17:56 BST
Verstappen signs new Red Bull contract until 2028

A mere three races into the new Formula One season, and after three weekends dominated by Red Bull’s unfathomably quick 2023 car, it has not taken long for the sport’s chiefs and law-changers to rattle the cage.

To be more specific, Max Verstappen’s cage. Changes announced on Tuesday to the sprint weekend format – the highlight being a new “sprint shootout” session to replace a largely redundant second practice on Saturday – are designed to increase competition when cars are out on track.

At the Azerbaijan Grand Prix this weekend, there will be just one practice session, on Friday. Qualifying for Sunday’s grand prix will follow, before “sprint day” on Saturday sees a quickfire qualifying session precede the 100km (62-mile) dash, around the tight twists of Baku. It’s sure to be an intriguing few days.

Ignoring the absurdity of changes being made to a race schedule just three days before the event starts, the modifications will largely be well-received by the masses. Less practice and more action mean more interest. More eyeballs. More money.

Except this latest upheaval does not have the support of F1’s latest domineering hotshot. Max Verstappen, who currently leads the world championship by 15 points and who is the strong favourite to make it three on the spin, is not a fan of sprint weekends.

Last year, when the sprint race positions determined the order for Sunday’s grand prix, the Dutchman insisted it made the sprints “not really a race”, given drivers were cautious to try risky overtakes because it could result in a retirement – and a spot at the back of the grid on Sunday.

A fair point, received loud and clear. Now, Saturday’s sprint results will have no bearing on the starting grid on Sunday.

However, when questioned on the prospective new changes three weeks ago in Australia, Verstappen pointed to a topic of discussion that is only set to go one way as more races are added: burn-out.

Max Verstappen is not a fan of sprint weekends in Formula One
Max Verstappen is not a fan of sprint weekends in Formula One (Getty)

“I hope there won’t be too many changes, otherwise I won’t be around for too long,” he said, in a shock threat to quit the sport. “I am not a fan of it at all. When we do all that kind of stuff, the weekend becomes very intense and we already do a lot of races. But it is not the right way to go about it.

“We are heading into seasons where we could have 24 or 25 races and if you then start adding more it is not worth it for me. I will not enjoy that.”

On paper, much of this does not wash. Last year, Verstappen signed a contract with Red Bull until the end of the 2028 season, rumoured to be in the region of £40m a year. He has just signed a no-doubt profitable partnership with EA Sports. With two world championships under his belt, his market value has skyrocketed – and shows no signs of plateauing.

The sprint weekend will have a new ‘shootout’ qualifying session, starting this weekend in Baku
The sprint weekend will have a new ‘shootout’ qualifying session, starting this weekend in Baku (Getty)

Yet look beyond his age of 25 and it’s easy to see why Verstappen’s patience could wear thin, as F1 embarks on the most lucrative era in its history.

Next year, Verstappen will be competing in his 10th straight season in the sport. A journey he started out on at just 17 years of age, he has been a big player for Red Bull since May 2016. Out of the current grid, only Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas have competed in more consecutive full seasons.

With six sprints adding to 23 grand prix this year, a total of 29 races is taxing. Add into the mix six more “sprint shootouts”, as the new plan details, and it’s easy to see why the current generation may be concerned about fatigue, particularly given the chaotically scheduled global calendar.

Beyond that, though, Verstappen is a traditionalist. Raised by a driver of yesteryear in father Jos, out of all 20 drivers he is perhaps the most outspoken against reforms of the format.


Friday: Free Practice 1; qualifying (for Sunday’s grand prix)

Saturday: Sprint shootout; sprint race (Top-eight receive points, finish order will have no impact on grand prix grid)

Sunday: Grand Prix

“F1 [for me] is about getting the most out of it in qualifying and have an amazing Sunday over a long race distance,” he said in Melbourne. “That is the DNA of the sport and I don’t understand why we need to change that.”

You might say his disgruntlement at more competitiveness is no surprise, given he is the current No 1 week-in, week-out. With more races and qualifying sessions comes an increase in risk. No leading team or driver wants a shake-up.

But the sport, particularly under the guise of American owners Liberty Media, is only going in one direction. More cities than ever before want a slice of the pie. There is interest from afar to join the paddock with new teams in the offing. The number of sprint weekends has doubled this year from three to six – who is to say that won’t double again in a year or two?

All of the above will be tantalising to the coffers of the executives. The sponsors. The younger generation of fans, eager for more wheel-to-wheel action.

Yet will all that come at a price? Could, sooner than we think and sooner than 2028, that price be Verstappen?

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